On Thursday I pack up my Futuresmobile and head up from Vero Beach (where I’m currently stationed) to catch the USA F4 in Palm Coast, which is about a four hour drive north from where the previous three Florida Futures events have been played and is the last of the events on this FL winter swing. I know I’m getting in the right area when I see this marquee about two miles from the Palm Coast Tennis Center:
Simply swinging, eh? Do you think they chose that show as a promotional 10K tennis tie-in? Probably not, huh? Doesn’t stop me from stopping to take a picture of it, though. And boy, you can really feel that four hours of northitude in the air. And yes, I know – if there’s one thing that really iced my cream when I lived up North, it was people in Florida complaining about “the cold” where there’s no snow to contend with, no sub-freezing temps, no arctic wind chill, etc. But on this Thursday, people are wearing full on winter jackets (as opposed to half-on winter jackets), and in some cases are wandering around in what look suspiciously like Snuggies.
I head for the bathroom of the quaint Palm Coast Tennis Center and am immediately confronted by yet another sign:
You’ll no doubt be happy to know I rated a “3”. What? Tennis? OK. Lots of that around the facility. And I had already missed a lot as well. The first rounds played out over Tuesday and Wednesday with a few very surprising results. For one, USA F3 Weston champ Phillip Simmonds lost to 17-year-old Czech Jan Kuncik, ranked #1676 in the world, 6-3 7-6(6). Wowzers. Seventh seed Denis Kudla also lost a tough one, 4-6 6-4 6-7(3) to F3 dubs champ Soong-Jae Cho. All in all, it was a terrible tourney for the seeded, as only three of the top eight players advanced into the second round – (3) Matt Reid, (8) Razvan Sabau and top-seed Greg Ouellette.
It was the latter whose match I’m here to see first, as he’s paired up in a lefty battle against none other than Wayne Odesnik – making his comeback, of course, from a substance-related suspension. Wayne had lost one match to F1 eventual champion Luka Gregorc and had to retire against Nikko Madregallejo in Weston, but was otherwise undefeated on the year. I’m interested to hear how Wayne is received, and he gets a smattering of applause from the hearty assemblage of spectators. Ouellette, a bigger local fave, receives a much healthier hand for his intro, but Wayno doesn’t get shut out in that regard.
On court, however, it seems he might. Get shut out, that is. Appearing very nervous, Wayne double faults thrice and gives up his initial service game, while Ouellette holds from 0-30 with two service winners and an ace wide. Down 2-0, Odesnik gets on the board when the top seed nets two backhands from 30-all, and then gets even as Ouellette makes four unforced groundstroke errors in the next game. Already there’ve been three over-fifteen-stroke rallies in the match. Greg gets it to deuce on Wayne’s service game at 2-all, but Odesnik is starting to settle in and rip the ball. He hits three outright forehand winners and forces two more errors off that wing to take his first lead of the set, 3-2* on serve. Ouellette is broken to 15 in the next game and gets a very strictly-enforced code violation for ball abuse – for whacking it into the net.
Though Ouellette plays a nice game to break back to 3-4, he doesn’t win another in the match. Odesnik is just in his own stratosphere, gamewise; it becomes quickly apparent that Ouellette can’t do anything to consistently trouble the 25 year-old, while Wayne is hitting the ball very deep, hard and heavy – it’s a level of tennis I’ve yet to see on the Florida clay these past few weeks, for all the good ball I’ve seen. Even acknowledging that Wayne was a Top 100 player, there was no guarantee that he’d come back match tough or be able to handle his nerve or be in this kind of form.
After the match, Wayne tells me that he hadn’t played Greg since they were about 13 or 14 years old (they grew up in Florida juniors) and though he didn’t remember the results, he remembers always having trouble with him. “He started out well today, and conditions were a little different, so I’m glad it went my way.” I asked him to compare coming through the Futures circuit again now as opposed to when he was first coming up. “When I started out I was 16 or 17 years old, so I was still learning and I was one of the new guys. Where now, hopefully I’ll just play a couple more Futures and that’s it for me, and then I’ll go back the a challengers and ATP events. But the court doesn’t change – there’s a court, there’s a ball and there’s an opponent, and that’s it. And that’s all I’m focused on right now.”
I hear Jack Sock “C’mon!”ing in the distance, and – since I am now officially his shadow – that cry is kind of my bat signal in the sky to go check on the 18 year-old prodigy’s progress. He’s up against a guy who’s quickly becoming something of a nemesis – the very same Soong-Jae Cho who beat Kudla in the first round here also teamed up with Hyun-Joon Kim to beat Sock and his partner Dimitar Kutrovsky in the finals of F3 doubles. And those same two teams would be meeting for a rematch later on this very day.