The USTA wildcard playoffs have traditionally* been a showcase of the American tennis “young guns”, but yesterday’s quarterfinal results saw the established order within the up-and-coming ranks get outgunned and, er, outyounged (with apologies to Donald); only one of the top four seeds advanced to today’s semifinals, and even he is merely 18 years of age (third seed Ryan Harrison). Indeed, of the remaining “men”, the oldest among them is 19 year-old University of Tennessee sophomore Rhyne Williams, with the other three just barely out of juniors.

Regardless of what happens in today’s matches, if I were General Manager of USTA Player Development Patrick McEnroe I’d be very pleased with this particular quartet. For one thing, Williams’ presence shows that PMac’s pushing the college game more to the fore is by no means a foolhardy endeavor. Moreover, the fact that UVA’s Michael Shabaz fell just short of making it two wins in two matches vs. Harrison shows that college tennis is becoming an increasingly viable option when it comes to helping shape the future of the American professional game. John Isner’s success might not be as anomalous and outlying as the big man’s height is after all.

And the ever-more-youthful demarcation even within the up-and-coming demographic here goes some way toward showing that American NextGen is coming up fast. Not to get too carried away on the results of four matches and four individuals, but I’m just saying: as portents go, it’s not half bad.

So, pre(r)amble aside, let’s have a look at the Final Four and their semifinal matches:

Jack Sock vs. Denis Kudla: Sharp-brained readers and tennis enthusiasts will recall that this is a rematch of the US Open Junior final, which Sock won 3-6 6-2 6-2, but did you know: they’ve already met one more time since then? Of course you didn’t; that’s why you come here to read my wildly informative words!  You see, Jack also beat Denis about five weeks ago on clay 7-5 6-4 in the first round of the USA F30 Futures, which is as different a setting from his previous win as can be imagined (this is especially true for people with terrible imaginations).

Despite Sock’s recent dominance, Denis is is actually the higher-ranked junior (#21 to Jack’s #32) and professional (#493 to #872). He’s also also older by five weeks, in case you’re wondering. What does this all mean? I have no idea. Suffice it to say that the Kudla, who beat 4th seed Jordan Cox 6-4 6-3 in the previous round, is not going to be a pushover. However – and this is not a prediction in any way – I would not be surprised in the least if the big boy from Lincoln, Nebraska, who upset top-seed Donald Young 7-6(3) 3-6 6-4 in the first round, continued his winning ways here. Either way, should be a heckuva match.

[3] Ryan Harrison vs. Rhyne Williams: Third-seeded Harrison is the only seed who made it through the first round unscathed (well, actually, he was probably scathed quite a bit in his 7-6(3) 6-7 (4) 6-4 war against Michael Shabaz, but he made it through). The defending AO Wildcard champion, Ryan is definitely the Big Name in this year’s field, upon whom the most praise and expectation has been heaped of late. He’s had a good year so far, and his exploits have been well-documented (beat Ljuby in R1 USO, almost beat Stakhouse R2, yadda yadda). Currently at #173 in the world, there’s no doubt the 18 year-old is poised to ascend much greater heights in 2011.

But hold on a second *inserts record scratching noise here*: the force that is Rhyne Williams cannot be underestimated. After finding himself down 2-4 against 2nd seed Tim Smyczek in the first set, the Tennessee Volunteer put on a tennissy clinic (sorry), racing through the final 10 games of the match and winning 6-4 6-0. After the match, the recent winner of the National Indoor Intercollegiate Championship said, “I feel like I’m playing even better since the National Indoors. I’ve especially been serving better lately, and it’s definitely improved my overall game.”  Look out, world.

Plus, it needs to be noted, Williams won his only previous meeting with Harrison, 6-7(5) 7-5 6-3 in the 3rd round of the ’08 US Open juniors. Granted, Ryan has grown a lot since then, but the message is clear: Rhyne Williams has a good shot at dispatching the last of the seeded players here. In addition, if people with Southern accents shout “C’mon Ryan!” at the Racquet Club of the South today, Williams can think they’re actually cheering for him.

Gosh, I’m jealous of Stephiesport right now. What great matches she’s about to see. Stay tuned for all the post-match details here!

*OK, so it’s not a very lengthy tradition, but still

On edit: I can’t get these links to work, but apparently they provide live streaming coverage of the semis for some:

http://rcsserver.rcsacademy.com:82/

http://rcsserver.rcsacademy.com:83/

Good luck! (Let me know if they work for you.)

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