OK, people.

This site has already given a lot of deserved attention to this year’s USTA Wildcard Playoff Runner-up, Jack Sock. And practically every other tennis site has already given a lot of deserved attention to the WC winner (for two straight years), Ryan Harrison. But spare a thought for 18 year-old semifinalist Denis Kudla, won’t you? After all, he was the top-ranked U.S. junior, and he’s the guy ranked almost 400 spots higher than that guy who beat him in the semis (Sock won 6-2 7-5). For that – and a whole bunch of other reasons – Denis Kudla is a 2011 Challenger Tennis Player To Watch.

Let’s start at the end: the end of last year, when Denis won two of his final three junior tournaments of 2009 (and he might have run the table had he not had to retire at 0-2 in the 3rd set of his R16 Orange Bowl match). And these weren’t just any old tournaments; Kudla took the titles at the Eddie Herr International, where he beat Marton Fucsovics in a gutsy three-set showing, and the Grade A Casablanca Junior Cup, where he beat then #1 world junior Juan Sebastian Gomez 7-6(6) 6-2.

At the beginning of this year, Denis described himself primarily as a counterpuncher who liked to try and move forward from time to time but who could change up his game if he needed to.  Then fast forward to the end of the summer, when he expressed a desire to try and make the forecourt even more of a factor in his day-to-day play. “When I’m playing well, I like to move forward, and it’s something that I want to make consistent in my game,” he said. “I think that if I keep doing it, it could take me to the top level.”

Part of this new, aggressive mindset has to be due to Kudla’s pure physical transformation in the past year or so. Which is a fancy way of saying: he’s grown a lot. He’s become stronger and he’s filled out some. One of the reasons I’m so sold on Denis’ potential is he’s a bit of a late bloomer, physically, and yet he’s still been able to get big-time results. While a kid like Jack Sock was already a fairly hulking specimen at 16/17 years old and may not have much more growing to do, one only has to see the difference between Denis now and, say, a year ago to conclude he’s just beginning to hit his physical stride, and may have a fair farther distance to travel down that road. So if he’s getting these kinds of results while not being near his full physical potential, well – look out, tour, I say.

Another great thing about Kudla is his work ethic – I’ve never heard or read one person busting on Denis for not giving his best effort, both on and off the court. Perhaps it’s because he wasn’t a big specimen early that contributed to his scrappiness and his dogged determination, whether it be in drills, in the gym, or grinding through a long rally or match. Regardless, this quality will serve him in good stead as the Kiev-born, Northern Virginia boy tries to weather the sometimes-difficult transition from juniors to pros.

Want to hear another reason I’m backing this guy for 2011? Good, because I happen to have one right here: his ambition. Denis wants to be Number One in the world, and to try to win multiple Slams. He doesn’t want be Top 20. He’s not looking to be Top 10. Number one, baby. He aims high, and he believes he can do it. And belief is the foundation of reality, no?

His hope at the start of 2010 was to end the year in the Top 200, which is an incredibly bold goal for a 17 year-old ranked outside the Top 1000 to have. He hedged a bit later on and started saying Top 500, which is fine; because that’s where he is now, after a 27/18 season in which he took home his first Futures title in Austin, TX just one month after losing to you know who (Mr. Sock) in the US Open boys final (he’s #494 as of this writing, to be specific).

And even though Kudla had to settle for attaining his next-best goal, his current ranking still makes him the second youngest player in the Top 500, behind only Bernard Tomic. But you get the sense that Kudla doesn’t ever want to settle, and that kind of hunger will help him overcome many of the obstacles he’ll face in the upcoming year.  Don’t want to take my word for it? I don’t blame you. But here’s what Director of USTA Player Development Patrick McEnroe had to say in a special for the USA Today: “Just to see a kid like Denis Kudla battling Saturday and competing the way he did against Jack was really good for him. Even though he lost, he’s getting better and constantly improving.” You see? Even PMac says so.

Before we move on, check out this video from the awesome National Junior Team vs. USC “exhibition” in March, where Denis is playing 2009 National Indoor Intercollegiate champ (and 2010 finalist) Steve Johnson in a Super TB (Kudla’s in the far court to start):

Too bad the video runs out (although Denis probably wishes it did a few seconds before he almost served it over the baseline).  Kudla won the TB (and with it the match) 11-9.

Onward we move…

Well, yesterday – the first day of my 12 “Players To Watch” Days of Christmas – I paired up two very similar players for my two-a-day profile: Andrey Kuznetsov and David Goffin, both skinny right handers with two handed backhands who punch well above their weight class.

But today, to change things up, I think I’ll go with opposites instead. So, who’s the opposite of Denis, the somewhat small-statured 2HBH’ed righty? On my list, the player who most resembles that remark is Mr. Thomas Schoorel of the Netherlands. Standing 2.02 meters tall (or 6 foot 6 inches in anti-metric English parlance), this left-hander has a one-handed backhand and a powerful all-court game. At 21 years old (and 8 months), he’s also the second-oldest player on my 2011 Players To Watch list, while Kudla is the second-younger player in the Top 500.  Is your head spinning from the g-forces brought on by that shift in gears? I got more HP in my KB than Federer has in his Rafa airport shuttlemobile, yo. /gangsta

If you like gangly-but-powerful Dutch players, but Thiemo de Bakker just isn’t gangly or powerful enough for your liking, I think Thomas Schoorel might just be the player you’ve been looking for. As a bonus, he also comes equipped with a goofy service motion (hint: I’ve also been known to be a big fan of those (see also: Philipp Kohlschrieber, Daniel Brands, Viktor Troicki, Matteo Viola, et al)).

Though also a bit of late bloomer (dammit, Thomas, you’re supposed to be the opposite of Denis), he managed to drag a couple of Dutch nobodies into the Roland Garros and Wimbledon Junior Dubs quarterfinals and semifinals (respectively). And though he continues to grow into his body and his game, he’s made great strides this year (get it? He’s got long legs!), going 55/20 and rising from #447 to near 150 in the world (#152 on 13 Sep 2010). He reached the finals of two Challengers in 2010 (Scheveningen and Alphen) and just won the Reaal Tennis Masters in Dutchieland, beating Robin Haase in the semis and – guess who? – Thiemo de Bakker in the finals. Here’s a good view of a couple games from his Scheveningen quarterfinal vs. Alexandre Sidorenko:

And you absolutely MUST click on this link (I couldn’t get it to embed) and watch the highlights of him taking out TdeB just four days ago. They’re really quite something to see:


Anyway, that’s enough for today, don’tcha think? Once again, come back tomorrow (and the next 9 days after that) to see who will be the next pair of Challenger Tennis Players To Watch.