And so it actually, finally, began. After braving blizzards, car trouble, and a mixed bag of calamities, our brave reporter (hint: that’s me) finally made it to see some actual tennis. What a concept. I slalomed around the various nefarious Floridumb strip malls to the oasis that is the Woodmont Country Club in Tamarac, FL – the site of the second annual *deep breath* Lawrence D. Share Company $10,000 Championships at Synergy Tennis Academy. Or, if you’re short of breath, the USA F2 Futures.

The site itself is top notch, and the organization seems superb. The twenty-court facility featured play on four of its “clay” courts on this Wednesday, having caught up on a backlogged schedule from a waterlogged Monday washout. The two main courts – the innovatively-named “Court 1” and “Court 2” – are separated by a raised, wide partition upon which random chairs and ceramic-y picnic tables are interspersed; a very spectator-friendly setup. Even better, the area between the featured back courts (Courts 9 and 10, if you’re scoring at home) has a shaded gazebo under which I could protect my blindingly pasty fresh-from-the-Northeast skin. Bonus!

I arrived just in time to see one of my 2011 Challenger Tennis Player To Watch selections, Dennis Kudla start his F2-ing against the tourney’s top seed, Victor Estrella. Estrella, the 30 year-old Dominican Republican (or perhaps he’s a Dominican Democrat – I didn’t ask), had finished his 2010 season on quite a roll, winning three straight Dom Rep Futures events (15 matches in all) before losing his final match of the year. All of which was good enough to land him a career high world ranking of 211 – not a bad achievement for someone entering his fourth decade. So I was eager to see how the rising star would fare against the established vet.

Turned out, not so well. At least to begin with. Two backhands into the net and a forehand long saw the 18-year-old Virginian broken in the first game of the match. Kudla then had two breakback points straightaway in the second game (after Estrella shot himself in the foot with the dreaded mediocre-drop-shot-to-awful-lob combo), but Victor found his way out of trouble with a framed volley and an ace erase to deuce and held from there.

The top seed – who the chair umpire seemed to call “Australia” (to my ears), in an obvious fit of Grand Slam fever – looked sharp early, hitting a heavy ball and knifing away the volleys he didn’t frame, while Denis struggled to find his range and/or mojo, seeming initially uncomfortable with conditions and his game on the day. The fleet-footed Dominican prefers to favor the ad court and load up on the forehand side whenever possible, but his heavily-sliced one-handed backhand is suitable to the Tamarac court, staying nice and low. Kudla is less averse to play off both wings, and he started to settle into the match midway through the first set. Though he had a few back-breaking opportunities throughout the set, in the end he was broken a second time as Estrella took the first 6-3.

Ever the supporter of my PTW’s in distress, I bailed and decided to see what else was going on around the grounds. I wanted to see how one of my almost-PTW’s, Pierre-Hugues Herbert, was faring against Phil Simm(ond)s (I myself have a touch of NFL playoff fever – deal). Turns out, not so well. The gangly 19 year-old showed some cliched French flair (drop-shotting four times in one game, venturing to net behind cheekily sliced forehands – you know the drill), but lost the first set to the 24 year-old American, who offered up my favorite bit of vocal self-coaching: “Really? REALLY?? RELAX!!!” It worked: Simmonds took the first set 6-4.

I returned to the original scene of the crime, Court One, with full faith that someone I’ve deemed watchworthy would fare well even if I wasn’t, you know, watching. I was right. Kudla was up a break in the second set, but Kudla was kvetching: “This is the worst clay ever!” I saw a couple of bad bounces, sure, and the surface certainly has nothing on the red brick clay one finds elsewhere, but overall the courts seemed OK to me. Perhaps Denis just wanted to sculpt another ceramic picnic table after the match and thus found the raw material unsuitable to his artistic intent. Either way, the young gun was up 4-2*.

Soon, the Ukraine-born Arlingtonian was serving for the second set at 5-4. The first point had a bit of everything – drop shot, lob, overhead, scrambling, offense, defense, racquets, balls – and culminated with a cracking Kudla backhand down-the-line winner. And then in the second point, he framed a backhand over the fence, heh. To be fair, the ball took a funny bounce off the line, but those two points well-illustrated the inconsistency with which Kudla struggled throughout the match. “Australia” ripped a forehand crosscourt return winner to put Denis in a 15-30-shaped hole, but then a netted Australia backhand and forcing down-the-line backhands from Kudla on consecutive points closed out the second set for the American upstart, 6-4.

In the deciding set’s fifth game, the Down Under Dominican (please don’t form an acronym in your head of that. Also: don’t think of an elephant) quickly went south. A few errant groundies, mostly unforced but one forced via an excellent inside-out Kudla forehand, found Australia broken. Possibly beyond repair. And dramatic though that turn of events may have been, the real drama occurred behind me, where Haydn Lewis had crossed over to Nick Monroe’s side of the court to dispute a mark and argue with the chair ump.

A supervisor was summoned, and though I was not privy to their deliberations, I can say with full confidence that Lewis was not satisfied with the conclusions reached. My ears pricked up as I heard him snipe at Monroe, “Only way you win is by cheating.” Monroe didn’t take the bait, and just said, “Yup yup yup,” as in: just keep yapping, whatever, dude (conjectural paraphrase alert). Then Lewis with the snarky riposte: “Yup yup yup my ass.” Oh tennis, how I love you. Don’t ever change.

Meanwhile, back with Denis, the tennis (“Denis the Tennis” would be a good bad nickname, I think. If any of Denis’s friends are reading this, please call him that. Thanks.) quickly fell apart. Or rather, Estrella did. Broken again and then retired. Game set match to Kudla over the #1 seed, 3-6 6-4 5-2 ret.

It’ll be an all-PTW second round as Kudla will face off against Venezuelan David Souto, in a match I’m kicking myself for missing. I hate not being at the damn tennis. Will be back tomorrow and thru the weekend to try and atone for my errors of omission.

The next match upon which I focused the brunt of my attention featured one of my 2010 PTW batch, Dan Smethurst, against the plucky 17 year-old qualifier, Marcus Giron. The 20-year-old Brit had a decidedly non-watchworthy 2010 season, going 29/24 and falling 66 rungs down the ranking ladder. I had seen him play at the U.S. Open juniors and was duly impressed, so I was anxious to see how he’d progressed in the 16 months or so since I’d last seen him. First thing I noticed: he’s a helluva lot bigger now. Bulkier, and somewhat of an imposing guy – definitely not how I’d remembered him.

A Blurry Smethurst

He certainly dwarfed Giron in both game and stature, but the smallish American had some fairly big results to qualify, beating (a surely exhausted USA F1 Plantation finalist) Olivier Sajous and winning four matches to get to his main draw encounter here. However, it was clear that the incoming UCLA-freshman was overmatched from the get go, with one of England’s Top 500 Dans (Smethurst variety) pummeling forehands away on three consecutive points to get an early break *2-1 in the first set. Giron got to 30-all in the next game, but an unreturned serve followed by some terrific Smethy scrambling and a punctuating forehand crosscourt consolidated the break for the Lancashire lad.

The next game wasn’t any better for Giron. He watched another Smethurst FH fly by on the first point, backhanded long on the second, forehanded into net on the third, and was summarily broken a second time on a confident close-out at net from his opponent. At this point, I stopped having to do my analyst job as Marcos started to do it for me, making loud and accurate pronouncements about his play to anyone within earshot: “I’m hitting it so short!” “So many unforced errors!” Correct. And correct. First set to Smetty 6-1.

Smethurst double faulted to give Giron an early break in the second set, but I really didn’t see the young American finding his way through the match (in fact, he had done a little arm-waving sarcastic celebration when he won the previous game), so I headed off to check out other action. When I returned, I found the Marcos Giron World of Loud and Candid Self-Assessment show still going strong: “I can’t hit three balls in a row!” Minor correction: he could, but not into the court. I’m sure that was what he meant anyway.

Giron attempts to hit a third ball in a row.

Smethurst served for the match at 5-3 but got burned on a poorly conceived and executed 30-all drop shot and Giron fought back to 5-all, only to return the poorly-conceived-and-executed drop-shotting favor serving at 5-6 0-15. Smethurst went on to break for the match 6-1 7-5. Overall, I was still very impressed with his play – I thought his shot selection was mostly sound and his execution excellent. The only area I saw him running into any consistent trouble was coming over the ball off the backhand wing, but other than that I can’t really see how he’s not a Top 250 player already. He’s certainly got the ability. And though Giron went down, he was a game and very entertaining character to watch. I respected the heck out of his effort to both get in Smethurst’s way and get out of his own on the attempted path to the second round. I think the USTA Pro Circuit experience he’s gaining will be invaluable to his development, and I’ll be looking out for him in the future(s).

The final match on my viewing slate featured yet another 2011 PTW (there are about 20 each year, so I got my bases covered), the 18 year-old Americanizing Argie Andrea Collarini against yet another 30 year-old – this time it was the colorful Romanian Teodor-Dacian Craciun cast in the role of Australia. Collarini has already amassed an excellent body of matchwork early in his 2011 campaign, carrying an 8/1 win/loss record into the encounter, with convincing wins over the hard-hitting UVA recruit Mitchell Frank and his US Open junior doubles partner Jack Sock in the final two rounds of qualies. Craciun, however, carried the same record as his younger opponent and his previous two victories over Nick Chappell and Bjorn Fratangelo were nothing to be sneezed at.

I was initially surprised that Collarini wasn’t rolling over his opponent the way my heightened expectations anticipated he would. Sure, he was rolling over his forehands in the usual-seeming fashion – I especially love the cracks he takes at high balls off that wing – and working the usual lefty-forehand-to-righty-backhand pattern of play, but something just seemed off. For his part, Craciun was crashin’ the PTW party early, as per his role in Wednesday’s elder competitor drama. His backhand is service-able in an, I dunno, Steffi Graf-like way – a nice, biting one-handed slice for the most part, and somewhat girly too (joking).

Though Collarini had break points in the sixth game, he couldn’t convert. The seventh game proved crucial for Craciun; even though he wasn’t doing any real damage with his return, he managed get the ball in play enough to present Andrea with the opportunity to err. And err he did. Quite unforceably off the forehand side to 0-40. Though Collarini saved those three break points and another at ad-out, he then quadruple faulted to gift the break to the Romanian.

Although Andrea broke right back, he also called for the trainer and had treatment at *4-5, citing a recurring problem with his left elbow. After a vigorous arm rub, he returned to the court and promptly relinquished his serve and the set on four successive points, seeming out of sorts and in trouble.

According to the physio, Collarini’s elbow had been bothering him for three days prior and was a recurring problem that the young lefty had to deal with about five times a year. An interesting exchange occurred between officials (I don’t want to say whom) about whether the injury should’ve been treated at all: did a recurring injury count as a pre-existing condition or was it something sustained/aggravated during the match and thus merited treatment? Definitely a gray area. Different views were expressed, no conclusions reached, and on we moved into the second set.

Andrea gets the treatment.

Whether it’s merited or not, I have to hope that I see the same trainer for my next match, as Collarini came back out for the second set with his guns blazing (primarily his left). He took it 6-0. Craciun, no doubt unnerved by Collarini’s post-treatment play, couldn’t find the court with a GPS during his bageling.

In the third set, Craciun – who, with his capri pants and festive Nike head wraps, reminded me of a hybrid between Johnny Depp’s roles in Pirates of the Carribean and Chocolat – began exhibiting colorful displays of his own devising. At 1-all deuce, he hit a forehand long. Paused. Screamed. Resumed. Then double faulted and hit himself in the head scarf with his racquet (strings portion – it wasn’t a full-on abYouzhny moment).

The Colorful Craciun

But Collarini was determined to show he could compete well in the screaming game as well. He emitted a particularly blood-curdling variety after volleying wide to 15-40 in his subsequent service game. But then hit a service winner to 30-40 and scrambled superbly on the next point, putting up a high defensive lob that Craciun cracked long on a drive volley. The Romanian, determined to not be out-emoted, threw his arms skyward and looked to the heavens, holding the pose and Voguing for the the cruel tennis gods. Collarini held to 3-1.

In the next game, an Andrea mishit landed in over Crac’s head, and the disbelieving drop of this stick pantomimed his displeasure quite serviceably. And then, when Collarini hit over the baseline in the next rally, Craciun raised his arms overhead in a mock cheer and went on to hold. I must say, though this was a spotty match, quality-of-playwise, it was quite engaging on a theatrical level.

That said, a particularly nifty FH flick off the baseline crosscourt from Collarini at 30-all in the next game was a noteworthy effort, helping him hold to 4-2. The lefty went on to take the next three points on Craciun’s serve – including some terrific defensive work at 0-30. Down triple break/virtual match points, the Romanian hit a second serve that ticked the top of the tape and landed in the service box. He laughed. Then, granted that reprieve, went on to save all three BP’s and hold to 3-4*.

In the ever-critical eighth game, Collarini got a rough call; he served a ball he thought was an ace, but Theodor-Dacian pointed to an out mark and the ch/ump agreed. An argument ensued, and Andrea went on to lose the point and the game. I was impressed, however, at the way he very deliberately went around collecting all the balls on his side of the court (no ball kids in Futures, yo), trying to collect himself in the process before serving at 0-30.

It may not have worked in the short term, but by the next game, Collarini had calmed down enough to rebreak to *5-4 with some inspired offensive hitting. And then he served out the game, set and match to love. Though not his most impressive tennistical display, I was impressed by his ability to overcome all the adversity in this match – his elbow, his emotive opponent, the line calls – and just persevere. Nice effort, Andrea.

Collarini Closes It Out (The Match, not The Gate).

Well, I won’t be able to attend the Thursday slate of Tamarac matches – a shame, too, as there are some superb matchups on the OOP: Kudla v Souto, Bogdanovic v Collarini and Monroe v Cox among others – but I’ll be zipping back and forth all weekend, Friday through Sunday, providing dual coverage of the Tamarac quarters, semis and finals as well as the qualifying at the USA F3 in Weston. Also, stay tuned for actual Challenger Tennis coverage of actual challenger tennis tournaments: previews of the five (5) (FIVE!) (God help me) Week 4 Challengers are coming soon to a monitor near you.

Authors note: I’m covering the Florida swing, from the USTA Pro Circuit through the Delray Beach ATP 250, as official media for Tennis Panorama News