I have a lot of matches to catch up on, here, and I might have to start cutting corners and decreasing detail in these match recaps. This may come as good news to some. But I thought I’d give the Sock vs. Kudla match “the full treatment” in an article of its own, since I feel it’s a bit of a marquee matchup.

So:

On a beautiful sunny and mild morning on Thursday, I began the day very excited to see Jack Sock vs. Denis Kudla Part IV. Part I, of course, was their semi-classic windblown US Open juniors final, which Sock won in three sets. They met again in Pensacola USA F30 in November of last year, and Jack won a close two setter. Sock had also taken their USTA Australian Open Wildcard playoff match in Atlanta, as ably recounted here by Stephie, so I was eager to see how my 2011 Challenger Tennis Player To Watch pick (Kudla) would fare in this contest. Even though Jack had been 3-0 in their previous head-to-head, I saw this as a compelling and budding rivalry – a pretty rich history of important matches for guys who are 18 years old and have yet to play a full season on the pro circuit, I’d say.

“Best American rivalry of the next decade?” I mischievously tweet, trying to start a riot amongst Ryan Harrison fans. They didn’t take the bait. Maybe Ryan did, though, as he’s won through to the semis of the Honolulu Challenger this week – I like to think he’s doing so well just ’cause he saw that tweet and is trying to spite me. #delusional

The match certainly starts off with a high quality of play – an 18-stroke rally that ends with a not-so-well-Socked drop shot into the net. Serves are held fairly easily early, even though Jack seemed frustrated with his service game.

At 2-all 40-30 with Kudla serving in the first, he comes rushing to net but biffs a half volley off a low Sockslice. Deuce. After a ten shottish rally, Denis tags a run-around forehand long, and it looks like his feet get crossed up a bit on that one. At break point, Kudla forehands wide to give Jack a break.

With Sock serving at 4-3, Kudla cracks an inside-in forehand and then Jack backhands into the net for 0-30. “Are you kidding me?” asks Jack. I, for one, am not. Then the big Nebraskan comes in on a forehand approach shot right into Denis’s wheelhouse, and he busts a crosscourt forehand pass. “Sweet!” says Jack. My sarcasm detector is registering like a Geiger counter in Chernobyl.

Down triple break point, Jack aces twice. At 30-40, Kudla’s in control of the point with a backhand just inside the baseline, but it’s called out then overruled by the chair ump. Denis is dumbfounded. Jack is incredulous: “Is that your mark?” he asks the chair, skeptically. Either way, Sock backhands wide on the replayed point and Denis breaks back to 4-all.

At 4-all Kudla serving at 40-30, Sock scrambles superbly, tracking down a drop shot and lob and then a forehand volley for the pass. He dominates the next rally to earn a break point, and Kudla hits a leaping backhand ingloriously into the net.

With Jack serving for the first set at 5-4, he comes into net with a nifty inside/in approach shot off a short Kudla return. Denis loses the point and groans, “So unlucky. I always play so bad.” I think he means against Jack, and not, like, always.  Kudla rebounds with a nice backhand volley winner for 15-all. “Yup. Nice shot,” Sock says. Jack’s not serving particularly well this tournament; he likes to say “Wow” a lot on missed first serves, and I now can’t get the Andy Roddick comparison out of my head (thanks, Colette). Regardless, I’m loving the intensity and animation on display in this match. Jack is a quality watch, and you should see him if you can.

At 30-15 we get intensity and animation by the bucketload. Denis inside-ins a forcing forehand, but Jack doesn’t like the mark. The ch/ump checks the mark and agrees, calls it out. Denis: “Are you serious? Just ’cause you listen to him?” Jack: “You know that ball was in.” On the next point, Jack cracks a service winner and screams, “C’MON!!!!” I can see how he rankles some, and sometimes I might be one of the rankled, but Sock is seriously good at the mental/mind games. He strives for every edge he can get on every point in every match that I’ve seen. Guy knows how to win.

At 30-all with Kudla serving to start the second set, Denis double faults to break point. A nice inside-in approach shot with an overhead finish saves it. At deuce, Denis dumps an indecisive forehand into the net. How do I know it’s indecisive? “Oh, c’mon,” Kudla says to himself, “Make a decision.” That’s how. Kudla comes to net again on break point, and though Jack makes him hit two overheads this time, Denis saves another one. An ace and a service winner close out the game.

Serves are held, as serves sometimes are, until Kudla plays a terrible fifth game (hint: it’s 2-all). Forehand long. Backhand wide. Backhand net. Backhand wide. Here, Jack, have a break.

In the next game, Jack double faults at 30-all. He does my job for me, by noting: “First one of the match.” Truth. Down break point, Sock just bludgeons inside-out forehands to force a backhand error. An inside-in forehand winner gets him game point. Denis hits a nice-looking forehand to seemingly nab the next point, but Jack doesn’t like the mark (this is turning into more of a marky matchup than a marquee matchup, but it’s entertaining either way). “Don’t know how you missed that,” offers Jack. Ch/ump agrees – game to Sock for 4-2.

And though the dumb, goofy writer part of me would love to be able to make idiotically obvious jokes about “Socks unraveling” and such, he does no such thing. Rather, it’s Denis who’s a tad harried. He fights to a break point but misses a return wide. “No!!!!” he summarizes. At deuce, Denis serves and volleys but the volley part doesn’t go so well – the high forehand volley is long. Break point again. Sock nets a forehand back to deuce. But Denis gives it away from there, much as in the fifth game. A drop shot attempt finds the net, and a double fault finds him double broken.

With two missed forehands from Kudla and an ace from Sock, it looks like the serve-out game will go smoothly for Jack, but Denis fights back to deuce. From there, though, it’s all Jack. He hits a cheeky dropper that Kudla can’t quite track down, then closes the match with an ace. He wins 6-4 6-2. Impressive stuff.

After the match, I get to chat with Jack’s coach, Mike Wolf, who seems like a great guy. I ask him about the intensity level in this match, and he tells me this wasn’t quite up to the level of their Atlanta and New York meetings. Pensacola was more laid back. I note that he writes as much as I do during matches, and Mike replies, “I’m always learning.” I like that. Me too, Mike.

So, what have we learned here? Best American rivalry of the next decade? I’m not so sure. What say you?

End note: in case you’re not hip to it by now, my reporting for this Florida swing is done in conjunction with Tennis Panorama News, which is just about the best tennis site on the web.  Go on over and check it out, OK? 

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