As happens with every tennis event, the population of players dwindles as the week progresses. Thankfully, with a vibrant scene at the Midtown Athletic Club in Weston, the USA F3 Futures final weekend is conducted amidst hordes of regular racquet club attendees, who healthily pad the population of appreciative locals that come out to see the event. In fact, there is some kind of convention in the gym on this Friday that forces players to slalom their way through the throngs to the locker room.

The first match of the day is a compelling quarterfinal contest that pits touted 18-year-old talent Jack Sock against his doubles partner, 23-year-old Bulgarian All-American (a rare combo) Dimitar Kutrovsky. What may be surprising to some readers is that Kutrovsky had won all three of their previous matches – which may or may not have been what led Jack to start referring to Dimi as “The Bulgarian Nightmare” in the first place. I’d research the timing of that particular nickname, but I’m short of time myself. Heading into this 4th head-to-head of theirs, Jack had forged an impressive 6-4 6-2 win over Denis Kudla, while Kutrovsky had come back from way down in both of his previous matches.

It’s a remarkably un-Floridian-seeming day in the alleged Sunshine State. “Cool, overcast, breezy,” I write on Twitter. A friend tweets back: “Covergirl.” Heh. Sock holds serve from deuce to start, and then Kutrovsky backhands wide and short (aka in the net) but also hits a service winner to stand at 15-30. He comes in behind an ill-advised drop shot and Sock passes him with a backhand down-the-line slice for two break points. Paging Ken Rosewall. Kutrovsky throws all the weight in his 5’9” frame into a patented Bulgarian Nightmare-ish two-handed forehand to save one, and Sock then shanks a forehand, deucing it up. Dimi lets Jack off the hook, though, netting forehands on consecutive points to give up the break.

The Bulgarian has a bit of a ‘mare himself in the next three games, as Sock holds to 15, then breaks at 15 with a perfect drop shot, and holds again in a game that features a superb drop shot/passing shot retrieval. 5-0 to Jack Sock. On the Twitter, I pose the following question: “Will Dimi stage his 3rd straight amazing comeback or will Jack beat his 2nd straight DK-initialed opponent?” It’s a fascinating proposal, no? As I tweet it, I think, “I bet Kutrovsky has Sock right where he wants him, if his first two rounds are anything to go by.” I almost tweet that too, but I have notes to take.

Kutrovsky is struggling to get his tennis ball on the scoring toteboard, but two Kutrovsky aces from deuce get the job done. “Good serves,” says Jack magnanimously, still up a double break.

Kutrovsky Gets On The Board

In the seventh game, my mischievous suspicions are beginning to actually pan out, as “The Tar” (another J-Sizzle nickname) fires off forehand winners and deep returns, breaking Sock to *2-5. Alex Ward, who’s stretching for his upcoming match and watching parts of this contest with me, tips me to the fact that Dimi drinks from a tennis ball can during changeovers, which – if true – is one of the more awesome rituals I’ve yet heard of. I try to get a picture of it, but I think Kutrovsky’s on to me, as he never does it when I’ve got him in my Canon’s crosshairs.

Serving at 3-5 0-30, Jack’s starting to get agitated. “So while I’m serving he can run back and forth? That’s legal?” he asks the chair of Kutrovsky, seeking every edge as ever. He nets a forehand for 0-40. “Oh my God,” he says, and whacks a ball into the backstop. Dimi is once again becoming Jack’s Bulgarian Nightmare, as he breaks again to put the first set back on serve. “Just as I suspected,” I tweet, “the Kutrovsky comeback is on. He wins next 4 games and serves at 4-5. Typical.”

At 4-5 30-all, Sock slices a forehand into the net. “Are you serious?” he asks. Me? Not usually, no. Thanks for asking. Kutrovsky has a point for 5-all but Sock hits a serious smash for deuce. “C’mon!” Dimi crosscourts a forehand winner for another game point, and now we have dueling “C’mon!”s, only Kutrovsky doesn’t do it with quite as much gusto. The Tar smothers a backhand into the net, deucing things up again. The next point is a good one, both guys trying to find and work over the other’s backhand until Kutrovsky down-the-lines to the open court, with Jack favoring his ad side and scrambling to get to the forehand that he hits just long. The traditional clay-court mark-circling ritual ensues.

On his third game point to level the first set, Dimi hits a ball onto the tape that just hovers and hangs tortuously over the net before falling back on Kutrovsky’s side. “Two words:” I say to A.Ward, “Bru tal.” “Isn’t that one word?” he asks. “Don’t get technical with me,” I fake-snipe, “I’m the writer here!” Ward smirks and goes back to stretching.

Sock forehands into the net for a 4th ‘tar game point. Kutrovsky forehands into the net to deuce. Damn – who wants this thing? Answer: both of them, probably a bit too much. Tight game. Dimitar double faults to give Jack set point, but Sock backhands into the net to deuce. Dimi presses the reset button and double faults again, amidst more mark-circling contentiousness. On set point number two, the net cord is once again cruel to The Nightmare, propelling the Bulgarian’s forehand wide for a 6-4 Sock set.

At the start of the second set, Sock saves two break points with inside-in and off forehands but is eventually broken in another multi-deuce game, with Kutrovsky hitting a great one-handed, whipped forehand crosscourt pass to highlight the game, and Jack missing an easy overhead to lowlight it. “Sock can’t buy a first serve – can’t even lease one,” I write on the Twitter. Because I’m so clever, you see. Behind me, Romanian Teodor-Dacian Craciun has just finished up a 6-1 6-0 destruction of Hyun-Joon Kim, the Korean at least somewhat spent from the previous day’s dramatic exertions.

Kutrovsky has another ‘mare in the second game, double faulting twice and backhand volleying long at 15-40 to easily surrender the hard-won break. “Oh God, make up your mind!” he says about the shot. In the third game, Dimi plays a tweener but loses the point. A forehand shank makes it all the way out to a distant Mike Wolf, sitting near the hedges by Court 1. Distance may add perspective, but a well-shanked ball can still find you, Coach.

Dimi’s serving at 2-3 in the second, and he’s in trouble again, down 0-40. Sock takes his second break chance with an inside-in forehand winner, and holds to 5-2*. But in a turn of events that is unbelievable only to those who haven’t seen Kutrovsky play all week, Dimi saves a match point and holds.  Sock serving for the match, Kutrovsky forces a jacked-up error, and Jack emits a hilarious falsetto giggle. Then he backhands long and shrieks. He service winners to 15-30, but then – after a 20 shot rally – Jack finds the net. 15-40.

“You always do this,” says Jack, cryptically, and then double faults to give the gift of breakback. Meanwhile, I’m still twitting away: “Here we go again? Kutrovsky breaks as Sock serves for the match, saves a match point too.”

With Kutrovsky serving at 4-5 15-all, he double faults and then nets a forehand. “That is such BS,” he reckons, not using my family-friendly initials on the epithet. Two more match points. Sock nets a forehand on the first and Dimi comes charging on the second on an off forehand approach, smashing away Jack’s third match point. Kutrovsky pushes a nervy forehand volley wide at deuce and drops his racquet, disbelieving. But then saves a fourth match point with a Bulgarian Nightmare Special: a flying two-handed forehand crosscourt off a short service reply. Guts and game – I’d gladly pay admission to watch both these guys play. The Tar sticks the short forehand putaway routine on the next two points to knot the second set at 5-apiece. Great stuff. “Unreal,” I tweet, “Kutrovsky saves 3 more match points and holds for 5-all. The Comeback Kid will not go down without a fight in this USA F3. Impressive.”

Editorial Note: I am aware that, at 23-years-old, Kutrovsky isn’t exactly a “kid” anymore. But as a writer, the allure of alliteration trumps factual accuracy in this particular case, as well as many others. A word to the wise: I’d also trade in three accurate facts for one semi-decent (but incorrect) onomatopoeia. That’s just the way I roll, y’all. (Warning: most of that paragraph was such BS.)

At 5-all, Jack tries a tweener that catches the tape. I later ask Coach Wolf what he thought about that choice of shot. “Well, Jack liked it,” he replied. Heh. At 30-all, his celebrated pupil aces. “YEAH!” the pupil celebrates. Jack shows his youth again with a drop shot into net for deuce. But then he shows the talent which makes him so celebrated, with a top-drawer scrambling forehand squash shot for game point. He gets to 6-5* with a backhand volley crosscourt.

With Kutrovsky leading 15-0 and serving to try to force the tiebreak, Sock reels off two winners. Two Kutrovsky backhands into the net later, and it’s all over. Sock wins his first match against his doubles partner, 6-4 7-5. For such a dramatic match, it all ended rather lamely. But oh well – it’s all about the journey, not the destination, right? Sock heads into the semifinals, while Kutrovsky must hang around for the rest of a long day, waiting on a doubles match with the guy who just beat him for the first time in four tries.

They (much) later win a 7-5 6-0 decision over Shady/Bocko in the semis. “And who doesn’t enjoy a Shady Bocko every once in a while, really?” I tweet, not even knowing what the hell I mean. Sock/Kutrovsky definitely enjoy their match from the 10th game on, as they break, Kutrovsky serves out the first set at love, and the second seeds don’t lose another game from there.

Scenes from other matches:

I had told Alex Ward to stall in his match so I could see some of it, and he initially obliged by winning an 80-deuce game (give or take) to hold for 1-0 against 4th-seeded Benjamin Balleret (who beat his compatriot Dan Smethurst in the first round, in the infamous broken string match). But things quickly get away from the 20-year-old, as he falls behind two breaks and trails 2-5. By the time the Sock-Kutrovsky match wraps up, he’s fought back to 4-5 but loses the set as Balleret serves out his second attempt.

Benjamin Balleret

Serving at 0-1 in the second, Ward forgets the score all Andy Murray-style (which had happened earlier that day, vs. Ferrer – he didn’t see it; I had to tell him about it, as he was sleeping like a good quarterfinalist should do on match day). It doesn’t help him like it did Andy, though. I guess he shouldn’t have gotten the ch/ump to clarify – that was the mistake. Well, that and a kamikaze approach that Balleret nailed for a forehand crosscourt pass.


Alex Ward Discovers A Tennis Ball Hovering In The Sky

Ward is broken, but not broken, ya know? He continues to fight. He has a break point at 30-40 in the next game, and has Balleret dead at net, but doesn’t do enough with the backhand pass. It’s decent, but Balleret stretch-volleys it away. And so it goes for the affable eighth seed. He can’t really get his game going, and seems absolutely anguished about many of his misses, but keeps fighting. Saves break points in the fifth game, and holds from deuce in the seventh, but can’t make any headway into his 28-year-old opponent’s service games.

At 3-5 40-0, it all unravels. Balleret backhands a second serve return winner. Then Ward double faults and nets a forehand. “It’s me against the net,” he says, “It’s like I’m playing volleyball.” The net wins another contest on the next point, ensnaring a Ward backhand. Match point for Balleret. But Alex wards it off with a forehand winner and a “YES!”

The joy is short-lived, however; he doesn’t follow a short ball to net, possibly costing him, and a Balleret ball off the baseline eventually falls under heated dispute. The ch/ump tells Ward something about the ball taking a “funny bounce”, which is a supposed indicator of the ball clipping the line, but it’s not an A.Ward-winning explanation at all. They battle it out a bit, but – much like the net – the ch/ump generally wins most clashes, as he does here.

Ward double faults on match point #2, and whales his racquet into the backstop. Then picks it up, cracks it apart, and throws it away for good measure. All of which leads to the funniest image all weekend: after Ward heads off to the locker room, a kid in his early-to-mid teens retrieves the broken stick from the garbage, and when Alex comes back out to say his farewells, the kid comes over and has him autograph his smashed racquet, made out to the kid’s name. “Legend,” I tell him, as the kid walks away.

The final quarterfinal features Phillip Simmonds against third seed Catalin-Ionut Gard. Gard, another of this Florida swing’s large Romanian contingent, is up a break midway through the first set but Simmonds breaks back on serve to 4-all. This pattern of breakage is something that will be prevalent in the match, I eventually learn. Soon enough Gard is serving at 4-5 0-30, double faults and then hurls his racquet, Ward-style, into the backstop. Saves one break point but then Simmonds converts the next on a solid forehand crosscourt volley, breaking in the crucial tenth game to take the first set 6-4. Good strategy, that – in a match where consolidation is a rare creature, best to just break for the set and take the whole beastly “serving it out” business out of play completely.

Phillip Simmonds About To Make A Break For It

Simmonds holds in the first game of the second set, thanks in part to a leaping Pete Sampras/Michael Jordan/R.Kelly overhead at 30-all. Dude believes he can fly. I believe it too, after seeing that smash. At 0-1, Gard forgoes the flying smashes and double faults at 30-all instead. He issues forth a blood-curdling scream – I didn’t even know my blood had dairy in it, but curdle it did. Good to know. He earns a code violation for racquet abuse, for good measure, then double faults again – the dreaded quadruple fault – to give Phil the break.

So Simmonds is looking good, right? Up a set and a break, right? Wrong! Three breaks follow in quick succession. Gard holds at 2-3 to break the break streak, but a determined Phil starts another one at 3-all, losing serve from 40-15 up with a double fault ad-out. Now it’s Simmond’s turn to scream a bit. But, of course, he breaks back to 4-all and shockingly holds to 5-4, amidst much Romanian muttering (from Gard, of course – I would be highly impressed if Phil knew how to mutter in Romanian).

I have to interrupt the play-by-play drama with another editorial aside, and that is: I can’t say for sure about Gard, but I know for a fact: Phillip Simmonds is seriously good viewing. The guy just gives it up emotionally, wearing his heart on his sleeve and leaving no doubt at all whatever he’s feeling in the moment. While I’m not sure this is the best thing for the former Australian Open junior dubs champ’s game, it makes for captivating tennis, above and beyond the great shots he’s able to hit. I feel safe in saying, nobody gets in his own way more than Phil, but he does it in such a likeably kvetchy way that it’s hard not to root for him at least a little bit, and hope he can break through with the talent he so obviously has.

From 4-5, three straight serves are held – a sure sign of the apocalypse – so a tiebreak it is. Gard gets the first mini-break with Simmonds serving at 1-2, as Phil hits a backhand smash just wide up the line. He semi-collapses in despair. He recovers with a very nice backhand volley to 2-3, but it’s a bit too little too late in this breaker. Improbably, Gard holds on to his mini-break advantage then pads his lead as Phil hits a forehand wide at 3-5, then serving out the set 7-6(3).

Since this match makes little sense at all, the Romanian uses the momentum from his gutty second set tiebreak win to lose the final set at love. That’s right: Simmonds takes the match 6-4 6-7(3) 6-0 and will play another Romanian (what does he, have a play-one-play-another-free coupon?) in the semis.  More on that soon in Part II of this epic installmant (it’d be great if I could get the Weston USA F3 semis and finals reports up before the Palm Coast USA F4 semis and finals begin, no?).

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?