(continued from Part I, of course)
Semifinal day arrives quickly in Weston, and so does the end for the final seed left standing in the tournament, Benjamin Balleret. The fourth seed from Monaco wins the coin toss for his match against unseeded Jack Sock, but that’s about the only thing he wins on this day. Balleret, in the lime green highlighter shirt that seems all the rage of late, is not playing highlight reel stuff early – sluggish, lethargic and somewhat apathetic seeming.
By contrast, Sock is slugging away, hitting the ball crisply, and the 18-year-old races to a 3-0 first set lead. In the 4th game, there are some balls Balleret hardly moves for, but he acquits himself from no man’s land with a half-volley forehand flick, and Jack obliges with a few groundstroke errors. Benji is on the tote board! Alas, two easy Ballererrors from 30-all in the next game help Sock maintain his break advantage. At 1-4, the 4th seed forehand volleys wide then throws in two backhand errors for variety. Jack breaks for a second time with a running, flat forehand crosscourt pass from deep in the court, then serves out the set despite losing the point on another cheeky tweener (which is the same term I use for flatulence, by the way). First set Sock, 6-1.
I’ll spare you the grizzly details of the second set. Suffice it to say that, 2 minutes after I tweet, “Balleret must have a plane to catch. Something’s up with him – either injury or disinterest or both. Playing so casually,” Balleret retires and Sock is through to the finals, 6-1 3-0 ret.
After the match, I ask Jack if he knew what was up with Balleret, but Benjamin didn’t tell him, I guess. I tell him he seemed sharp, even if he didn’t need to be. “I can only focus on the things I can control,” he says sagely. He’ll go far, that one. Certainly to the USA F3 finals. Possibly beyond.
“Jack Sock aka J Sizzle was sharp today advancing to the singles and doubles final in Weston, Florida,” Coach Mike Wolf later tweets. “Time to bring your best on the weekend.” Hmmm. About that last part, Coach…
The second semi features Phil Simmonds against his second successive Romanian, Teodor-Dacian Craciun. Could Phil win in a similarly anguishing Simmonds-esque kind of way, like he did against Catalin-Ionut Gard the day before? The answer may surprise you. (Hint: yes.)
At first, it appears that Teodor-Dacian is Craciun the party, as Phil is broken to 15 in the second game thanks in part to two ripping Craciun one-handed backhand passes – down the line to start the game and crosscourt to end it. The colorful 30 year-old Romanian races to an early 3-0* first set advantage.
Serving at 0-3 30-40, Phil executes a perfect ace erase out wide on break point, and holds to get on the board. It’s these little things, that may not seem important at the time, that are sometimes so pivotal in the long term. Every point counts. Simmonds fighting through a tough service game here as well as a tough, deucey game at 2-5* to limit the damage to just one break pays off in the eighth game, as he comes back from 30-0 down and kicks it up a gear, with some forceful forehands, net attackage, and solid volleying. On break point, Phil backhand smashes a Craciun lob, which the Romanian half-volleys back, having followed his lob (kind of) to net; Simmonds races over to smack a forehand pass that Craciun volleys wide, and suddenly we’re back on serve. Easy as that.
Serving at 4-5, 30-all, Simmonds misses a first serve and decides to change racquets. I didn’t hear a string break, so I dunno. Regardless, he lopes over to his chair with a world-weary sigh. Grabs another stick and eventually finds himself set point down, but a deep Simmonds-sliced backhand yields a Craciun forehand error. Down another set point, Phil wrong-foots his Romanian opponent with an off forehand winner, then closes to 5-all with a service winner and a forcing forehand.
If this match were a TV show from the last century it would be Suddenly Even. And might feature alimony checks from Andre Agassi. But it’s not, so both players hold serve to get into the tiebreak, neither of them thinking who’d get the Brooke Shields role.
Warning: this tiebreak is long, and I am long-winded. A potentially lethal combo. I promise to only write about important points and maybe we can limit the damage to 6,000 words or less, ha. At 2-all, Craciun drop shots, bringing Phil in to hit a perfect accidental backhand drop volley winner off the frame. Probably wasn’t part of the plan. But mini-break nonetheless.
Simmonds plays a super serve and volley at 3-2, where volley = half volley drop winner. When Craciun nets a forehand on the next point, Phil finds himself in the same 5-2* position, pointwise, that Teodor had, gamewise, in the set. What could it possibly mean?
Well, in this case, it means that the exact same thing happened, only in reverse, as Craciun comes roaring back to 5-all in the breaker (Phil”s double fault serving at *5-4 did assist him in this process, however). On Phil’s first set point at 6-5*, TDC comes in on a mediocre approach shot but Phil nets the backhand pass. 6-all! Change ends, damn it! Let’s hurry this along!
At 6-all, with freshly changed ends, Craciun cracks a backhand long and Phil flubs a forehand volley wide on set point. 7-all. Phil forehands wide and abuses a ball to city hall. Teodor-Dacian serving at 8-7, this time he has a set point (oh, these crazy tiebreaks). But he overheads over the baseline and Phil “C’MON!”s, as is the custom these days. (Damn you, Lleyton Hewitt!)
Simmonds has set points at *9-8, 10-9*, and *11-10 but misses them all with forehand errors. At 11-all, Phil puts a first ball in wide, which Craciun stretches and shanks high off a framed forehand, but it lands in, and short; Phil wisely lets the ball bounce before he completely whiffs on the overhead. Serving at 12-11, TDC tries his luck with the Phil Simmonds style of playing set points in this tiebreak so far and hits a forehand long – which definitely gets him the style point, but does not get him the actual point.
So what to do? It’s 12-all. I say we play another point of tennis. Which is just what they do, luckily, and it’s an unreal point of tennis, too: Teodor-Dacian serves and comes Craciun in to net, where he’s a smashin’ Craciun, but Simmonds tracks the overhead and hoists up a tremendous defensive lob, which – having seen Phil’s adventures at 11-all – TDC doesn’t dare hit as a bounced overhead; the Romanian opts for a groundie instead, and now Simmonds comes charging into net where he solidifies the point with a deft half volley. Inspiring stuff, no? At 13-12, Phil second serves and volleys, pushing the backhand volley wide of the doubles alley. Will this tiebreak (and/or account of this tiebreak) ever end?!
Yes. 13-all. Simmonds aces wide to 14-13*. Craciun serves and volleys. Well, he serves, but Phil passes him with a down-the-line return winner. Cancel that volley. Hallelujah and praise Jeebus. Your standard, everyday 7-6(13) first set to Simmonds. No big deal, really.
In the second game of the second set, Craciun saves two break points to hold from deuce. Whole lotta twos and two-derivatives in that sentence. Then the Romanian converts on his second break point in Phil’s next service game. Coincidence? Numerology? Hell if I know. But Phil then saves double break point serving at 1-3. Craziness!
Serving at 2-4, 0-40, Simmonds is actually walking to sideline – having conceded the point and with it the double break – but TDC foils that plan by hitting into the net rather than the wide-open court. Drat! So Phil fights all the way back to deuce before the Romanian breaks a second time, with a nice lob and a Simmonds forehand long. Cruel! TDC to serve for the second set at 5-2.
But check this out: Craciun, determined to make it difficult for himself, double faults twice at set point in the next game, before double faulting again at deuce and hitting a forehand drop shot that doesn’t even reach the net. Wassupwitdat? Doesn’t matter. Phil hits a crap drop shot of his own down set point in the next game, and Craciun closes in to put away a volley winner. Second set to the Romanian 6-3. And kind of a stinkeroo of a set, wouldn’t you say?
Teodor-Dacian starts off our third frame. And at 30-15, he frames a forehand; a guy next to me says to his friend, “There’s another one of them wildass shots.” Get this man a commentating contract! T-D holds anyway, but doesn’t earn 6 for the score. Just one. #Americanfootballhumor
At 1-all, Simmonds cashes in on his fourth break point (earned with a great forehand volley), then saves a break point of his own before consolidating to 3-1. And then Teodor-Dacian goes Craciun back to earth: he drop shots into the net and is broken again. Nevermind that Phil hits four unforced errors off the ground in the next game to be broken. That doesn’t even factor into our narrative here. Put it out of your mind. ‘Cause Phil re-double breaks, then holds to love, ending the match with an ace and a “YEAH!” 7-6(13) 3-6 6-2.
The next day I’m greeted by the jarring sights and sounds of an on-court DJ for finals day. Midtown Weston pulling out all the stops, there. Some interesting things at stake in the USA F3 Final: if Jack wins, he’ll go from ATP #874 to approximately 650 in the world (when Futures points are added a week later to his ranking). Not bad for a high school senior who hasn’t actually, you know, turned pro yet, no? If Simmonds wins, he’s back in the Top 500 and – more importantly – scores his first pro victory.
It would seem strange if the US Open junior champ would be jarred by something so New Yawkish as a little noise, a little BPM’s. But jarred he sure seems (though probably not by the DJ, honestly). A bad drop shot + a double fault + a netted forehand = Sock broken in the first game of the match. Hang the DJ! (A reference to a song by The Smiths, there – not an actual request for a hanging, people. Jeez.)
Then Jack fails to capitalize on four break points in the next game, netting a forehand and a backhand pass (though not in the same point, you see) and shanking another backhand and another forehand (ditto). 2-0 to Simmonds early doors. In the third game, the 18-year-old only makes 2 of 8 first serves, with a double fault, two forehand errors and an overhead into the net contributing to a double break deficit. Who are you, and what have you done with Jack Sock?
As if in answer to that very question I’d be writing five days later, Jack gets one break back, as Phil shows that Jack’s not the only one who can stink up the joint – netting half-volleys, forehands, second serves; the whole spectrum of netted shots. You name it, he netted it. And despite only making 1 of 6 first serves, Sock holds to narrow the margin to 2-3*, and has a break point in the next game to come all the way back. But Simmonds closes him out at net, snuffs out the chance and holds.
Things go from bad to worse for Jack, serving down another break point at 2-4, as he frames a ball into a courtside spectator’s head. “Ooh!” says the woman. “Sorry,” says Jack. While the woman is OK, Jack is not, as Phil closes him out at love with an ace, 6-2 first set.
Second verse, much the same as the first. More missed serves. More forehands into the net. And Jack is broken to start the second set. He whacks his racquet off the sole/instep of his sneak. That’ll get the clay out! And now, since I’m getting tired, I bring you the rest of this match in four glorious, self-penned Twitter updates:
“3 straight breaks to start 2nd set. Jack broken in 3rd game despite 6 of 6 1st serves in (took a little off them). FH let him down instead.”
“Jack tries to serve and volley on almost every point of 5th game. Serve working better. Changing things up. I like it. Still down a break.”
“Sock double faults on break point at 2-4. Simmonds to serve for the title.”
“GSM Phillip Simmonds defeats Jack Sock 6-2 6-2 to win the USA F3 title in Weston, FL. Sock/Kutrovsky to play for dubs champ post-ceremony.”
But more on that later. I, for one, am happy I was there to see Phil take his pro title, as he was so clearly thrilled to get it. “It’s feels great. I’m speechless, actually. I’m pumped. Really pumped. I’d been playing pretty well; I made quarters the first week and then semis last week, so I wanted to win this week. Obviously, I mean, you try and play to win.”
I asked him where he was going to put the trophy (it was a nice trophy): “I’m gonna give it to my mom. Moms love those things. Actually, maybe I’ll give it to my grandmother – one or the other. But definitely one of the ladies of the family will get it.”
Sadly, as we’ll see at USA F4, victory – no matter how special – can be fleeting, and – with the same field of players rotating around each draw every week like a stalled weather system – revenge can be gained quite quickly. Simmonds was out of Palm Coast before I could learn which of the lucky ladies actually ended up with the hardware.
Sock and Kutrovsky went on to lose what would then be their fourth final, beaten by the Korean pair of Soong-Jae Cho and Hyun-Joon Kim 6-4 6-4. But they’d meet again soon enough in Palm Coast (what was I just saying about revenge?).
Interestingly, Jack almost didn’t make it to Palm Coast. During the dubs final, I got a chance to chat with Jack’s coach, Mike Wolf, about what happened in the singles final, and he was none too thrilled about the effort he saw from his young charge that day in Weston. Wolf, a very straight shooter, told Sock that while results, win or lose, are fine, effort is non-negotiable, and that if Mike didn’t like Jack’s effort level in the doubles, then Jack could forget about Palm Coast and might find himself back in a classroom the next day. Luckily for all concerned (expect possibly Jack’s Palm Coast opponents), Sock was plugged into the doubles effort and made it up to play the North Florida F4.
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?