On Thursday I pack up my Futuresmobile and head up from Vero Beach (where I’m currently stationed) to catch the USA F4 in Palm Coast, which is about a four hour drive north from where the previous three Florida Futures events have been played and is the last of the events on this FL winter swing. I know I’m getting in the right area when I see this marquee about two miles from the Palm Coast Tennis Center:

Simply swinging, eh? Do you think they chose that show as a promotional 10K tennis tie-in? Probably not, huh? Doesn’t stop me from stopping to take a picture of it, though. And boy, you can really feel that four hours of northitude in the air. And yes, I know – if there’s one thing that really iced my cream when I lived up North, it was people in Florida complaining about “the cold” where there’s no snow to contend with, no sub-freezing temps, no arctic wind chill, etc. But on this Thursday, people are wearing full on winter jackets (as opposed to half-on winter jackets), and in some cases are wandering around in what look suspiciously like Snuggies.

I head for the bathroom of the quaint Palm Coast Tennis Center and am immediately confronted by yet another sign:

You’ll no doubt be happy to know I rated a “3”. What? Tennis? OK. Lots of that around the facility. And I had already missed a lot as well. The first rounds played out over Tuesday and Wednesday with a few very surprising results. For one, USA F3 Weston champ Phillip Simmonds lost to 17-year-old Czech Jan Kuncik, ranked #1676 in the world, 6-3 7-6(6). Wowzers. Seventh seed Denis Kudla also lost a tough one, 4-6 6-4 6-7(3) to F3 dubs champ Soong-Jae Cho. All in all, it was a terrible tourney for the seeded, as only three of the top eight players advanced into the second round – (3) Matt Reid, (8) Razvan Sabau and top-seed Greg Ouellette.

It was the latter whose match I’m here to see first, as he’s paired up in a lefty battle against none other than Wayne Odesnik – making his comeback, of course, from a substance-related suspension. Wayne had lost one match to F1 eventual champion Luka Gregorc and had to retire against Nikko Madregallejo in Weston, but was otherwise undefeated on the year. I’m interested to hear how Wayne is received, and he gets a smattering of applause from the hearty assemblage of spectators. Ouellette, a bigger local fave, receives a much healthier hand for his intro, but Wayno doesn’t get shut out in that regard.

On court, however, it seems he might. Get shut out, that is. Appearing very nervous, Wayne double faults thrice and gives up his initial service game, while Ouellette holds from 0-30 with two service winners and an ace wide. Down 2-0, Odesnik gets on the board when the top seed nets two backhands from 30-all, and then gets even as Ouellette makes four unforced groundstroke errors in the next game. Already there’ve been three over-fifteen-stroke rallies in the match.  Greg gets it to deuce on Wayne’s service game at 2-all, but Odesnik is starting to settle in and rip the ball. He hits three outright forehand winners and forces two more errors off that wing to take his first lead of the set, 3-2* on serve. Ouellette is broken to 15 in the next game and gets a very strictly-enforced code violation for ball abuse – for whacking it into the net.

Though Ouellette plays a nice game to break back to 3-4, he doesn’t win another in the match. Odesnik is just in his own stratosphere, gamewise; it becomes quickly apparent that Ouellette can’t do anything to consistently trouble the 25 year-old, while Wayne is hitting the ball very deep, hard and heavy – it’s a level of tennis I’ve yet to see on the Florida clay these past few weeks, for all the good ball I’ve seen. Even acknowledging that Wayne was a Top 100 player, there was no guarantee that he’d come back match tough or be able to handle his nerve or be in this kind of form.

After the match, Wayne tells me that he hadn’t played Greg since they were about 13 or 14 years old (they grew up in Florida juniors) and though he didn’t remember the results, he remembers always having trouble with him. “He started out well today, and conditions were a little different, so I’m glad it went my way.” I asked him to compare coming through the Futures circuit again now as opposed to when he was first coming up. “When I started out I was 16 or 17 years old, so I was still learning and I was one of the new guys. Where now, hopefully I’ll just play a couple more Futures and that’s it for me, and then I’ll go back the a challengers and ATP events. But the court doesn’t change – there’s a court, there’s a ball and there’s an opponent, and that’s it. And that’s all I’m focused on right now.”

I hear Jack Sock “C’mon!”ing in the distance, and – since I am now officially his shadow – that cry is kind of my bat signal in the sky to go check on the 18 year-old prodigy’s progress. He’s up against a guy who’s quickly becoming something of a nemesis – the very same Soong-Jae Cho who beat Kudla in the first round here also teamed up with Hyun-Joon Kim to beat Sock and his partner Dimitar Kutrovsky in the finals of F3 doubles. And those same two teams would be meeting for a rematch later on this very day.

I join their match with Cho serving at 4-5 in the first set, and both players easily take care of their serves until the tiebreak. There things go to serve until the fifth point, when Sock comes into net on what would have been an excellent forehand approach up the line, only the net cord gets in the way and leaves him a sitting duck up there, and Cho chows down on the resultant easy pass for the mini-break. Cho forehands long to relinquish the mini-break at *4-2, but then Jack’s betrayed by the net cord again, as he’s dictating a point with his forehand and the tape catches the last one, pushing it long. Once again, Cho lets Sock back in with a backhand long at *5-4, but then Jack shanks a run-around forehand return in the breeze at 5-all and double faults at set point, earning a ball abuse warning as he smacks one out of the park.

Sock goes up an early break in the second, then has to save two break points serving at 2-1, playing a brave/foolish forehand drop shot that just clears the net for a clean winner on the penultimate point. Serving at 3-2 40-0, Sock frames a volley, misses a groundie and bounces a forehand into the net. “That did not bounce,” he says of Cho’s shot that led to his bouncy forehand, and he’s right. At deuce, Jack double faults and angrily whacks a ball that he inadvertantly frames so it soars just over the fence and out of the court. I quickly look up to see if the chair ump is going to give a point penalty. It’s a tough call, and I see the ch/ump hesitate before making an “I have to do this but I don’t want to” face and announcing the point penalty for ball abuse. Game to Cho, Sock broken back. Jack argues that he didn’t mean to hit the ball over the fence, but to no avail. I later ask coach Mike Wolf what he though about the call, and – no nonsense as ever – Mike said Jack deserved it, and he shouldn’t have hit the ball in the first place.

Wolf’s attitude these weeks that I’ve been able to speak with him has been nothing short of refreshing. There’s no coddling of his players – he’s tough, but very fair, and also realistic about the growth curve and how this whole process is a learning experience for his guys. The more I talk to him, the more I feel that Jack is in good hands.

But back on court, Jack is in trouble again. Serving at 4-5, he double faults to start the game, then controls the entire point at 15-all with his forehand before missing a backhand volley wide. At 15-30, he hits a forehand wide, and Cho has two match points. Jack saves one with a forehand winner up the line, and Cho lets him off the hook on the other, netting a forehand. An ace out wide and an overhead later, and Sock’s snuffed out the threat. 5-all in the second.

Serves are held at love, and we’re tiebreaking again. I write the word “perfect” in my notes to describe each of Jack’s first two point-winning shots – one a scooped/almost-flat forehand crosscourt pass and another a drop shot for 2-0. Sock gets another handful of points with forcing forehands, an inside-in winner and serves up a little ace-T at 6-1 quintuple set point to nab the second set. An accomplished, assured and confident breaker from the 18-year-old.

Meanwhile, Andrea Collarini’s in trouble with the same guy who took out Simmonds in round one, Jan Kuncik.

The 6’5” 17 year-old is up 4-1 in the first. I go have a look and see it’s another lefty-lefty matchup following Ouellette-Odesnik on Court 7. Kuncik plays some huge stuff on serve and off both wings to lock up the first set 6-3.

Back to Jack: I return to find the net being unkind to Cho this time as he serves at 3-4, 15-40, the cord catching one of his approach shots and hanging it up like a pinata. Jack whacks a backhand pass up the line to break. Serving for the match at 30-15, he inside-ins a forehand wide. “That’s not smart at all, Jack,” he says (presumably to himself). Heh. I’ve begun to really enjoy this kid’s sarcasm and sense of humor. At 40-30, he juuust misses a backhand pass. “A centimeter out again!” he anguishes. I also love that he kvetches in metric. But never mind all that, Sock finally holds to take the match 6-7(5) 7-6(1) 6-3.

I get back to the Collarini-Kuncik match just in time to see the 17-year-old Czech double fault at 1-2 30-40 in the third (Andrea had taken the second set 6-4). What follows is the best set I’ve seen Collarini play – some amazing lefty-crosscourt forehand exchanges, fantastic retrieving and much better depth of shot than I’d been seeing. He races through the final frame and wins the match 3-6 6-4 6-1.

And much later on, under the lights, Kutrovsky and Sock are able to get their doubular revenge over Cho/Kim, wrapping up the day’s play with a 6-4 3-6 [10-5] triumph.

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?