Saturday begins a bittersweet weekend for me at Palm Coast, as it’ll be my last weekend covering live tennis for two weeks, until it’s time for ATP Delray. What the heck am I supposed to do with myself in the interim? Get a life? I dunno – sounds like a dicey proposition.

Anyway, no worries about such weighty matters on this semifinal day, as the sun shines bright and the little amplifier under the ump’s chair pumps out the Jock Jams. The first semifinal of this day features the eighth seed with the nickname that will never catch on, Romanian “That’s So” Razvan Sabau against Italy’s Nicola Ghedin. Six years ago, Sabau was the #74 player in the world, with wins over Janko Tipsarevic (2 of them, actually) (wins, not Jankos), Guillermo Coria (no word on the state of his serve at the time), and Sergey Demekhine, now the infamous coach of Vera Zvonareva. These days, Razvan is ranked #520 at age 33, with maybe a lost step and some evaporated vim but certainly with shotmaking skills still in tact.

Meanwhile, the 22 year-old Ghedin comes in ranked #1,269 with a career high of 1,081, and it’s the first time he’s ever been to the semifinals at the pro level. His previous best result had been the quarterfinals of the 2009 Todi Challenger, where he lost 0-6 0-6 to Challenger Tennis Player To Watch David Goffin.

Nicola Ghedin, at left, with Razvan Sabau

I tweet that Nicola’s coach is someone called Cesare Zavoli, which makes me crave cheese ravioli, but after the match I see that Andrea Collarini has tweeted some much more interesting information:

(helpful note: read from bottom up)

First of all, let me say how impressed I am with Andrea’s quick mastery of the American vernacular. I’ll also admit that his tweet is a tad more relevant than mine. Furthermore, I’ll confess to wishing I had seen this information earlier, as it would’ve saved me from such embarrassing follow-up tweets to my cheese ravioli one (which was mortifying enough as is), like:

“Ghedin, he of the shoddier resume, is out of the gate quickly. Holds, breaks and holds for 3-0.”

“Am hearing inklings in the crowd that Sabau coaches Ghedin? In which case: student schooled the teacher in a 6-1 in a quick first set.”

and

“Wow, that was quick: Nicola Ghedin d (8) Razvan Sabau 6-1 6-4 in under 1 hr. Odesnik vs. (3) Matt Reid next up.” (my using “quick” in three consecutive tweets is no doubt a testament to why I score so low in the Times Word Nerd thingamajig, too.)

Reporter fail on my part. Collarini, tweeting from God knows where, seems much more clued in to what’s happening on the court right in front of me than I am. In my defense, it seems to me that Ghedin actually does play well, and I don’t notice many overt signs of Sabau tanking the match (or even many covert ones, for that matter).

If it’s a tank, then it’s a subtle one: the coach served 6 double faults, sure, but that’s not an incriminatingly awful amount for eight service games. And more points were won with the Italian’s aces and winners than were lost via Sabau errors.

Anyway, why am I going on about all this Twitter nonsense? Because it’s way more intriguing than the match actually turned out to be. That’s why.

The next semifinal is the one I’m more eager to see, at any rate. Third seed Matt Reid, who had played pretty well in beating Jack Sock the day before, is set to square off against the second former Top 80 player to appear on this day, Wayne Odesnik, in his third tournament back following his illegal substance suspension and subsequent sentence reduction due to ongoing assistance with the ITF. Odesnik had bulldozed his opponents into clay court submission in his previous three rounds (losing 3, 3, and 5 total games in each), so I was eager to see what resistance, if any, the 20-year-old Australian could offer.

At the outset of the match, the answer is “not much.” After an initial Odesnik hold, Reid staves off two break points in his first service game – one with a well-disguised forehand drop shot – and service winners himself out of danger. But then he doesn’t win another game for a while. I write the following note in the top corner of my notepad: “Odesnik = uncanny return ability, first balls back deep, consistently hitting groundstrokes with more depth, spin, and intent. Man on a mission.” Down 1-5, Reid opts to see the trainer, but I can’t get a bead on what the specific problem is.

Either way, the embattled American powers through the next game to take the first set 6-1, hitting 11 winners in all (4 service, 4 forehand, 2 backhand, 1 volley) to only 3 unforced (backhand) errors, with 2 aces and no double faults. By contrast, Reid has 6 winners (2 each off serve and both wings) to 10 unforced errors (6 backhand, 4 forehand), with 1 ace and 1 double fault.

In the beginning of the second set, things get a little chippy, as Reid complains to the umpire that Odesnik isn’t ready to receive whenever he goes to hit the serve and is thus not playing to the server’s (i.e. his) pace. “Every game!” he adds, for emphasis. The chair ump thinks the Aussie is moving a trifle too quickly than is reasonable. “Give him a little time,” is his instruction. Wayne chimes in: “You’re not even giving me five seconds to turn around.” Reid fires back: “Five seconds?!” And then goes to serve again.

Perhaps Odesnik’s a tad thrown off by all this, as he overheads long to give Reid that first service game. But he recovers to hold to 15 with a backhand winner up the line. 1-all. Then it’s Reid’s turn to seem rattled, playing an awful game to be broken – backhand wide, terrible drop shot, double fault, dunzo.

Odesnik errors his way to 0-30 at 2-1, but then the Aussie is undone by two more backhand errors (plus an Odesnik service winner and some pummeling forehands).

After successive successful service holds, more breakage occurs with the third seed serving at 2-4 40-15 – this time, the succession is: forehand net, backhand net, double fault, before Wayne seals the game with a forehand crosscourt winner.

I pack up my stuff and take my position to get the obligatory victory photo, but Reid foils my plan with a spirited fight to break back. Drat. He then holds from 15-30 to get back to 4-5*. But on his second chance to serve out the match, Odesnik closes the door for good, holding to 15 for a 6-1 6-4 victory. I finally get my photo.

(and what a great photo it is, haha)

“Please tell me you think that you’re playing well,” I say to Odesnik after the match, asking the world’s most leading question. “Because to my eyes it seems like you’re playing well.” He doesn’t admit to it, and instead says, ““I’ve been practicing the last three or four months as hard as I ever have, and I’m prepared to come here and play as many matches as I have to, to get ready for my comeback.”

Undeterred, I ask him to compare his form now with how he was playing before his suspension. “Well, you know, this is only my second tournament back*; so even though I have to play qualifying and a lot of matches, it’s good, you know, to find my game again – to find the shots that are working, what’s not working. The mental ups and downs of a match. So yeah, I’m starting to feel like I’m putting that together with everything else, and I’m feeling good.”

I ask Wayne what he feels he needs to improve upon, based on today’s match. “At 6-1 5-2 40-15, serving, and I hit a good first serve and I had an easy volley and he shanked the winner and won three or four points to break me. But, you know, that’s tennis – it’s gonna happen, and I was just happy I was able to come back the next service game, refocus, and win in straight sets.”

You know, many people have had their shots at Odesnik, myself included, all throughout his suspension saga. But I have to say: the guy seems really sincere, and very grateful for the second chance he’s being given. There’s an earnestness and humility with which he’s conducting himself here that I haven’t seen from him before. And based on the way Odesnik’s playing, I have little hope for his opponent the next day. “I hope Sabau teaches a lot to Ghedin before the final,” I tweet, “Otherwise I fear for the Italian’s chances.”

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? 

*I guess he’s not counting his retirement from Weston F3 in the 2nd qualifying round

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