Sunday dawns almost as bleakly as I feel Nicola Ghedin’s prospects for victory are in his USA F4 singles final against Wayne Odesnik. It’s foggy, cloudy, and there’s a big, green blob of rain moving in on the doppler radar. But before the singles final, we have the doubles championship to attend to (hopefully). I arrive and make my way into the cozy Palm Coast clubhouse with two of the finalists, Jack Sock and Dimitar Kutrovsky, right behind me. “Fancy meeting you here,” I tell them, as I hold the door. They must be convinced I shadow them everywhere by now.

In a rare display of Futures seeding actually going to form, it’ll be top seeds Kutrovsky and Sock facing off today against the second seeded team of Greg Ouellette and Blake Strode.

From left: Sock, Kutrovsky, Ouellette and Strode

It’s also a final that features three four-year college grads/standouts (and one high school senior). This will be Kutrovsky/Sock’s fifth pro final together in the past six months…

while Ouellette and Strode are making their first finals appearance together (although both have made pro finals with other partners).

The weather holds, but Strode does not, broken in the first game on a nice low return from “The Tar” (Kutrovsky) that eventually sets up a well-Socked putaway. The top seeds get a second break in the seventh game, with Kutrovsky hitting a perfectly measured crosscourt lob to start the game and Jack nailing a forehand second serve return at Ouellette’s feet to end it. Sock is broken while trying to serve out the set, but then Sock/Kutrovsky break Strode to take the first set 6-3.

The second seeds fight back, however, going up a break in the second. Sock double faults himself into a 0-30 hole serving at 2-4, but does well to extract himself and keep things close. Strode, the Arkansas grad who’s deferred Harvard Law for a year to try his luck on the pro tennis tour, then takes command, holding to love then slicing an error-forcing return while his partner steps up with some super forehands and an absolutely perfect lob to break and take the second set 6-3.

During the changes of ends, the woman who tends to the tunes (and the “PA system”) also manages to thoroughly entertain us with some spirited dance maneuvers. She’s hilarious, and her enthusiasm only adds to the great spirit in which this match is being played.

As befits a terrific final such as this – with all four players hitting at a high level, playing in front of a large and appreciative crowd – the match will be settled in a match tiebreak. (Actually, it would be better if they played out a third set or even played an abridged pro set, but that’s another argument for a different day.)

Ouellette starts us off with serve, but Sock starts off with a mini-break, putting away a forehand volley for the early lead. It’s a short-lived lead, however, as he dumps a backhand volley into net on the next point. “God!” he exclaims. With Strode serving at 2-all, Jack tries the whole mini-break thing again with another forehand volley putaway, but this time it’s Kutrovsky who biffs the backhand (half-)volley, and we change ends at 3-apiece.

With Ouellette serving at 3-4, he doesn’t come in behind his second ball, allowing Sock to tee off on a backhand return that lands on the baseline, leading to a Kutrovsky cleanup volley and a “C’mon!” from the Bulgarian Nightmare. This time, the top seeds hold on to their just-attained mini-break for a trifle longer, as Sock half-volleys a drop shot winner at 5-4 before hitting the dirt on the next point, with Strode/Ouellette once again reclaiming the tiebreak’s on-servitude.

Strode serves to Sock, and off forehands are traded before Jack decides to pull the trigger on an inside-in try past a possibly poaching Ouellette. He nets the shot and stands there with a rueful smile, the match dead even at one set apiece, six games apiece and six points apiece. How ’bout we play a six-point breaker to decide this thing from here on out, guys?

Essentially, that’s what they do. Strode serves his second ball and runs smack dab into a pair of big ‘Tar forehands, a return and a follow, to get the top seeds their fourth mini-break of the MTB. But could they hold onto it this time? As a matter of fact, yes they could: Kutrovsky pounds in two first serves, one netted by Strode in a return attempt, the other a building block for a Sock drop volley. Triple championship point. Sock nets a backhand return of a second serve on the first, and Ouellette aces away the second. But Sock/Kutrovsky make good on the last, closing out a superb match 6-3 3-6 [10-8].

After the match, none other than Malivai Washington does the interviews before the trophy presentation. He asks the champs what is it about their games that match up so well and allows them to have success. Sock: “I think Tar – he’s kind of the power player, knows what he’s doing on the returns, gets them low every time, and I kind of cover the net, I’m more kind of the feel guy. He kind of hits through people and I kind of throw in some variety, and it goes well together.”

It may seem funny, looking at the photos, that Big Jack is the self-proclaimed “feel guy” while the relatively diminutive Dimitar is the power guy, but Dimi can really crack the ball, and Jack’s certainly not lying about his partner’s reliable return proficiency.

I also have a good post-match chat with Blake Strode, who’s still in great spirits despite the close defeat. Here’s a man who has the option to be at Harvard Law right now but has deferred for a year to try his hand at this world of professional tennis, and it’s clear he’s enjoying the ride, no matter the result.

I ask him what it is he enjoys so much about the pro circuit experience, and he cites the competition but also the camaraderie and the opportunity to travel and meet new people. Blake – who this summer confused the hell out of James Blake by introducing himself as “Blake” after James introduced himself as “James” – doesn’t want to look back and wonder “what if?” so he’s taking his best shot now, while he’s young and while he can. Strode has a year until he has to decide whether it’s time to trade in his racquet bag for a book bag, and says that if he doesn’t make a big jump to about 250-300 in the rankings by this time next year, then it will probably be time to move on.

In the meantime, he is definitely someone I recommend for you to follow and support on his travels. Thankfully, Blake has a nicely put together website that makes it easy to do both of those things. Do yourself a favor and check it out, OK?

So, after the glad-handing and post-match mingling and trophy-posing, there’s still another final to be played, remember? It’s 25 year-old American Wayne Odesnik vs. 22 year-old Italian Nicola Ghedin – a battle of unseeded players, except one of them is a former Top Hundred player and another hasn’t cracked the Top Thousand yet. I’ll let you guess which is which.

Actually, it would be difficult to make that assessment based on the first game of the match, as Odesnik starts off nervously, with a double fault and three forehand errors to give his less experienced foe the initial break. I saw this kind of start when Odesnik played Ouellette in singles, however, when Wayne began with three double faults before going on to take the match 6-3 6-0. So I knew it was too early to judge. Odesnik allows Ghedin to get into a 30-0 lead in the next game, before settling down with a forehand and backhand winner to 30-all.

Perhaps this unnerves the Italian, who then nets consecutive forehands and backhands to give back the break. Sure enough, Odesnik goes on to win 13 straight points and race out to a 4-1 lead. Such is his dominance that the crowd actually gasps, stunned, when Wayne volleys wide and his point-winning streak is finally broken.

The overmatched Italian fights hard through a couple of deuces and holds to 2-4, but even this early in the encounter, the outcome has an air of inevitability about it. At 4-2 30-15, Odesnik smacks a forehand winner up the line, and the woman next to me says, “Oh my my my.”  The Triple Enberg.  High degree of difficulty.

With Ghedin serving at 2-5, Wayne O drives a backhand winner crosscourt, and the crowd says, “Wow!” Ghedin sees his first set prospects slipping, and sets to getting the hell out of there, with multiple backhand errors handing Odesnik the first set 6-2.

In the second set, the dominance continues, with the American racing out to a 3-0* lead and the Italian having to work his behind off to even win points, and earning pity applause when he does. In the fourth game, Ghedin puts together a series of points, scrambling hard and breathing harder, laboring intensively to grab another game. It’s the last one he wins, though, as Odesnik closes out a 6-2 6-1 victory to win his first pro title in this second phase of his career.

Once again, Mal Washington extracts some post-match thoughts from the competitors. Ghedin: “I am really happy to be here today. Has been a fantastic week for me. This is the first final for me and today Wayne is too good.” Asked about his goals, the Italian said, “I hope to do well also next month. Maybe 600 is a good ranking for me.”

The audience gives him a big round of applause, in a moment that calls into focus not only how relative success can be in the tennis world, but also how heartwarming these little victories – and even big losses – can be. Ghedin’s speech is, to me, just as endearing as the one Novak Djokovic made after claiming the Australian Open trophy. Different scale, but the emotional resonance is not diminished by the sheer lack of, well, grandness here in the lesser events. People still cry in happiness and sorrow, even through so-called lower tiers. Washington calls Odesnik up to collect his humongous check (for $1,300) and Wayne jokes, “I feel like I’m on Happy Gilmore.”

He goes on to give an earnest and moving speech: “First things first, I just want to congratulate Nicola, who had a very good tournament. And second of all to all the the fans that came out this week. You know, it’s only my second tournament back, and to have the support of everyone here means the world to me. And it makes the comeback that much easier, so I want to thank everybody.”

Mal asks Wayne what his goals are for this year: “My goals are to get back to the Top 100 and into the big tournaments. I feel like I’m playing better – I’ve had time to actually work on things, work on my game so I feel, physically, I’ve had a very good time away from the game to heal. But, you know, most importantly, even coming out here today, feeling the nervousness and everything, I feel that the difficult times that I’ve been through, I look at things a lot differently now. You know, just being out here on a beautiful day being able to do what I love, you know those things, in difficult moments, are what I appreciate now, and I think that’s what’s going to help me succeed in the future.”

How soon do you think it’ll be if everything goes to plan before you can hit the Challengers again?

“I have small goals for myself. My main goal right now is to get 50 points, and then once I reach 50 points, I’ll start playing some qualifying of Challengers and hopefully can maybe even sneak into a few in the summer. But right now I’m just trying to go week to week, and build on my confidence, and win as many matches as I can. And the main goal is for the end of the year, it’s not right now. Because I don’t know how long it’s going to take – it could take a couple of months, it could take longer, it could be shorter, who knows? But as long as I keep working and have the main objectives in mind and stay positive, I’m sure it’ll go faster that way. And that’s the best way to go.”

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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