The day dawns warmly and beautifully at the ATP 250 Delray Beach for the first day of qualifying action. It’s so toasty, in fact, that this February day in South Florida offers a reasonable facsimile of what I’d imagine Australia was like around, say, the Tennis Australia Wildcard playoffs. Not content to merely imagine, I proceed to track down every Aussie on the grounds throughout the day, it seems.

I arrive early and scavenge the practice courts. First and best stop of interest is out on Court 6, where none other than International Tennis Hall of Famer Mark Woodforde is out with new charges Marinko Matosevic and Matt Ebden, helping them with their serves (note: they’re all Australian). “Use the same setup when you go down the ‘T’,” he advises Matosevic. “Gotta get that disguise.” Matosevic scolds himself for each little technical transgression but is very supportive of Ebden.

In the first match of the day, I see Ebden put that serve to good use, as he faces 2010 Easter Bowl champ, 17-year-old Bjorn Fratangelo, who received a wildcard into qualifying. Ebden serves five aces and just one double fault, connecting successfully on seventy percent of his first deliveries, and winning 79% of those.

Ebden serves vs. Fratangelo

Fratangelo is overmatched, sure, but it’s among the more impressive less-than-an-hour defeats I’ve seen in a while. If that sounds like I’m damning with faint praise, I don’t mean to be. He hits some terrific-looking backhands, displaying excellent footwork, balance and technique, outright catching the man from Perth flat-footed on a few. Good movement and the occasional ripping forehand, too (although he seems a bit more inconsistent off that wing).

Ultimately, though, the Western Australian is just that much stronger and steadier, on serve and otherwise. He advances 6-2 6-3 to the next round, where he’ll face second seed Igor Kunitsyn, a 7-5 4-6 6-2 winner over Tim Smyczek.

I watch a bit of Smyczek, who looks good in the set I see him play (I’ll let you guess which one that was), then move to catch top-seeded Blaz Kavcic against the popular Ecuadoran, the 28-year-old Giovanni Lapentti. From Smyczek to Kavcic – seems poetic enough to me. Oh, wait. Back up a bit. While watching Smyczek, I’m treated to the unintentional hilarity of well-meaning fans accosting poor Woodforde while he watches yet another Aussie, Mr. Samuel Groth, fire some first balls.

One gent tells Woody that he got his autograph at Disneyworld in 1999. Another quizzes him about long ago matches vs. the Bryan Bros. “Do you remember that match?” the beset upon coach is asked. “Yeah, we played them a few times,” Woodforde answers patiently, while trying to do his job. Good man.

OK. Kavcic. Lapentti. What can I say? Blaz blazed through the tired-looking younger Lapentti bro, taking some time to gripe along the way, as per. The 23-year-old Slovenian is one of those players whose venting just amuses me (though not in a Joe Pesci way). With others’ negativity, there’s a real sense of menace. With Blaz, it’s just what he does. The Courier-esque baseliner, currently on a career high of #83 in the rankings, displays his usual tenacity and scrambling – with bits of skill and volleying thrown in for good measure. The net result is all kinds of not bad – he advances 6-2 6-2 and will play Rajeev Ram in QR2, who won 7-5 6-2 over local fave and wildcard winner Eric Hechtman.

As today is turning into an Ozsome theme day, I check in on how Matosevic is faring against 28-year-old South African Raven Klaasen.

That’s So Raven

Under a watchful Wood(e)y(e), he’s playing haphazardly, as has been the case for 2011. At 3-all in the third set, he looks up at the chair umpire. “Score?” he inquires. Then he ma-tosses in three consecutive service winners from 15-0 and flashes a cheeky, little-boy smile to his coach, like, “Look what I just did!” He reels off the next eight points to win the match 7-6(1) 3-6 6-3. Amazing how he can just seem to click his game “on” sometimes and thereafter look unbeatable. He’s similar to Alex Bogdanovic, in that respect. When it’s all going right, you think, “How is this guy not Top 50? Top 25?” It seems so effortless. Sadly for them (and possibly for us as well), it hardly ever all goes right.

Next stop? You guessed it. Another Aussie – the Thunder from Down Under, a certain Mr. Groth. The Grothawk is still in full effect…

…and he begins his match against Lester Cook on a nice roll, breaking for an early 3-0* lead, and serving out of his shoes, as he’s been known to do.

The wheels come off the Good Ship Groth a bit as he serves a few double faults up 4-2 and Cook gets the breakback. “How many doubles is that this set?” Sam wonders aloud. Three, by my count, Sam (just doin’ my job). Groth pounds a ball into the palm fronds across the street in frustration.  The Californian Cook evens up the first set at 4-all as Groth forehands long. “YESSSSS, MATE!” Sam screams, nonsensically. Gotta love Grothy. This match is a battle of one-handed backhanders, incidentally, and at 4-5, the American puts the man from Narrandera’s one-hander to the test; but Groth passes with colors, some of which are flying. The Melburnian gets the break for the first set 6-4.

Slammin’ Samuel starts acing by the bucketload in the second set. “Nice serve,” says someone from the crowd, which to me is kinda redundant, in Groth’s case. He nails a couple of line judges and a ballgirl with a couple of firsties (saying “Sorry” each time, polite gent that he is), and then thanks the ballgirl for bringing his towel.

Cook holds serve at 1-4. “C’mon Les, let’s go – you got the mo!” says an onlooker. Questionable. Groth questions a call of let on another bomb, and the woman next to me says, “This guy is an a-hole.” OK, so he’s not for everyone, heh. Regardless, he hits three aces to hold to 5-2*, and Les just shrugs like, “What can I do?” Indeed. Groth finishes the match with a Day One high of 16 aces, 10 in the second set, and wins 6-4 6-3. Where’d that mo’ go?

This Would Be My Reaction To Sam’s Serve Too

Though I’d promised in my preview that I wouldn’t be stalking Jack Sock today, some retirements and withdrawals conspire to send me to Court 4, where the 18-year-old phenom is getting his latest test from the pro ranks, in the form of 30-year-old Austrian Alexander Peya, a former Top 100 playa. And I’m quite pleased I show up on this day.

It’s That Guy Again

Either I have a terrible memory, or the wildcard puts in his most impressive performance off the ground that I’ve seen in the entirety of his Florida swing. Which is really saying something, as I’ve seen about a bazillion of his matches in the past month. Man, this kid can play.

Peya tries to scare the reigning US Open boys singles champ by coming to net on practically everything, but Sock is unfazed and takes to the forecourt many times himself, often successfully. He still struggles with serve, connecting on only 47% of his initial offerings. But he’s able to save all seven of the break points he faces, and he keeps the pressure on Peya’s serve, going deep into practically every one of his opponent’s service games. But just one break each set is all it takes. He advances 6-4 6-4 and will face fifth seed Ryan Sweeting in the next round, which should be a corker.

Speaking of, the last match of the day (featuring – wait for it – an Aussie) promises to be just that: another 18-year-old phenom, Bernard Tomic, taking on the fourth seed, Lukas Lacko. The match proceeds quite predictably at first, with the Slovakian dictating and Tomic retrieving, floating, slicing and lulling. But then, the unpredictable: the teen starts pulling at his left hammy, and breaks for a lonnnng medical time-out.

During which time, some schoolkids scoot by on scooters and bikes on the other side of the fence and toss little trinkets onto the court. Lacko looks up at the chu/mp (smiling, of course) like, “WTF?” The congenial ch/ump just rolls with it.

With Lacko serving at 4-5 deuce, he nails a short ball sitter that Tomic anticipates perfectly, rocketing back a backhand for a set point. The Slovak saves it with an off forehand winner. Two more set points come for the Australian, but go when he errs on his groundies. Lacko holds for 5-all with two service winners to Tomic’s forehand side, and then rattles off the next eight points for good measure, taking the first set 7-5. Actually, it’s Bernard who gives it to him, missing wildly off the ground and not even trying on some returns. Hmm.

The young Aussie takes an early break lead in the second set, but Lacko breaks back in the fifth game. An unusual sequence puts the cap on a long tennis day. Tomic serves at 3-all and seemingly wins the first point when Lacko smacks a forehand just long; but a ball comes into the court at the end of the point, and Lukas argues that he was distracted. Tomic joins the conversation and sportingly concedes the point should be replayed. Lacko claps his racquet to applaud the gesture of goodwill. But then Tomic loses that first point, and a subsequent would-be 40-30 point is now a break point against, and the 23-year-old takes advantage to indeed get the break.

From there, it’s a train wreck. Lacko holds to love in under a minute, and Tomic sextuple faults (six consecutive faults)…

…then dumps a drop shot into the bottom of the net. Just like that, Lacko wins it 7-5 6-3. Is this thus the last sporting gesture we’ll ever see in Tomic’s young career? Tune in tomorrow, when I don’t answer that question at all, but instead bring you more ATP qualifying adventures.

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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