As anticipated, it was a scorching day of qualifying action Saturday at the Tallahassee Challenger, both on and off the courts. The temperature was predicted to reach a near-record 92 degrees, and it did not let us down. Nor did it let up, once the sun broke through the muggy morning clouds. This led to some heated tennis action on the DecoTurf as well as some heated exchanges off of it.
While the clouds still blanketed the ground in some sort of meteorological mercy, I started out beside Court 14 at the Forestmeadows Tennis Complex – a court which, despite its name, is really more like a grandstand/show court. It was there that 19-year-old Australian Mark Verryth, the former world junior #23 and 2009 Eddie Herr International doubles champ (with partner Harry Fowler), kicked off his long day, playing 22-year-old Macon, Georgia wild card Deo-Ray Brown.
Call It In The Air Like You Just Don’t Care
From the outset, it was clear that Brown was overmatched by the 6 foot 6 inch man from Melbourne (Australia, not Florida), as Verryth hammered home 11 aces and never faced a break point the entire match. Though he only put 50 percent of his first serves in, his kicking second delivery had Brown off balance throughout.
To his credit, Brown got more of a read on the Aussie’s serve toward the end, framing some short replies and delaying the point for at least one more shot, as Verryth supplemented his service profile with some blistering forehands.
But the match was over before 60 Minutes would’ve gotten to Andy Rooney. It wasn’t the most flawless performance (5 double faults, a number of unforced errors, and repeated self-admonishments that his serve was “too short”), but it didn’t need to be. It was still impressive enough that ball kids lined up for autographs afterwards.
And it was good that he conserved his energy, as the big man from the land Down Under would go on to play a 2 hour QR2 match in the midday sun, upsetting qualifying fifth seed Woong-Sun Jun 6-7(3) 7-6(5) 6-3. I didn’t get to see that one – as I can only be in so many places at once, you see – but I hoped to check out at least some of his final qualifying match against another Korean, Daniel Yoo. (Thank yoo verryth much.)
For the next match, I was intrigued to see how Devin Britton was doing these days, as the young American’s been struggling since he made his big splash against some dude named Federer in the 2009 US Open (losing twice as many matches as he’s won since that day). DevBritt came out a bit disheveled (TM Brad Gilbert) and never seemed quite at ease against his 23-year-old formerly Greek (now American) opponent, Vlademyros Mavropoulos-Stoliarenko (a spirited guy whom I unfortunately could not tweet about by name, as his name alone accounts for half a tweet as it is).
For his part, Stoliarenko (as the chair ump called him) came out guns blazing, breaking Britton at 15 with an inside-in forehand and a blistering forehand return winner up the line for an early 2-0 advantage.
Of course, he immediately was broken back to love, thanks to a double fault, a grunty drop shot wide, and a couple of D.Britted forehand winners. And that’s about how the whole first set went. Five breaks of service in all, with VMS getting the last of them for a 6-4 first set victory. Britton’s reviews of various parts of the first set: “That is so bad. So bad.” And “that’s embarrassing!” Can’t say as I disagree, especially since Devin missed a few fairly easy volleys, and his net play is supposed to be the strength of his game.
After the set, I overhear an awesome conversation between ballkids about their chosen craft. Highlight: “If it’s coming right at us, can we move or do we just have to wear it?” “You can move.” “OK, but are we allowed to wear it? I wanna leave with a battle bruise.”
Heh. Tough kid.
Meanwhile, back to the bruising battle on court: the second frame found Britton landing all the punches. And Stoliarenko sufferered from a few self-inflicted blows, to add to the punishment. For instance, when he smacked a groundie long down break point in the first game. Or threw in his only double fault of the set to help the Britton to a double break lead.
For his part, Devin tightened up his game just enough to be effective. Serving at 3-0, 30-all, he consolidated his second break with a solid forehand crosscourt volley winner (on this, VMS told himself, “Just pass him once. If I hit right to his hand then I have to run.” Heh.) and an ace. After a few more errant Stoliarenko’ed groundstrokes, Britton got the triple break with a backhand down the line return winner and cruised to a 6-0 second stanza.
It seemed like Vlademyros was losing steam as the day itself got steamier. His tiniest bit of a gut indicated that fitness might be an issue. Further evidence: his four forehand errors that led to a break in the first game of the third set. During the change of ends, he did some dips on his chair and looked to be trying to stretch out his upper back as well – he’s had problems in the past with a dislocated vertebrae. Britton consolidated from 30-all next game with a rifled backhand up the line, putting an exclamation point at the end of a 20-shot rally, followed by an ace.
And just when it seemed he couldn’t break down anymore, Stoliarenko broke himself again: four more forehand errors, and the match was all but over. Sure, Britton made the final score a lot closer than it should have been, mucking up some games from 5-1* in the third, but in the end he was able to finally knock his opponent out, 4-6 6-0 6-4.
The beleaguered former NCAA champ never could get his game going, but he got better as the match progressed and played just well enough to win.
After that match, I was able to duck over to the lovely, shaded tents next to Forestmeadows Center Court to catch the second set of Wayne Odesnik’s match against the perpetually-petulant Daniel Garza, qualifying seventh seed from Mexico. As readers of this site well know, I was there for Odesnik’s first victory since coming back on the tour at the USA F4 Palm Coast. At the time, I was touched by how humbled and rededicated he seemed, how glad to be back he was, and I wanted to see how those good spirits were holding up here, in his second Challenger event since his return (he had qualified but then lost first round to Juan Pablo Brzezicki in Barranquilla).
Turns out, they weren’t holding up so great. I mean, Wayne got the “W”, sure, but he seemed a bit prickly and less thrilled to be back than he was when I’d last seen him. Granted, that was 14 matches and two continents ago, and I’m pretty sure it’s not fair to judge someone’s attitude based on behavior exhibited at the end of long match on a sweltering day. But it bears noting, I think: Wayne really struggled with the officiating (and, in turn, his temper) throughout the second set. (“Who’s calling this ball? How slow do you need it to be going before you overrule?! This lady’s missed two straight calls – you had to overrule off the net cord and it was THIS FAR OUT!”)
Odesnik was able to nab a break as Garza served at three all, with a forehand return down the line past a second-serve-and-volleying Daniel (the 26 year-old man from Mexico served and volleyed on almost every point of that game). Garza got the break back with a few fiery forehands in the very next game, but gave it away again with a dodgy double fault and an even dodgier drop shot that didn’t even make it halfway to the net. Three straight breaks then.
At 5-4, as Odesnik tried to serve out his match, he exhibited a fairly graceful-looking level of disdain at a particular baseline call…
Odesnik’s Dance Step Dispute
…then had a lively extended debate about it with the chair.
Wayne Dares You To Caption This Photo
Odesnik was able to serve the match out for a 6-4 6-4 win and then went on to play Britton later that day, winning handily 6-1 6-1. The latter result really didn’t surprise me based on the form I’d seen from both players in their previous matches. But I didn’t get to watch that one because I was witnessing by far the longest (and probably the most dramatic) match of the day: 20 year-old Canadian Vasek Pospisil vs. 24-year-old Hungarian Denes Lukacs (of course – what else would it be?).
Heck, just the first game was longer and more dramatic than most matches: eleven deuces, almost thirty minutes, two line-call controversies, and six break points saved before Pospisil held for 1-0 in the first set. Amazing. Vasek was tres exasperated, thinking he should’ve gotten out of the game a lot earlier but had been jobbed by a call. He kept saying something about “3 a.m.” which I took to be his estimate of what time the match would end. Which didn’t seem like a bad guess at the time.
Nothing Is Impospisil
The match picked up the pace slightly from there (hard not to do), but both players seemed sluggish and not altogether scintillating on the now-searing surface at 1:30pm. Lukacs, who played for four years as a Baylor Bear (which might be a key reason that Mate Zsiga is slated to play ball in Waco as well, as both are Hungarian), missed a sitter of a forehand on break point in the fifth game, and Vasek stood for long amounts of time between points, hunched over, hands on knees.
Such a slog it was, that I wrote the following sentence atop my trusty reporter’s notebook: “Whoever wins this first set, wins the match.” It seemed impossible at the time that either guy would be able to rebound from a first set loss to take a final two sets – Lukacs had already played an earlier match, beating Britain’s Matthew Short 6-3 6-3, and Pospisil already seemed worse for wear six games into his day.
This seemed to make the seventh game particularly crucial, as the Canadian made three errors off the ground from 3-all 30-0, and Denes got the first break with an inside-in forehand winner. A tired-looking, melting Pospisil barely moved for some serves in the following game, as the Hungarian easily consolidated to 5-3.
But then: with the Hungarian serving for the set at 5-4 deuce, Pospisil ripped a crosscourt backhand pass that was substantially slowed by the net cord but still landed in; Lukacs could’ve made a play on it, but he had stopped playing the point, figuring Vasek’s shot had beaten him off the racquet. By the time he realized he was still in the point, he wasn’t any longer. He followed with a forehand over the baseline and we were back all square in the first set, five games apiece.
The Canadian, bakin’, held to love for 5-6, and the Hungarian nibbled his way into a tiebreak with a point here and a point there, and – once in the TB – the man behind only Benjamin Becker on Baylor’s all-time wins list came roaring back from 1-3* down to take the next six points. First set to Lukacs, 76(3).
But the second set was when it really got interesting. That 30-minute first game from the first set? Yeah, that was merely an appetizer for all the drama to come. The second set began innocently enough, with three straight holds, during which time Lukacs good-naturedly asked the ump if he could get some salt sent to court, in an attempt to stave off cramps. I could tell Denes was looking a little stiff-legged and rickety out there, and one got the sense that Vasek might be able to find his way through his wavering foe, a set down or no.
A trainer was then called to the court, and the Hungarian began to receive treatment on the change of ends. The stated reason was a “left quad” injury. Pospisil was none too pleased by this turn of events: “You’re not allowed to call for a trainer before the opponent serves, you know? You realize you just made a mistake, right?” he inquired of the ch/ump. The chair said there was a distinction to be made between taking a medical time out for cramping or for another injury sustained during the match.
Meanwhile, the trainer asked the chair to start the clock for a MTO, his initial examination complete. After his discussion with Vasek, the chair ump wandered over to the trainer at Lukacs’ chair. “Is this a changeover or a medical time out?” he asked. “I told you to start the clock,” said the trainer. “And I did,” the ch/ump responded. “Well, I wouldn’t have told you to start it if it weren’t a medical time out.”
What a mess. The trainer assured Vasek that the time out was not for cramping.
Unsurprisingly enough, Pospisil was broken to love in the game immediately after these exchanges, and Lukacs held to 4-1* in the second. “I got here at three in the morning for this!” Vasek yelled. And at this point, I was all but planning my escape, as I was starting to overheat and I wasn’t even doing anything.
Denes really did look on his last legs at this point, however, and sure enough handed Posipil the break back with a double fault on break point serving at 4-2. The Canadian held to 15 to tie up the second set at 4-all, as Lukacs gimpily wandered around the baseline between points, looking lost.
Two holds later, the tension ever increasing, the Hungarian began to go for broke, realizing this was his last stand and if he could end points early and rip a couple of winners, he might still eke out a victory, bad quad and all. Lukacs fought his way back to deuce from 5-all 0-40, but wasn’t able to string enough points together to put together another hold. Instead, Vasek dug in and finally broke on his 6th break point chance of the game, then served out a dicey, deucey game, serving two aces from down 0-30 and taking the second set 7-5 on a netted Lukacs backhand.
From there, it was all but academic, as the Hungarian was a beaten man, spent both physically and mentally. Pospisil cruised in the final frame, winning 6-7(3) 7-5 6-1 in a mere 2 hours and 55 minutes. All of which means: I was totally wrong about what I wrote on top of my notebook.
Afterwards, when I asked him about the “3 a.m.” mentions, Vasek told me he had gotten in really late the night before, and that he “was really frustrated. I powered through, somehow. It’s tough – you don’t always get it the way you want it. I hadn’t played in the heat in a while. It wasn’t a great day for me but I pulled through, so I was lucky to do that.”
When I told him the “Fred Express” should have gotten him in a bit faster than 3am (for those not in the know, Vasek writes hilarious blog entries for Tennis Canada in which the driving habits of his coach, Fred Niemeyer, are called into question). Vasek told me Freddie wasn’t actually there yet, but was coming in later and after that he “won’t be late” anymore. Get out of the way if you see him coming, Tallahassee drivers!
So that’s day one in the books for me. Stay tuned more more just-as-riveting tales from Day Two – coming soon to a monitor near you!