I had such a good response from our lefty yesterday, that I’m gonna keep it on the southpaw side today. And, like a lefty serving in the ad court, I’m gonna send a fairly vicious curveball your way regarding today’s selection.
Remember the whole “needs to be under 22-years-old, ranked between ATP #150-500” ground rules I bored you all with in Borna Coric’s pro-file? Well, a concerned citizen who may or may not be Colette Lewis contacted me to correctly point out that these criteria penalize those players who chose to play college ball (and thus inadvertently aged themselves out my demographic window by the time they turn pro).
I was quite thrilled to concede the point, as I have no shortage of college players who are well worthy of PTW honors. If you follow my W.A.T.C.H. Lists at all (and possibly even if you don’t), you’ll know that a sizable percentage of those who achieve career highs on the pro tour each and every week are guys who mixed it up on the collegiate courts.
Thus, midway through this year’s Player to Watch proceedings, I am instituting a new selection criterion: while a player must still be currently ranked between #150-500 to merit inclusion, I am subtracting a year from any player’s age for each year they competed collegiately.
Therefore, it brings me great joy to bring you a player who competed three years for THE Ohio State University, effectively reducing his age from 23 to to 20 for PTW purposes. I present to you the fifth Player to Watch for 2014, Mr. Blaz Rola.
Blaz has been on my radar for ages. My long-suffering tennis friends will attest that I’ve been going on and on (and on) about Slovenian tennis and how they’re the next Serbia-esque Davis Cup powerhouse for years and years (and years).*
Rola began his career wanting solely to play pro ball. And that he did, in 2010, when he went 36/17 on tour and took home two Futures titles to boot. He even debuted for said Davis Cup team, handing Bulgaria’s Valentin Dimov a breadstick and a bagel in a dead rubber, which sounds grosser than it is.
Even better: his Davis Cup teammates “prepared for him a special baptism. Only in his underwear and the words Slovenia on his head he had to interrupt the wedding party at a nearby wedding and to nearly a hundred people shout: ‘Three Slovenia, Bulgaria zero!’ (Thanks to this Slovenian article for that detail – I wonder if OSU hazing rituals are as colorful?)
During Rola’s first year on tour, on a recruiting trip to Germany to check out Croatian Dino Marcan, Ohio State tennis coach Ty Tucker saw Blaz and was impressed by his work ethic and his big lefty serve.
At first, Rola had no desire to play American college tennis, and left Tucker’s many subsequent emails unanswered. But after a slow start to that 2010 season, the rangy 6’4 (193cm) southpaw from Ptuj** went for a visit and fell in love with the university. As a bonus, his mother found the Roomba she’d been looking for, which maybe sealed the deal.
The rest is NCAA history, as Rola teamed with Chase Buchanan to win the 2012 NCAA doubles title (as well as become the only team in NCAA history to win all three major collegiate championships) and went on to take the singles crown this year, denying Jarmere Jenkins the triple crown — team, doubles and singles titles — in the process.
Meanwhile, when school wasn’t in session (Rola was also a 3-time OSU Scholar-Athlete as an International Business Administration major), Blaz was out schooling the rest of the pro tour, turning in a remarkable 47/10 record in the summer of 2012, amassing four more Futures titles and ending the year with a run through quallies and all the way to the semis of the Marbella Challenger.
This year, following his NCAA singles title, it’s been more of the same. He took a quick pit stop in Greece to win the gold medal at the Mediterranean Games before taking three more Futures titles, making deep semifinal runs in four Challengers (Tempere, Sao Paulo, Kenitra and Toyota), and coming up just short of the title in Rio de Janeiro. At Toyota, he also teamed with his old OSU pal Chase Buchanan to win the doubles title.
Gamewise, there really aren’t very many guys in the pros you can say play like Blaz. Unless you can name another big-serving lefty with a two-handed backhand, decent touch and above-average volleying, that is. Though I’m not wholly into the idea of comparisons, I’ll indulge you just this one time: to me, he’s like a left-handed version of another NCAA-er, Kevin Anderson.
And speaking of Mr. Anderson, check out what another Illini luminary, Amer Delic, had to say this summer:
He’s got easy power from a simple motion on serve, penetrating trajectory off both wings (although more so on the forehand side, of course), and can think his way around the tennis court. Amazing competitor, too.
There’s ample evidence of all of these assertions on YouTube, but let me point you to a few vids and you can take it from there. First, for those who only have a few minutes to watch, there’s the initial couple of games against Agustin Velotti in that Rio de Janeiro Challenger final:
Though he loses this match, all facets of his game are on display here. His favorite surface is clay, which is evident from the rallying here; though his serve can dominate in any given match, he’s far more than just a servebot. He’s an aggressive baseliner with selective all-court abilities — he’ll pick his spots and come forward when the situation calls for it.
If you’ve got more time on your hands (or your rear), why not see a match that already easily passes for a mid-week ATP-level affair (with a bonus of being the NCAA Championship match-up from this year) and help yourself to a little Rola v Jenkins at the ITA Indoors?
He started the year at #310 in the rankings and now occupies the #184 slot. He does plan on completing that degree someday, but in the meantime I predict that he’ll become the #1 Slovenian Blaz on the ATP Tour and will keep that title for some time to come.
*Said with a little tongue in cheek, but seriously: with Rola, Aljaz Bedene, Blaz Kavcic and Grega Zemlja, Slovenia has potentially four Top Hundred players, who — if a few can push their rankings into the Top 50 — can combine to produce World Group results, in my opinion.
**Which is a sound I’ve made often in life — especially on the tennis court.