OK, people.

This site has already given a lot of deserved attention to this year’s USTA Wildcard Playoff Runner-up, Jack Sock. And practically every other tennis site has already given a lot of deserved attention to the WC winner (for two straight years), Ryan Harrison. But spare a thought for 18 year-old semifinalist Denis Kudla, won’t you? After all, he was the top-ranked U.S. junior, and he’s the guy ranked almost 400 spots higher than that guy who beat him in the semis (Sock won 6-2 7-5). For that – and a whole bunch of other reasons – Denis Kudla is a 2011 Challenger Tennis Player To Watch.

Let’s start at the end: the end of last year, when Denis won two of his final three junior tournaments of 2009 (and he might have run the table had he not had to retire at 0-2 in the 3rd set of his R16 Orange Bowl match). And these weren’t just any old tournaments; Kudla took the titles at the Eddie Herr International, where he beat Marton Fucsovics in a gutsy three-set showing, and the Grade A Casablanca Junior Cup, where he beat then #1 world junior Juan Sebastian Gomez 7-6(6) 6-2.

At the beginning of this year, Denis described himself primarily as a counterpuncher who liked to try and move forward from time to time but who could change up his game if he needed to.  Then fast forward to the end of the summer, when he expressed a desire to try and make the forecourt even more of a factor in his day-to-day play. “When I’m playing well, I like to move forward, and it’s something that I want to make consistent in my game,” he said. “I think that if I keep doing it, it could take me to the top level.”

Part of this new, aggressive mindset has to be due to Kudla’s pure physical transformation in the past year or so. Which is a fancy way of saying: he’s grown a lot. He’s become stronger and he’s filled out some. One of the reasons I’m so sold on Denis’ potential is he’s a bit of a late bloomer, physically, and yet he’s still been able to get big-time results. While a kid like Jack Sock was already a fairly hulking specimen at 16/17 years old and may not have much more growing to do, one only has to see the difference between Denis now and, say, a year ago to conclude he’s just beginning to hit his physical stride, and may have a fair farther distance to travel down that road. So if he’s getting these kinds of results while not being near his full physical potential, well – look out, tour, I say.

Another great thing about Kudla is his work ethic – I’ve never heard or read one person busting on Denis for not giving his best effort, both on and off the court. Perhaps it’s because he wasn’t a big specimen early that contributed to his scrappiness and his dogged determination, whether it be in drills, in the gym, or grinding through a long rally or match. Regardless, this quality will serve him in good stead as the Kiev-born, Northern Virginia boy tries to weather the sometimes-difficult transition from juniors to pros.

Want to hear another reason I’m backing this guy for 2011? Good, because I happen to have one right here: his ambition. Denis wants to be Number One in the world, and to try to win multiple Slams. He doesn’t want be Top 20. He’s not looking to be Top 10. Number one, baby. He aims high, and he believes he can do it. And belief is the foundation of reality, no?

His hope at the start of 2010 was to end the year in the Top 200, which is an incredibly bold goal for a 17 year-old ranked outside the Top 1000 to have. He hedged a bit later on and started saying Top 500, which is fine; because that’s where he is now, after a 27/18 season in which he took home his first Futures title in Austin, TX just one month after losing to you know who (Mr. Sock) in the US Open boys final (he’s #494 as of this writing, to be specific).

And even though Kudla had to settle for attaining his next-best goal, his current ranking still makes him the second youngest player in the Top 500, behind only Bernard Tomic. But you get the sense that Kudla doesn’t ever want to settle, and that kind of hunger will help him overcome many of the obstacles he’ll face in the upcoming year.  Don’t want to take my word for it? I don’t blame you. But here’s what Director of USTA Player Development Patrick McEnroe had to say in a special for the USA Today: “Just to see a kid like Denis Kudla battling Saturday and competing the way he did against Jack was really good for him. Even though he lost, he’s getting better and constantly improving.” You see? Even PMac says so.

Before we move on, check out this video from the awesome National Junior Team vs. USC “exhibition” in March, where Denis is playing 2009 National Indoor Intercollegiate champ (and 2010 finalist) Steve Johnson in a Super TB (Kudla’s in the far court to start):

Too bad the video runs out (although Denis probably wishes it did a few seconds before he almost served it over the baseline).  Kudla won the TB (and with it the match) 11-9.

Onward we move…

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