And so it actually, finally, began. After braving blizzards, car trouble, and a mixed bag of calamities, our brave reporter (hint: that’s me) finally made it to see some actual tennis. What a concept. I slalomed around the various nefarious Floridumb strip malls to the oasis that is the Woodmont Country Club in Tamarac, FL – the site of the second annual *deep breath* Lawrence D. Share Company $10,000 Championships at Synergy Tennis Academy. Or, if you’re short of breath, the USA F2 Futures.

The site itself is top notch, and the organization seems superb. The twenty-court facility featured play on four of its “clay” courts on this Wednesday, having caught up on a backlogged schedule from a waterlogged Monday washout. The two main courts – the innovatively-named “Court 1” and “Court 2” – are separated by a raised, wide partition upon which random chairs and ceramic-y picnic tables are interspersed; a very spectator-friendly setup. Even better, the area between the featured back courts (Courts 9 and 10, if you’re scoring at home) has a shaded gazebo under which I could protect my blindingly pasty fresh-from-the-Northeast skin. Bonus!

I arrived just in time to see one of my 2011 Challenger Tennis Player To Watch selections, Dennis Kudla start his F2-ing against the tourney’s top seed, Victor Estrella. Estrella, the 30 year-old Dominican Republican (or perhaps he’s a Dominican Democrat – I didn’t ask), had finished his 2010 season on quite a roll, winning three straight Dom Rep Futures events (15 matches in all) before losing his final match of the year. All of which was good enough to land him a career high world ranking of 211 – not a bad achievement for someone entering his fourth decade. So I was eager to see how the rising star would fare against the established vet.

Turned out, not so well. At least to begin with. Two backhands into the net and a forehand long saw the 18-year-old Virginian broken in the first game of the match. Kudla then had two breakback points straightaway in the second game (after Estrella shot himself in the foot with the dreaded mediocre-drop-shot-to-awful-lob combo), but Victor found his way out of trouble with a framed volley and an ace erase to deuce and held from there.

The top seed – who the chair umpire seemed to call “Australia” (to my ears), in an obvious fit of Grand Slam fever – looked sharp early, hitting a heavy ball and knifing away the volleys he didn’t frame, while Denis struggled to find his range and/or mojo, seeming initially uncomfortable with conditions and his game on the day. The fleet-footed Dominican prefers to favor the ad court and load up on the forehand side whenever possible, but his heavily-sliced one-handed backhand is suitable to the Tamarac court, staying nice and low. Kudla is less averse to play off both wings, and he started to settle into the match midway through the first set. Though he had a few back-breaking opportunities throughout the set, in the end he was broken a second time as Estrella took the first 6-3.

Ever the supporter of my PTW’s in distress, I bailed and decided to see what else was going on around the grounds. I wanted to see how one of my almost-PTW’s, Pierre-Hugues Herbert, was faring against Phil Simm(ond)s (I myself have a touch of NFL playoff fever – deal). Turns out, not so well. The gangly 19 year-old showed some cliched French flair (drop-shotting four times in one game, venturing to net behind cheekily sliced forehands – you know the drill), but lost the first set to the 24 year-old American, who offered up my favorite bit of vocal self-coaching: “Really? REALLY?? RELAX!!!” It worked: Simmonds took the first set 6-4.

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