Sunday, October 4, 2015

Smyczek gets the breaks in Tiburon thriller

Tiburon champion Tim Smyczek, third from left, and runner-up Denis Kudla,
far left, pose with their coach, Billy Heiser, second from left, and Heiser's father,
Bill, of the Heiser Tennis Academy in Tampa, Fla. Photo by Paul Bauman
   TIBURON, Calif. -- Apparently, the tennis gods didn't want Denis Kudla to beat his close friend and training partner, Tim Smyczek, today.
   But shotmaking, fitness and -- above all -- grit also had a lot to do with Smyczek's stunning victory in the final of the $100,000 Wells Fargo Tiburon Challenger.
   In a match even more sensational than the warm, sunny weather, the third-seeded Smyczek (pronounced smee-check) edged the top-seeded Kudla 1-6, 6-1, 7-6 (7) at the Tiburon Peninsula Club.
Smyczek saved four match points, bene-
fiting from the net cord twice, in the final.
Photo by Paul Bauman
   Smyczek saved four match points and Kudla one in the first all-American final in Tiburon since former Stanford star K.J. Hippensteel beat Kevin Kim in 2004. The Challenger then went on hiatus while the club was renovated, and the tournament returned in 2009.
   On Kudla's third match point, with Smyczek serving at 4-5 in the third set, Kudla slugged a deep shot to Smyczek's backhand. Smyczek's reply smacked the tape and dribbled over the net.
   On Kudla's fourth match point, with Smyczek serving at 6-7 in the tiebreaker, Kudla hit a backhand return of a first serve that struck the tape and bounced back.
   Smyczek followed with a forehand passing shot down the line to earn his second match point. Then Kudla, the only American man to reach the second week of Wimbledon this year, shanked a forehand way out to fall to 1-6 lifetime against Smyczek.
   But if Smyczek hadn't overcome a 5-2 deficit (one service break) in the third set and ripped passing shots on the first two match points against him, he wouldn't have been in a position to benefit later.  
   "I had to get pretty lucky there a few times to get (the win)," said Smyczek, who collected $14,400 for his fifth Challenger singles title and jumped 14 places to No. 98 in the world. "The better player might not have won, but thankfully I got through, and I'm happy to be going to Sacramento (for next week's $100,000 Challenger at the Natomas Racquet Club) on a good note."
   Kudla, playing his fourth three-setter in five tournament matches, received $8,480 and improved six spots to a career-high No. 67. He came within two points of losing in the first round to fellow American Connor Smith. It would have been Kudla's second straight opening-round defeat in Tiburon.
Kudla lamented his bad luck in the third set of the final.
Photo by Paul Bauman
   A disconsolate Kudla termed the loss to Smyczek "pretty disappointing. It was a little bit of an up-and-down match. I started off well and physically felt all the three-setters in the second set. I thought I did everything right in the third set. I just got unlucky. That's how sports works."
   Smyczek and Kudla -- who engaged in many long, hard-hitting rallies -- are very similar players. Both are undersized ATP World Tour veterans -- Kudla is 5-foot-11 (1.80 meters), and Smyczek is 5-foot-9 (1.75 meters) -- who rely on quickness and mental toughness. The biggest difference is age. Smyczek is four years older at 27.
   Smyczek, originally from Milwaukee, and Kudla, a Ukraine native who moved to the United States at 1, train together in Tampa, Fla. Both are coached by Billy Heiser, who attended today's final. 
   "It was an uncomfortable experience for me," Heiser admitted. "but it was even worse for them having to deal with playing each other. They obviously care about how each other does because they both work with me."
   Smyczek said he might not be so fortunate in Sacramento, where he's seeded fourth and could meet the top-seeded Kudla in the semifinals.     
   "I might have 50 net cords go against me next week," Smyczek said. "In my experience, they all eventually even out, so I'll prepare myself for a string of bad ones."
(Left to right) Doubles champions Frederik Nielsen and Johan Brunstrom,
runners-up Matt Reid and Carsten Ball, and tournament director Brendan
Curry pose with the ballkids. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Top-seeded Johan Brunstrom of Sweden and Frederik Nielsen of Denmark won the doubles title, beating fourth-seeded Carsten Ball and Matt Reid of Australia 7-6 (2), 6-1.
   It was a busy day for Nielsen, the 2012 Wimbledon doubles champion with Jonathan Marray of Great Britain. He defeated 6-foot-11 (2.11-meter) American Reilly Opelka, this year's Wimbledon boys singles champion, 6-2, 6-4 in the second round of qualifying in Sacramento before driving two hours to Tiburon for the doubles final.
  Ball and Reid lost in the Tiburon final for the second straight year. They fell to ex-Stanford star Bradley Klahn of Poway in the San Diego area and Adil Shamasdin of Canada in 2014. Ball won the title with Chris Guccione of Australia in 2011.
   Ball, a 6-foot-6 (1.98-meter) left-hander, was born in Newport Beach, Calif., and holds dual citizenship. His Australian father, Syd, reached the 1974 Australian Open doubles final with Bob Giltinan.

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