The word of the day at day one of this year’s Elizabeth Moore Sarasota Open was “intrigue.” I was absolutely intrigued on several fronts. First of all, the event is now at a new venue – The United Tennis Club on the El Conquistador Parkway – just a mile or so around the corner from IMG Academy. And the event seems to fit perfectly into the small quarters of the facility which has staged various exhibitions over the years including Rod Laver vs Warren Girle back in the 1970s.
But this year there are many super talents in the main draw and also qualies. Top seed Stefan Kozlov won his first round against Sathi Reddy Chirala 6060. Chirala got a wildcard and his making his return to pro tennis after “seven years” hiatus. Chirala told me he used to beat guys like Yuki Bhambri when he was fourteen and fifteen. But he ran into a perfect Kozlov who is eager to get back on track after a disappointing stretch in Delray Beach, Indian Wells and Miami and a Mexican Challenger where he lost to Steve Johnson, Donald Young and teenager Miomir Kecmanovic. Kozlov will play wildcard Axel Geller today for the main draw spot. Geller was involved in the last match of the day, a marathon 46 63 76 win over Ricardo Rodriguez Pace of Venezuela.
Tommy Paul’s struggles continued as he lost to Jose Hernandez Hernandez 60 36 63. JHH is the guy Paul whooped easily in straight sets at the US Open qualies two years ago.
Now to the two players who really intrigued. Roy Smith (photo above) is an eighteen year old tall black lefty from New Haven, CT. Smith has played only sporadic junior events and has no ranking. But he will have a free ride to Baylor University in the fall which is amazing as most all of college scholarships are allotted via junior rankings.
Smith is about 6 ft 3 and possesses a huge forehand and serve and also a good solid long two handed backhand. A USTA wildcard into this his third ATP Challenger qualifying event, Smith actually had two set points in the first set against Germany’s Sami Reinwein but ultimately lost 76 61. You can just see the weapons and the potential in this raw talent who is still getting used to playing at this the highest level of tennis, the professional circuit. One wonders what Smith will be able to do with USTA backing and top flight coaching. Smith’s mom Sonjie travels with her son but she did not play tennis nor did her husband who played football at a college in Connecticut. Roy Smith liked tennis and basketball and decided to focus on tennis in his early teens.
The other player who stood out was Collins Johns who is the only professional player in the world to use two forehands. Johns is a natural right-hander who started tennis rather late at 14 and could not get the hang of a backhand so he decided to go with the lefty forehand. Johns, 23, is a native of Maryland and played for years at the famous JTT Ray Benton Academy where he says he used to play every day with Frances Tiafoe when Tiafoe was around 13 and he was 16.
Yesterday, Johns lost the first set 06 to former top hundred player Blaz Rola who was the NCAA champ at Ohio State and also played Andy Murray first round at Wimbledon (of which we spoke about for Facing Murray book). But Johns turned the tables in the second set and won it 63. Johns told me he caught Rola by surprise with improved play but then Rola raised his level in the third with big serving.
Johns said his best win was over Blake Mott of Australia, who once made the main draw of the Australian Open. He just returned from Japan where he played tournaments for five weeks, on his own without a coach for five weeks. Johns said his best career payday was $3000 for making the finals of a money event in the Virginia area. He also plays money tournaments in Florida to sustain his pro aspirations. Johns has a coach in Maryland who doesn’t travel with him and he also has a base in Naples, FL.
Though he uses two forehands he only uses one hand (right) to volley when he comes to net. Johns described his lefty forehand as more spinny then the right hand forehand but at times he says it can be more consistent. It was fascinating to see how flowingly he pulls off both shots in the same point and it’s so elegantly smooth that at first you don’t even notice. My friend and I were watching the match for at least five minutes before either of us really noticed that we were actually watching the only professional player on the planet who uses forehands off both wings!
And yes, Johns did confirm the unique distinction is his very own. “There was a guy in Europe, I think Belgium who played with two forehands but he stopped playing,” said Johns.
Adding to the intrigue of the day was seeing Mario Ancic on the grounds. The former 2004 Olympic bronze medalist in doubles and winner of three ATP tournaments (s-Hertogenbosch twice in 2005, 2006; and St Petersburg 2006) was watching Jurgen Melzer practice. Ancic is down in Bradenton for the weekend to support his old coach Fredric Rosengren who is working with Melzer. Ancic is an investment banker in New York City and lives in Soho. Ancic shared his memories about Facing Murray.
Carling Bassett-Seguso and Robert Seguso were also in the house watching the action. I also saw Petr Korda hitting briefly with his son Sebastien who earned a wildcard into the main draw and will play a qualifier.
Other results yesterday: Marcos Giron beat 3 seed Federico Coria of Argentina 63 62. Bradley Klahn defeated Mark Oljaca 63 63. John Patrick Smith won against Ryan Shane 63 62.
Interesting main draw first round matches include:
Leonardo Mayer vs Adam Pavlasek
Jurgen Melzer vs Darian King
Reilly Opelka vs Tennsy Sandgren
Jared Donaldson vs Dennis Novikov
Denis Kudla vs Gerald Melzer
Miomir Kecmanovic vs McKenzie McDonald
Frances Tiafoe vs Mitchell Krueger
Michael Mmoh vs Peter Polansky
Christian Harrison vs qualifier
Other sightings yesterday were Opelka hitting with Krueger with Klahn watching and chatting with both (he said Noah Rubin may need wrist surgery). McDonald hitting with Sandgren. Donaldson hitting with an unknown partner, grunting while practicing serves. Jan-Michael Gambill observing.
Conversation evesdropped in the locker room adjacent to the rest room.
‘How was the match/”
“Not so good.”
“Who did you play?”
“Are you in the qualies?”
“No. Main draw.”