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By Kent Oswald

(August 19, 2010) While some American tennis fans may have their eyes cast down in anguish at the historic lack of Yanks among the top 10 men, others are finding new pleasure by looking into the horizon. In the hunt for a year end No. 1 ranking among the world’s juniors is Denis Kudla, who celebrated his 18th birthday on Tuesday. He is sharp-thinking, quick-footed, right-handed and born in Kiev but took some of his earliest steps in Arlington, Va. and he's already had a taste of playing on an iconic sporting stage: Madison Square Garden.

Kudla took up tennis because "I always wanted to follow my brother. He was being taught by dad ... and I kind of just followed." In doing so he began creating a resume that now includes multiple USTA gold balls, membership in the cup-claiming 2008 Junior Davis Cup team and hitting partner last march for the U.S. Davis Cup team.

As a side note, he is also one of a promising crop of young Americans like Mitchell Frank, who is also a presence in the ITF world Top 20. Earlier this year, that group also included Junior Ore, who, like Kudla and Mitchell, trains at the Junior Tennis Champion Center in College Park, Md. Kudla and the left-handed Ore squared off in Madison Square Garden as the undercard to the Pete Sampras vs. Roger Federer exhibition match a few years back and stuck around to watch the two Grand Slam champions play.

Frank Salazar, the 2008 USOC Developmental Coach of the Year, has worked with Kudla since the then 8-year-old stood out with his athleticism at a JTCC semi-annual open audition. He credits Kudla’s ability as a "tactician" for the rise through the rankings from nowhere to the low 100s in the U.S. as a 12-year-old to claiming his first No. 1 in the USTA 14s to today. Salazar says the prize pupil was, "always a good mover; he's always had very good instincts on how to cover court ... and he's quick." Most important for someone looking toward the next level, he has "progressed tremendously in the last year." In addition to taking his game to new levels, Kudla has put on about 15 pounds of muscle, with much of it settled in his legs and core within the past year in the last year and settling into a late growth spurt taking him a bit shy of six feet.

Kudla’s a bit more modest about his rise: "I've been working so hard my whole life to become the best tennis player I could be. …Things just fell in place."

Currently in the low 600s on the ATP tour, he turned pro this past January, having captured both the Eddie Herr and Casablanca titles to end 2009 and raise his junior ranking to a career best No.3. This year he has mixed the junior slams with futures tournaments, a few challengers and a rare Tour wild card. (Kudla claimed his first ATP-level win in Newport earlier this year over Spain’s Santiago Ventura before losing to Ryan Harrison .)  While this has given him invaluable experience, proof that his mental game is not yet rock solid emerged at the just-completed USTA Nationals in Kalamazoo where rain delays and perhaps the pressure of playing for top ranking caused him to drop match points and a 4-2 third-set tie break lead in a semifinal round loss.

The transition has also included signing with the Lagardere Agency  and Lacoste. He moved to Tecnifibre from the Wilson team and in doing so showed a capability in the video that few pros and almost no juniors have by making sure to prominently display a sponsor’s logo on camera. As Salazar explains, "…he's very professional. He understands what his goals are; what his objectives are. He's not afraid to deal with adversity and accept challenges."

As for on-court hurdles, both coach and player agree. "The biggest challenge right now is improving my fitness," says Kudla. "[When you get] into points, you have to have strength and hold your core position. …In today's sport, everyone has talent."

Some, of course, have a bit more than others. "Obviously I love Federer," says Kudla. "I know my game is not the same. Recently, I've been looking at Baghdatis a lot. I play pretty similar to and can learn from Hewitt as well. They've used their tools to the maximum level."

If his fitness holds, Kudla believes his success will come primarily because, "I'm able to use my mind to have five, six plans to winning a match rather than have one plan and maybe a backup plan," However, "I need to control my mind. I might think too far ahead ... three, four shots ahead and that will affect the shot I am hitting right now."

While he imagines college might fit into his life someday, it is not an option for right now. As the home-schooled Kudla tells it, "my parents actually wanted me to go pro. [They] didn't want me to go to college. They said you should follow your dream. …You only have once chance to go pro."

Salazar mentions Georgia grad John Isner as a good example of someone able to grow into his game and put matches at more competitive levels under his belt. However, college is rarely the path if you want to compete at the highest level.

"Spain probably has 50 juniors playing satellite at 15," Salazar says. "Three or four break out and the rest get into coaching or come to the U.S. to play college." There’s a different hunger in teens from other countries. "You can see that other than Jordan [Cox] and Denis, everyone else [from America] is going to college;  you can see their mind is on football games and hanging out."

Coach and player (and fortunately player’s family) agree. Men’s tennis is deep right now (even in America where Andy Roddick is World No. 13, Isner is No. 19 and Sam Querrey is No. 21). It has sped up and requires an ever-greater levels of fitness, as well as the use of film and technologies to help dissect strokes and deconstruct opponents’ games. If you are going to major in tennis then it should be on the tour and not at college. Still, Kudla is enough a realist to know that the life of a tennis pro, "…is such a risk. If you go to college, I would have a bunch of opportunities to go to great schools and have my life set. …What made me want to go pro; I knew college would always be there."

Patrick McEnroe, USTA General Manager Of Player Development and former Stanford standout, points to Isner as an example of how college can help a player's maturation process but also points out a competitive junior climate created at places like the Junior Champions Tennis Center, can produce better players by raising the competitive bar.

"I'm not convinced a country or a system can produce a champion, but I am convinced with a better system or program you can produce better players," McEnroe says. "Clearly getting more talented athletes the opportunity to play is the biggest challenge because you can coach a kid all you want and train a kid and A. if they don't have the desire and B. don't have the physical skills then it's hard to make it to the top these days. I do think you can create a more cohesive system and coaching that will produce better players and that will make the possibility of champions having a better chance to come through. When John (McEnroe) was growing up there were a lot of players who could compete with him and beat him and that made him a better. Venus and Serena didn't come through a system, but they had each other. If you can raise the bar overall then your chances of finding those great player are better."

What drives Kudla now is testing himself and the competition, all of whom will be at the U.S. Open juniors beginning September 6th on preview for the tennis horizon. "I feel like my age has some of the most talent [in many years]. Our age in the whole world ... there are so many kids who have so much talent. Maybe 10 or 15 of us can really make it to the top."

Kent Oswald is the producer of the
Jock Book Review, the former editor of Tennis Week and a long-time tennis journalist. He lives in New York. His previous features for Tennis Now are: Review: Patrick McEnroe's Hardcourt Confidential; Roger Federer As Philosophical Force And other Tennis Tenets; and Rapp On SAP: Behind The Scenes In San Jose.


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