The Sixth Set

Tracing Brian Baker’s Footsteps: Alex Kuznetsov wins Sarasota

Sunday’s final of the Sarasota Open, a 100k ATP Challenger Series event, featured an all-American battle between Alex Kuznetsov and Wayne Odesnik. The first of a three-event playoff for the USTA’s French Open wildcard, awarded to the player with the highest aggregate points total between the clay court events in Sarasota, Savannah and Tallahassee, the tournament was very significant for those lower-ranked Americans battling for a berth in a Grand Slam main draw.

Facing a stacked field that included talented young Americans Ryan Harrison, Jack Sock, Tim Smyczek, Rhyne Williams and Steve Johnson, as well as veteran Michael Russell, Kuznetsov wasn’t on many people’s radars entering the week. With a ranking of 271, the 26-year-old was forced to battle through qualies to even have a shot at competing for the title. Seeded second in the qualifying draw, however, he proceeded to cruise through both his matches against rather undermatched competition.

Kuznetsov would be placed in the top half of the main draw, with world number 91 Benjamin Becker his first round opponent. What the American did next was pretty remarkable. After routinely dispatching Becker, he gutted out a pair of hard-fought three setters against in-form countrymen Tim Smyczek and Steve Johnson in the second round and quarterfinals. Then, Kuznetsov battled back from down a set to upset former world number 62 Somdev Devvarman in the semis. Reaching the final of a tournament as a qualifier, regardless of its level in the professional tennis hierarchy, is an impressive feat.  Then, rattling off the opening 10 games of the final is downright obscene, especially against someone who was 6-1 in Challenger finals coming in (even if his name is Wayne Odesnik). Kuznetsov dominated Sunday’s championship bout from start to finish, to the tune of a 6-0 6-2 victory.

Let me put this title in perspective. Kuznetsov’s three career Challenger victories, in 2006, 2009 and 2011, all came on hard courts. Since turning pro in 2004, he had won a combined 31 matches on clay on all levels. Compare that to 155 wins he amassed on hard. Also, having entered Sarasota mired in a six-match losing streak, with just three match wins in his last nine tournaments, when I said he was under the radar I wasn’t kidding.

Winning the Sarasota title was an emotional and highly gratifying moment for Kuznetsov, considering his long and arduous journey. Born in Kiev, Ukraine, he was once labeled “the next big thing in American tennis” by renowned coach and current ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert. As a top junior, he achieved a ranking of four in 2004 and most notably reached the final of the French Open boys’ singles tournament, where he would lose to Gael Monfils in straight sets. He was also a runner-up at both the 14s Orange Bowl and Easter Bowl tournaments and won the title at the 18s Easter Bowl. Needless to say, he was prime to take American tennis to new heights.

Unfortunately, Kuznetsov’s career trajectory was dealt a significant blow just one year later. In May of 2005, he was injured in a car accident at the Saddlebrook Tennis Resort, near Tampa, Florida. According to his ATP profile, he was alone in a rented Mustang when he lost control of the vehicle and hit a tree, breaking his right femur. A titanium rod was placed in his leg and the young American would never materialize into the star Gilbert had foreseen. The phenom would eventually reach a career-high ranking of 158, in 2007, and has only played in 20 matches on the ATP World Tour level. The road to redemption has been slow and undoubtedly frustrating.

Competing in just four Grand Slam main draws in his career, you might remember him from his 2012 Australian Open first round encounter with Rafael Nadal. Armed with a solid forehand, compact two-handed backhand and decent agility, Kuznetsov managed to make the first set rather competitive, but would eventually fall 6-4, 6-1, 6-1. Check out some of the match highlights here.

So, here we are now. Nearly eight years after his car accident, Kuznetsov is leading the American contingent vying for the USTA’s French Open wildcard. If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone.

Just a year ago, Brian Baker received the wildcard into the French Open after winning the Savannah Challenger. While the wildcard playoff format has changed, now including the Sarasota and Tallahassee events as well, the storyline remains eerily similar. Like Kuznetsov, Baker was an immensely talented and highly touted junior, having reached the French Open boys final as well (the year before young Alex did) and ascending to the No. 2 ranking. A rash of injuries and surgeries, however, including hip, hernia and Tommy John, derailed Baker’s career. Then, last year, the current world number 61 won Savannah as a qualifier and would win his first Grand Slam main draw match in seven years, a month later. While Kuznetsov is not yet assured of receiving the USTA’s wildcard, he can draw inspiration from his fellow American’s comeback after years of adversity. Baker’s story is as remarkable as they come, and following his performance in Sarasota there is no reason why Kuznetsov can’t replicate his resurgent success.

The Pennsylvania resident will next travel up I-95 to Savannah for the second leg of the wildcard competition. Armed with a special exempt direct entry into the tournament, a top-200 ranking and a newfound confidence and belief, Alex has proved that with hard work and determination no obstacle is too great to overcome.

If you want to follow Alex’s French Open quest, he opens this week’s event against big serving Ivo Karlovic, on Tuesday, and could potentially face former world number seven Mardy Fish in the quarterfinals.

UPDATE: Alex has since  reached the quarterfinals in Savannah and just clinched the USTA’s Men’s French Open Wildcard, in Tallahassee.

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