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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Sarmiento Topples No. 1 Seed Kudla in Easter Bowl First Round

©Colette Lewis 2009--
Rancho Las Palmas, CA--

When top seed Denis Kudla and Raymond Sarmiento found themselves facing each other in the opening round of the Easter Bowl, it was an unlucky draw for both of them. Having recently spent five weeks together in Spain training with a group from the USTA, the longtime rivals and friends would undoubtedly have preferred to meet deeper in the tournament.

As they took to court 2 Tuesday afternoon, the notorious Palm Springs winds had begun to howl, and although the conditions may have contributed to more shanks and mishits, they didn't diminish the drama one bit. When it was over, Sarmiento had saved two match points en route to a 2-6, 7-5, 7-6(6) victory.

In the first set, Sarmiento struggled with the wind and keeping his shots in the court, but in the second set, he played less tentatively and began to drive balls through the wind.

In the third, he broke Kudla in the first game, but lost the lead in the sixth game, and Kudla held for 4-3. Sarmiento went down 0-40 in the next game, which went to five deuces, but he saved a total of five break points, with key serves and well-executed volleys when it counted. After Kudla held for 5-4, Sarmiento again fell behind serving, and at 15-40, he had no margin for error. On the first match point, Sarmiento stroked a first serve winner, and on the second, Kudla's backhand found the net. At deuce, Sarmiento hit a blazing backhand winner down the line, and got out of trouble when, on the next point, Kudla's backhand was wide.

After Kudla held, Sarmiento earned his way into the tiebreaker with another backhand winner down the line at 40-30, and a large crowd began to gather around the brick staircase that overlooks court 2.

Sarmiento got out to 5-2 lead in the tiebreaker, and leading 5-3, he had a chance to earn three match points when Kudla shanked a ball nearly straight up in the air. It blew over to Sarmiento's side of the net, and as he waited inside the service line for the ball to come down, the crowd held its collective breath. When he missed the overhead, there was a loud groan from those watching, but little reaction from Sarmiento.

"I just smiled it off," he said.

It certainly didn't affect his confidence, as he put an overhead away on the next point, to take a 6-4 lead.

Kudla wasn't finished however, with a wild forehand by Sarmiento and a backhand volley miss saving those two match points. The first real sign of nerves from Kudla came on the next point, when he double faulted, and then missed a backhand on the next point to give Sarmiento the win.

"Of course I was nervous in the tiebreak," said Sarmiento, who called today's win one of his best. "But it was a great match. I cared to win, but win or lose, it was a great match. We're really good friends, before and after the match."

A sign of that friendship and respect was the lack of discussion on line calls, as neither player questioned the other's calls, and often, on exceedingly important points, gave the other "the benefit of the doubt," as Sarmiento put it.

When it was over, Sarmiento shook hands and walked back to the sidelines with his hand on Kudla's shoulder, not reveling in the victory, but recognizing the disappointment his friend must be feeling.

"I knew it was going to be a great match," Sarmiento said. "He's a great player, and we both played well. It was a pretty big win."

Sarmiento wasn't the only player to save a match point on Tuesday. No. 14 seed Brooke Bolender was down 5-6 in the second set tiebreaker against wild card Brittany Augustine before earning a 4-6, 7-6(7), 6-1 victory in girls 18s second round action. Ellen Tsay, the 2008 16s Easter Bowl champion, didn't save any match points, but she had an impressive comeback in her 5-7, 7-6(4), 6-0 win over No. 7 seed Mallory Burdette. Gabrielle De Simone outlasted No. 11 seed Monica Puig 7-5, 6-7(2), 6-4 in a long, emotional contest.

Other than Kudla, the only boys seed to lose on Tuesday was No. 16 Campbell Johnson, who fell to Dan McCall 6-4, 6-3.

The No. 2 seed in the boys 14s, Joseph Di Giulio, lost in Tuesday's third round to Ryan Smith of Florida, a 17 seed, 2-6, 6-4, 6-2, in a marathon match. Girls 16s No. 3 seed Blair Shankle was beaten by Shayne Austin 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 in another lengthy match at Rancho Las Palmas.

For more coverage of the tournament, see easterbowl.com.

For complete 14s, and 16s results, see the TennisLink site. For the ITF results, click here.