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Friday, August 31, 2012

Novikov Loses Tight Battle with No. 31 Seed Benneteau; Johnson Reaches Third Round; Nine US Players in Final Round of Junior Qualifying

©Colette Lewis 2012--
Flushing Meadows, NY--

Dennis Novikov wasn't expecting his second round US Open main draw match against No. 31 seed Julien Benneteau of France would one of the night variety that New York is famous for. Scheduled for the third match on Court 11 in the day session, Novikov had to wait so long for Lleyton Hewitt to finish his four and a half hour win over Gilles Muller that he was forced to warm up a second time. But the long wait was no problem for the 18-year-old Kalamazoo champion, as he took the first set before ultimately falling 3-6, 6-4, 7-6(1), 7-5.

With few other matches still in progress as the day session drew to a close, plenty of fans stopped by to assess whether a UCLA sophomore could hang with a seeded veteran on one of the sports biggest stages. No matter whether they stayed for a few games or for the final two sets, as I did, they saw convincing evidence that Novikov was up to the task.

After Benneteau had taken the second set, both players held serve in the third until 4-4. The 30-year-old Benneteau, who felt victimized by several overruled line calls,  also seemed frustrated that he couldn't shake his younger opponent. At 4-all, he double faulted three times, and needed to save four break points, but as shaky as his second serve was on occasion, his first serve bailed him out often.  Novikov saved a break point himself in the next game with a good first serve, but in that subsequent tiebreaker, he couldn't buy a first serve, while Benneteau served well and hit winners when he wasn't hitting aces.

Novikov was broken to start the fourth set, looking discouraged and confused by the previous five minutes, and Benneteau kept his form taking a 3-1 lead.  Novikov got the break back with Benneteau serving at 3-2, needing six break points to get it. Every time Novikov got the ad, Benneteau would come up with a big serve, but on the sixth, Benneteau finally missed his first serve and Novikov crushed a backhand winner.

"I had a lot of break opportunities throughout the whole match," said Novikov. "It wasn't like I missed an easy ball or something, just gave it way. He usually came up with a big serve or a good serve and follow it up with another shot."

At 4-4, Novikov, who had 14 aces including one clocked at 135 mph, saved a break point with a service winner, and finished the game with an 124-mph ace. Benneteau had only a small cheering section, nothing like the number supporting Novikov with chants of Dennis, Dennis and USA, USA, and they were relieved when he held for 5-5. Novikov, still serving big, including a 132 mph ace, took a 40-15 lead, but Benneteau kept the pressure on, forcing a couple of forehand errors to earn a break point. Novikov saved one with a service winner, but his normally reliable backhand produced two consecutive errors and Benneteau had the lead.

Benneteau made all his first serves in the final game, and when he stroked a forehand winner at 40-0, he raised both arms in the air and let out a loud roar of happiness and relief. He will play No. 2 seed and defending champion Novak Djokovic in the third round.

Novikov, who signed into the tournament as an amateur and will not be accepting any prize money, says he isn't surprised by his results this week.

"I always felt I could compete at a high level, it was just maintaining it for more than two, three matches," he said. "I've always had good wins, but I needed to do it throughout a whole tournament or multiple days in a row. So I felt this summer that I could do that."

As for what Benneteau could do that he couldn't, Novikov had a ready assessment.

"I think he moved better than me," Novikov said. "I definitely have to improve my movement. But I felt I hit the ball bigger than him, served bigger than him. His movement was definitely better than mine and that's where he outplayed me. I concentrate on strengths, to keep them my strengths, but I also have to improve my weaknesses."

Novikov isn't done competing in New York just yet however.

"I liked the tournament overall. It was a great experience for me. I still have doubles tomorrow (with Michael Redlicki), so hopefully I can prolong the experience."

Earlier in the day, NCAA champion Steve Johnson reached the third round, beating Ernests Gulbis of Latvia 6-7(3), 7-6(5), 6-3, 6-4. He will play No. 13 seed Richard Gasquet of France, who defeated Bradley Klahn 6-3, 6-3, 6-1.  Mallory Burdette's run came to an end, when she lost to No. 3 seed Maria Sharapova 6-1, 6-1.

The day's results can be found at the tournament website.

In US Open junior qualifying, three of the 11 boys made it through to the second and final round, all of them wild cards. Fourteen-year-olds Michael Mmoh and Francis Tiafoe won, as did Mitch Stewart, the Kalamazoo 16s semifinalist.

Six of the 12 US girls in action won their first round qualifying matches Friday, including wild cards Nicole Frenkel, Louisa Chirico, Rasheeda McAdoo and Emma Higuchi.  Higuchi had an impressive 2-6, 6-1, 6-4 victory over No. 4 seed Indy de Vroome of the Netherlands, who was ranked No. 7 in the ITF juniors at the beginning of this year.  Denise Starr(16) and Tornado Black(11) also advanced to the final round of qualifying.

For complete results, see the ITF junior website.