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Saturday, February 20, 2016

Opelka, Cernoch Move into Third Round of Qualifying in Plantation; Loeb and Bellis in Surprise Final; Ram, Querrey Make Delray Final

©Colette Lewis 2016--
Plantation, FL--

One Futures tournament in Plantation is wrapping up, with Victor Hanescu of Romania and Juan Carlos Saez of Chile playing for the singles title on Sunday, but 32 players are still alive in the qualifying for next week's tournament at the Frank Veltri Tennis Center, including teenagers Reilly Opelka and Brian Cernoch.

Cernoch played two Futures qualifying tournaments in Florida last January as a 15-year-old, winning a total of three matches.  He stuck to junior events until this month's two Futures in Plantation, losing in the first round last week, but picking up his second win today, beating fellow teen Robert Loeb 6-4, 6-3. 

"Last week I lost in the first round of qualies 6-3 in the third, like a three-hour match," said Cernoch. "But I played really well. This week, my first round of qualies (a 7-6(3), 5-7, 6-3 win over No. 6 seed Maciej Rajski of Poland), I had the exact same score, but I was able to turn it around."

Although he faced another junior player in Loeb today, those like Rajski, who is 24 years old, are providing Cernoch with a different side of the game.

"I want to get experience playing professionals and it's a different atmosphere out here," Cernoch said. "Everybody has a different style, everybody competes for every single point because they're playing for money, for their living.  In the juniors, a lot of players just go away, when they're losing, because it doesn't really matter to them."

The left-hander from Maryland will face a player with years of professional experience in the third round of qualifying on Sunday: unranked Martin Alund of Argentina, a 30-year-old who in 2013 reached a career-high of 84 in the ATP rankings, and has lost only two games in two qualifying matches.

Cernoch, who trains at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park Maryland, will stay in Florida for a USTA training session in Boca Raton before heading to Brazil for the Grade 1 and Grade A tournaments there.

Opelka, who has two more years of top level junior and professional experience than Cernoch, is one of those playing for his living after turning pro last spring. Opelka's first tournament in three months was last week in Plantation, after suffering stress fractures in his foot last year.

"I started feeling pain right around Kalamazoo," said Opelka. "I didn't get an MRI until US Open. They thought I had arthritis and told me to keep going. I played Las Vegas Challenger, Charlottesville, Knoxville and I was hobbling around. It really wasn't fun, I wasn't enjoying it. I didn't want to play anymore because it was so annoying, I had it for so long.  I got another MRI in Miami and they saw two stress fractures."

"I was about five weeks out in a boot. The problem is coming back from those, because the boot completely shuts your whole foot down. I lost my cardio, my lungs, everything, so we spent two weeks just getting the foot and ankle stronger. Everything's so gradual, it just take times. For eight weeks now my priority is fitness, fitness. Physically I feel pretty strong. I'm feeling a bunch of aches right now but that's because I haven't played in a while."

After an easy opening round match, Opelka was tested by No. 7 seed Juame Pla Malfeito of Spain, needing well over two hours to claim a 7-6(5), 7-6(4) win.

"His best chance of beating me was exactly how it was today," said Opelka. "Qualies of a Futures, windy, they don't change the balls, the court wasn't in good shape. That's how I could see it happening. I didn't play well, no one can play well in that really, but I had tons of good looks at the ball."

Opelka was broken in the first set after missing several overheads on high lobs by the 20-year-old Spaniard, who had a set point serving at 5-4, but failed to convert. Opelka served for the match at 5-2 and 5-4 before ultimately surviving in another tiebreaker.

"We played 26 games with the same balls," said Opelka, who is not a fan of the 128-player qualifying draws of the Florida Futures. "It's not fun. You don't want to be at [this level] too long.  This is the only country where there's four matches to qualify. The draws should be cut in half. I don't know, but there's got to be a better system."

Opelka's opponent on Sunday is 15-year-old Trey Hilderbrand, who has played his first four Futures qualifying tournaments in Florida this year, picking up five wins.

Other teens who have reached the third round of qualifying are Sam Turchetta, Oliver Crawford, Evan Zhu, Sam Turchetta, Alexandre Rotsaert, and Adam Ambrozy of the United States, Juan Pablo Ficovich and Oscar Ortiz of Argentina, Daniel Mora of Colombia, and Mark Chepurnoy of Russia.

At the $25,000 Women's Pro Circuit event in Surprise, Arizona, Jamie Loeb and CiCi Bellis will play Sunday for the title.  Loeb defeated Sonya Kenin 7-5, 6-2, while the eighth-seeded Bellis beat qualifier Chiara Scholl 6-3, 6-0.

The ATP Delray Beach final will also feature two Americans, with Rajeev Ram facing Sam Querrey in Sunday's championship match.  Ram defeated No. 4 seed Grigor Dimitrov 6-4, 6-3 in the afternoon, running his head-to-head record against the Bulgarian to 4-0, to reach his third career ATP final.  In the evening semifinal, unseeded Sam Querrey didn't face a break point in his 7-5, 7-5 win over Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina. Querrey has a 5-2 head-to-head record against Ram, which spans more than ten years.