Sunday, November 1, 2015

Kalamazoo's Super Sweet 16s: the Participants - Guest Post by Jonathan Kelley

by Jonathan Kelley, On The Rise Tennis

The participants:

Patrick Kypson, Champion
Alexandre Rotsaert, 2nd place
Jeffrey (J.J.) Wolf, 3rd place
Kyrylo Tsygura, 4th place

One of the benefits of having a press credential at the USTA Boys National Hard Court Championships – in addition to sneaking the production crew’s free snacks - is having the chance to interview the players after their wins, to find out more about them and their insights on the matches just concluded and those upcoming. In Kalamazoo, this applies to both the 18s players and those in the 16s.

“Certainly the 18s are better at analyzing why a match went the way it did,” said Colette Lewis of ZooTennis.  “They’re generally more articulate and can name that when you ask.” Players develop that skill over time, she noted, although “some are really good at it at a really young age.”

The four semifinalists in the 2015, in addition to their on-court prowess, were very solid interviewees. They were all sincere, polite, and thoughtful in their analyses. They are among those hoping to become the next-next American tennis stars – but there’s a long way for all of them before that eventuality. As John Roddick noted in Part 1, doing this well in the 16s means they have a chance.

Kalamazoo 16s champion Patrick Kypson

Patrick Kypson, from the same small North Carolina town (Greenville) as 18s semifinalist Tommy Paul, was possibly the most relaxed and self-assured of the four. Perhaps his emergency appendectomy (the darn thing burst in June when he was on his way to a tournament in Guatemala) helped give him some perspective. “Basically when I was in the hospital, all I wanted to do was play tennis, so it made me want it more, appreciate it.”

Kypson is a huge tennis fan, who mostly does his own scouting of his opponents. He also watches the 18s with a keen interest. “I’ve seen pretty much all their matches here since I’ve been playing here. Even those guys – try to learn from them, see what they do well, see what they don’t do well.”

(In fact, I spotted Kypson in the stands of Will Blumberg’s third round match at the U.S. Open juniors.  Kypson had to retire in his own second round match, but certainly did well by his wildcard in getting a first round win).

Back in Kalamazoo, Kypson had presciently picked Frances Tiafoe to win the 18s title. “I know him pretty well. I think he’s got a shot, but everyone in the quarters can win.”

The 16s players are too young to have substantial contact with college coaches, but all of them are considering the possibility. 

Kypson, who is now a sophomore and thus “unfortunately” has three more years of high school, was matter-of-fact when asked about the question of going pro or going to college. 

“I’m not going to go pro unless I’m actually good enough to go pro,” he said.  "I think some of these guys … not necessarily a bad decision but I don’t know if it’s the smartest decision to go pro. If I’m good enough to go pro, I would go pro because I don’t want to miss out on that opportunity but if not, I’m going to college and develop my game so maybe I can get there one day.”
As to where he would like to attend, “I would like Georgia, maybe USC, something like that.”

Kalamazoo 16s finalist Alexandre Rotasert
Kypson’s final opponent was Boca Raton’s Alexandre Rotsaert. (Well, now he’s from Boca. He was born in Atlanta, then moved to England, then Pennsylvania, then California, and finally Boca.)  A serious young man whose family is originally from Belgium, Rotsaert had to retire from his second round match in 2014, adding significant motivation to his 2015 campaign.

Rotsaert received a wild card to Kalamazoo (he missed sectionals as he was playing ITFs in Europe) for which he expressed profuse thanks and he got one to the main draw of the US Open juniors, as well. There he lost a close 4&4 match to eventual semifinalist Alex De Minaur, who would also beat Blumberg and #2 seed Michael Mmoh.

In Rotsaert’s semifinal, there was a moment in which Kyrylo Tsygura spent a lot of time putting an overgrip on a new racquet after breaking a string. It all happened when Rotsaert was serving for the match – and went on to get broken. When asked whether he dwelled on that during the ensuing changeover, Rotsaert’s maturity came through. 

“No, my coach tries to get me to forget about the past, look to the future, go back to my notes – I have a game plan and everything in my bag so I can always go back to them on the changeover – positive little things for me. Just basically keep a ‘growth’ mindset.”

I asked Rotsaert about what he learns from being around this particular group of 18s. “They’re some of the best players in the world to aspire to,” he said. “Especially their aggressive game style, even if it doesn’t work, sticking at it. Especially Taylor [Fritz], I love the way he plays. Kozlov, Tiafoe, it’s amazing to watch. To see them dictate the point; big serve, big forehand, try to come in. And mostly staying positive. You see these guys losing first sets and it doesn’t matter. They’re coming back – it doesn’t matter – and they’re winning the second and third. So they’re really people to aspire to and hopefully one day I’ll be as good as them. Hopefully.”

Kyrylo Tsygura tries a tweener

College Park, Maryland’s Tsygura has a couple of older players he looks up to: Denis Kudla and Frances Tiafoe. Like Kudla, Tsygura was born in Ukraine and moved to the US as a tyke. “He’s one of my big idols because he trained in College Park too, he’s from Ukraine, and he’s a really hard worker and he’s been doing pretty well, so I look up to him,” said Tsygura about the now-World Top 70 Kudla.  

“I’d say my backhand is my best shot and his flat backhand is also his best shot so we’re kind of the same. I’m not too tall either, like him so yeah.”

As for fellow College Parkian Tiafoe, Tsygura was “totally” rooting for him to win the 18s. “I’ve known him for 4-5 years, so we’re kind of like brothers, if he wins it gives me motivation to win it.”

Tsygura’s game is built on far more variety than his peers, and he believes that will help him transition to the next level. “I think it’s going to help a lot because there’s a lot of players that are really good and solid but it’s one part of my game that can maybe separate me from other players, and that can help me in the future.”

As for college, Tsygura seemed a bit hazy on the whole thing. “I haven’t thought about what colleges I want to go to; I’m going to be a junior so I haven’t really started talking to college coaches. I guess I’ll start soon but haven’t been thinking about that too much.”

JJ Wolf
JJ Wolf, an explosive 16-year-old from Cincinnati who fell to Kypson in straight sets the semis, says he also wasn’t too focused on college. “I’ve thought about it, but it’s really early still,” he said. What about the dozens of coaches watching every match he played in Kalamazoo? “I try not to look up too much.”

Wolf was the top seed, as was last year’s champion John McNally – a “really good friend” who is also from Cincinnati (they grew up at the same club). When asked what makes Cincinnati a recent hotbed of tennis, Wolf said, “I think there’s a lot of tennis families, a good culture.”
McNally put a scare into Michael Mmoh in the 18s quarterfinals, losing 6-4 in the third set. I asked Wolf about whether he watches this unique class of 18s, several of whom had already achieved success at the pro level. “I do like to watch them a lot,” he said, “and you can just see that their tennis minds have matured a lot, they know their game, they know what they have to do to win. So when you have a specific game plan like that, you’re usually pretty successful. And they’re all pretty talented also.”

I asked Wolf whether that group were an inspiration, or whether their success put pressure on him to try to match their accomplishments. “I don’t really think about the accomplishments as much as just trying to improve every match. But I definitely am aiming to be one of the better players so it inspires me a little bit I guess. Just competitive drive – everyone’s trying to beat everyone.”

Wolf’s Kalamazoo ended earlier than he would have liked at the hands of Kypson. But a few weeks later in New York, he accepted a wild card into the US Open Boys qualifying tournament. There he beat the 13th and 2nd seeds to reach the main draw – and then beat current World #13 junior Mate Valkusz to reach the second round, where he fell in 3 sets to #9 seed Blumberg.

The current group of American 18s is getting an incredible amount of attention this year, and for good reason. They’re winning things at unprecedented rates. But I’m pleased to report that there’s plenty of talent coming behind them.

In Part 3 Monday: Interviews with two development coaches. What does it take to take those next steps?