The first round of U.S. Open qualifying is always something of a mixed bag. Plenty of great players, including both up-and-comers and vets who just missed the cut, but just as many guys who may never crack the top 200. I try to see everyone at least once, but with 128 men in the draw, that’s no easy task!
Here’s what I was able to see today.
Go Soeda  vs Tim Smyczek
Smyczek has been on my radar all year. He’s a bit like the pre-suspension Wayne Odesnik: Not really one of the official young stars on the US scene, but young, American, and winning some matches. He’s qualified for a few ATP events this year, and in addition to a win over Kei Nishikori, he has pushed both Phillip Kohlschreiber and Grigor Dimitrov to third-set tiebreaks.
In a set and a half, it was hard to see how he did any of those things. Smyczek is a little guy, listed at 5’9″, and his first serve might easily be mistaken for a spin-less second offering. He moves well and his groundstrokes are solid, but his game doesn’t feature a single shot one might call a weapon. He didn’t move forward with much confidence or handle himself very well when he got there.
I kept waiting for signs of the fighting spirit that got him to those tiebreaks earlier in the year. No dice. Soeda is a veteran–also without any major weapons on show–and he simply outclassed the American. While Soeda has the game to keep himself on the fringes of the top 100, it would take a major breakthrough for Smyczek to accomplish the same.
Adrian Menendez-Maceiras vs Alexander Waske
No prospects here–after tiring of Smyczek-Soeda, I wanted to see how 36-year-old Alexander Waske looked. The good news: Better than Thomas Muster. The bad news: Not much better than Muster.
Waske is a big server of a generation ago, back when a big serve could get you into the top 100 all by itself. The German’s game plan seemed to involve going for lots of aces, and then hitting defensive slices on nearly every other shot. He came up with incredible power on the serve, which is about all you can say for him.
Menendez didn’t have much more to offer. He managed to lose the first set before I arrived–how he got broken is tough to imagine–but came back to win a second-set tiebreak and the match. He’s ranked well outside the top 200, and that seems about right–a real threat in qualifying would’ve dismissed Waske is half the time.
Amer Delic vs Evgeny Donskoy 
The 20-year-old Donskoy was my top priority on today’s slate. He’s a clay court specialist, while Delic has much more match experience and a more hard-court friendly game (and height!). When I made it over from the Waske match, Donskoy was falling behind in the second set after losing a first-set tiebreak. He wasn’t hitting anything very hard, and something about the surface or the balls seemed to be giving him trouble–groundstroke after groundstroke landed a few inches deep.
He didn’t need to change his game plan–just find the range. A few games into the second set, he did so, and once that happened, he lived up to billing as a rising clay-court star. Even on a fast surface, he was too much for Delic, pounding flat groundstrokes off of both wings, including some particularly impressive down-the-line shots. Like many young players from Eastern Europe, he relentlessly targets the backmost few inches of the court.
Once Donskoy won the second set, Delic just went away. He dumped a few easy sitters into the net, got frustrated, and even managed to lose a point on a code violation while serving 0-30. By that point, Donskoy didn’t need the help and won the final set 6-2.
Andrea Arnaboldi vs Denis Kudla
Kudla’s backhands can be a sight to see. Like Donskoy, he can pound his opponent’s baseline, and does so with impressively flat shots. Unfortunately, that leaves him with little margin for error, especially on down-the-line shots, which he kept going for today. Combine that with a middling serve, and Kudla’s current game isn’t making it easy for him to win matches at this level.
But today, he came out on top, needing a third-set tiebreak to do so. Arnaboldi was all over the place mentally, especially in the third set when a series of line calls didn’t go his way. In better moments, he used his left-handedness to great effect, generating interesting angles around the court, and forcing Kudla to go for lower percentage shots.
I hope Kudla can improve his serve and develop a better tactical tennis mind. His groundstrokes would be a great addition to the ATP tour, but it will take more time before he’s much of a threat at the next level.
Richard Berankis  vs Guillermo Alcaide
Seeding and ranking aside, Berankis is probably the best player is the qualifying draw, and he appears to be healthy. He played a nearly flawless match, beating Alcaide 6-2 6-2.
It’s all the more impressive because of the demands Alcaide made on the Lithuanian’s return game–Alcaide has a downright huge serve. He hits it effortlessly, but the sound it makes off the racket makes you think it’s 130mph, easy. Sadly, that’s about all that I can say about his game. Berankis, on the other hand, belongs in the main draw, and it’s a shame he has to spend all week proving it.
Bradley Klahn vs Tennys Sandgren
As college players, these two guys don’t have ATP rankings that represent their true skill levels. Were they to go full-time on the pro tour, it’s tough to imagine either of them outside of the top 250. This might have been the highest-quality tennis I saw all day.
Both put some serious firepower on display–Sandgren on the serve, Klahn with an unorthodox lefty forehand. Klahn’s forehand motion is similar to Jeremy Chardy, starting with a very closed racket face, then whipping through the ball to create a relatively flat topspin trajectory. Marsel Ilhan is another guy who hits it like that, and Klahn was more consistent with his forehand than I’ve seen from either Ilhan or Chardy.
It seemed like both players could dominate, given the power on their shots. But while Klahn ended up winning the 2nd and 3rd sets at 6-2 apiece, it never felt like a blowout–Sandgren was in most games, including some return games, and hit his share of impressive shots. The difference, oddly enough for a matchup between young Americans, was in Klahn’s movement and touch around the net. Both men came in (and coaxed the other in) with some frequency, and Klahn occasionally approached the net behind an iffy approach shot. The aggression generally paid off.
Both of these guys have bright futures, and Klahn has a real chance of finding himself in the main draw a week from now.