By Joshua Rey, special to USTA.com
BOCA RATON, Fla. – There’s no feeling like the first time, so Tim Smyczek and Beatrice Capra will never forget their Grand Slam debut at the 2010 US Open. But they’ll also remember the three August days they spent baking under the South Florida sun, battling for the right to reach their dreams.
In Friday’s finals of the US Open Wild Card Playoffs, Smyczek never looked threatened in the first best-of-five set match of his career, defeating Ryan Harrison, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4. Capra shook off a shaky string of service breaks to earn a 7-6(4), 6-4 win over No. 1 seed Madison Brengle, denying the elder American her fifth Wild Card Playoffs title.
Neither Smyczek, nor Capra, lost a set in three wins at the USTA Training Center Headquarters this week, where the heat index on court hovered around 120 degrees.
Capra, 18, will not just be making her first appearance in the main draw of a major. Her first-round match in Flushing will also be her first tour-level match of any kind.
Though the 22-year-old Smyczek has more experience than his fellow wild card (He played qualifying at the 2008 and 2009 US Opens), he was no less excited about the opportunity he earned.
"New York is a little bit overwhelming," said Smyczek, who will earn at least $19,000 at the US Open – the biggest paycheck of his career. "I want to treat it just like any other tournament. But it’s definitely a great opportunity. I’m thankful for the opportunity and hopefully I can make something of it."
Smyczek (Milwaukee, Wis.) started strongly against his 18-year-old opponent, ending Harrison’s run of 19 consecutive service holds by breaking him at love in the opening game of the final.
He also established early on that he would not be bullied by Harrison’s net game. Smyczek brushed a backhand lob for a winner in the fifth game, and retrieved a drop volley by scooping a cross-court forehand winner to earn his second break point in the seventh game. He converted when Harrison hit one of his 10 double faults.
"I expected him to come out a little nervous and I really wanted to take advantage of that," said Smyczek. "I knew that my last two matches I got down early breaks in both. One of my main goals going into that match was to be ready right from the start."
Despite being down two breaks, Harrison (Bradenton, Fla.) didn’t concede the first set without a fight. Down 2-5, he broke Smyczek with a down-the-line forehand winner and held for 4-5 with an unreturnable kick serve.
The set was one point from being even when Harrison reached 30-40 in Smyczek’s next service game. But Smyczek used a kick serve of his own to draw an error from the Harrison backhand. He hit the same serve on his first set point for the same result, halting Harrison’s momentum to take a one-set lead.
Smyczek landed more than 70 percent of his first serves in the match and out-aced Harrison nine to four. He was especially happy with his serves to Harrison’s backhand in the Ad-court.
"That’s been one of the patterns I’ve been working on," said Smyczek. "It suits my style of game. I want to start off by getting my opponent on the run so if I can serve him wide, and then swing him into the open court, it’s a good play for me."
Down a set, Harrison appeared to change tactics, looping his forehand and slicing his backhand to try to force Smyczek out of his comfort zone.
But Harrison made too many mistakes off both wings to trouble Smyczek. Serving at 2-2, Harrison overhit back-to-back forehands before double-faulting on break point yet again.
In the eighth game of the set, Smyczek held at love by targeting his shots towards Harrison’s backhand, drawing four consecutive errors. With unwavering focus, the 5’9" American quietly took a two-set lead without facing a single break point in the second set.
"He wasn’t playing his best tennis today," said Smyczek. "I was kind of able to feel my way around the court a little bit and allow him to make some errors."
After failing on a break point in the first game of the third set, Smyczek pressured Harrison at 1-1. The world No. 196 connected on consecutive cross-court forehand passing shots to reach 15-30. Then, Harrison hit another untimely double fault to hand Smyczek two break points.
Harrison, ranked just 26 spots below Smyczek on the ATP World Tour, rallied to deuce by saving the first break point with a service winner and the second with a knifing drop volley winner.
But after Smyczek won the deuce point, Harrison watched his opponent’s third cross-court forehand pass of the game drop in for the decisive break of the match.
"Anytime I started to pressure him, he was hitting great passing shots," said Harrison. "His serve – he doesn’t hit it extremely hard but he hits the spots really well to set up his ground game. And he’s got really good feel around the net.
"Whenever you come out and a guy’s playing comfortably like that, you’ve got two options: You can either back it up and take a loss or you can figure out a way to throw him off. I tried to serve-and-volley a little bit and use my slice backhand. But he was handling everything that I was throwing at him pretty well."
On championship point, Smyczek showed off the versatility that helped him qualify at ATP events in San Jose, Indian Wells and Los Angeles this season. He backed up a net approach with a crisp forehand volley that Harrison barely reached with a slice backhand. Smyczek sensed Harrison was quick enough to retrieve his volley, so he was ready to hit a second one – this time dropping his racquet head and guiding the ball cross court to force Harrison into another sprint.
Harrison was again up for the challenge, scooping a forehand down-the-line just in time. But Smyczek had already retreated from the net to the baseline, allowing him to guide a cross-court backhand into the open court for a winner.
"I like using my touch and feel, but I know he does too and he’s very good at it," said Smyczek, healthy after several seasons marred by back, knee and shoulder injuries. "So I had to be very careful not to get into too many of those points. But I got into a couple of them and most of the time I came out on top."
Unable to replicate the impressive service performance by Smyczek in the men’s final, Capra and Brengle struggled with nerves and serves in the first set of the women’s encounter. In fact, they combined for six straight breaks in the first six games of the match – surpassing the five service breaks in the three-set men’s finals.
Capra (Ellicott City, Md.) finally established some semblance of serving sanity by saving a break point with a service winner and holding for a 4-3 lead.
The 170th-ranked Brengle (Dover, Del.) followed Capra’s hold with one of her own, and then broke at 4-4 to earn the right to serve for the first set.
Had she been given the choice, she undoubtedly would have rather received.
Capra came up with a nifty stab volley off a blitzing Brengle backhand to reach 30-40, and then broke for 5-5 when Brengle double-faulted. The teen won six more points in a row to take a 6-5, Love-30 lead on Brengle’s serve.
But two Capra errors in the front court – one of which occurred on a set point – allowed Brengle to force a first-set tiebreak.
Playing in front of her peers from the Evert Tennis Academy, as well as Chris Evert herself, Capra elevated her game with three backhand winners in the tiebreak, including a dipping cross-court passing shot that gave her a one-set lead.
"It was really nerve-wracking – None of us could hold our serve," said Capra. "But it was the finals and we both really wanted to win. So of course we were going to come out tight. But as the match went on we both started to ease up and play better."
Rushing the net to end a baseline rally, Brengle took a 3-2 second-set lead in one of the rarest plays in tennis. Her overhead smash was hit so uncontrollably hard that Capra could not dodge it quick enough – the ball bolting into her foot as she stood five feet behind the baseline.
Brengle, 20, immediately broke thereafter for a 4-2 advantage, but dropped her serve when Capra followed three successive overheads with a deftly-touched drop volley winner.
After Capra saved two break points to even the second set at 4-4, she broke Brengle at love to put herself in the precarious position of serving for a spot in the US Open main draw.
"I usually never complain during matches, but it’s so hot, that if we went to a third set, I think I might have started crying," confided Capra, the 10th-ranked junior in the world.
Inspired by her desire to get off the court, Capra cleared her mind and directed her serve at Brengle’s forehand, drawing four errors in the final game to clinch one of the most memorable wins of her young career.
"When Madison’s on, she’s really dangerous," said Capra. "She can hit a winner from anywhere in the court. My strategy was to hit high on her forehand and push her back so that I could move forward."
After losing at the USTA Girls’ 18s National Championships in San Diego on August 12th, Capra withdrew from the consolation draw. She said she couldn’t see herself playing again until the US Open Juniors.
Now the amateur, whose Sony Ericsson WTA Tour ranking has skyrocketed from 857 to 369 this season, will realize a dream that was unfathomable just one week ago.
"I really didn’t think this was going to happen," said Capra. "I had a rough Nationals and I was thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, what am I doing with my life?’ And then they offered me this and I came here and honestly, I just wanted to get another match before the [US Open] Juniors. I didn’t think I was playing qualies or main in the women’s [draw]. So I came here and I did my best."
US Open Wild Card Playoff
USTA Training Center Headquarters
Boca Raton, Fla.
August 18-20, 2010
Men’s Singles Final
(1) Tim Smyczek, Milwaukee, Wis., def. (2) Ryan Harrison, Bradenton, Fla., 6-4, 6-4, 6-4
Women’s Singles Final
(2) Beatrice Capra, Ellicott City, Md., def. (1) Madison Brengle, Dover, Del., 7-6(4), 6-4