Juan Benitez added to his Vero Beach tennis legend late Friday night by registering a stirring comeback victory over Ricardo Rodriquez 7-6 (5), 0-6, 7-6 (5) to reach the semifinals of the $10,000 Mardy Fish Children’s Foundation Tennis Championships at The Boulevard tennis club. The three-hour and 15 minute marathon was actually 45 minutes longer than when they played in an epic final of this event in 2018, also won by Benitez 7-5, 2-6, 6-4.
The Colombian trailed Rodriguez 5-1 in the final set and appeared resigned to defeat after losing 11 of the next 12 games after winning a first-set tiebreaker. Rodriguez, the all-time leading Davis Cup player for Venezuela, however, was not able to close out Benitez, despite serving for the match at 5-2 and 5-4 in the final set and holding a 4-1 lead in the final-set tiebreaker. Benitez also saved a match point at 3-5 in the final set, losing the point before with a whiffed overhead.
The 25-year old former standout at Baylor has been a fan favorite in Vero Beach for years, beginning in 2016 when he nearly defeated current top 10 player Denis Shapovalov of Canada also in the quarterfinals of this event. In that match, despite suffering cramps that actually resulted in him becoming hospitalized at the now Cleveland Clinic hospital, Benitez competed until the very last point, playing the last game left-handed due to cramping in his right hand.
Last year at this event, as the defending champion, Benitez lost in the first round to eventual champion Dmitry Popko of Kazakhstan and told friends and family it was the last match of his career. However, Benitez retuned to competitive tennis recently and is using this event as a springboard to try to return to the ATP Tour rankings.
Benitez will have another big task in front of him Saturday in the semifinals against No. 1 seed Diego Hidalgo, a member of Ecuador’s Davis Cup team who holds an ATP world ranking of No. 378. Hidalgo, also a former Florida Gator standout and former teammate of Quail Valley Club tennis pro Chase Perez-Blanco, posted a 6-3, 6-3 quarterfinal win over 17-year-old Connor Krug of Bradenton, Florida, the grandson of ESPN college basketball personality Dick Vitale.
Earlier on Friday, Jack Anthrop of Orlando, Florida finally defeated his longtime rival, Alex Bernard 4-6, 6-3, 6-1 to advance to the semifinals. Anthrop had lost to his friendly adversary six times dating back to when they first played doubles against each other when they were 9 and 10 respectively.
“Not this time,’’ said Anthrop, a sixteen-year old, who will play fellow Central Florida resident and sometime practice partner Matthew Segura of Apopka, Florida in the opening semifinal Saturday, thus assuring an American will reach Sunday’s final.
“Alex is one player I’ve waited the longest time to get him off my back, so I’m happy it came today,’’ said Anthrop, one of the top junior tennis players in United States and the world.
It wasn’t easy. Bernard, 17 and the reigning USTA National 16s champion from Bonita Springs, Florida, is lightning-quick and possesses a grinding left-handed attack, featuring slices and topspin. However, a marathon, three-set round-of-16 win late Thursday seemed to take its toll on Bernard as he wilted in the third set.
“I had a bunch of unforced errors in the first set but cleaned it up in the second,’’ said Anthrop, who in 2019 won the prestigious Eddie Herr International Championships in the 16-and-under division. “He was serving at 2-3 and I could see his fatigue. The window was open and I hopped right into it. He wasn’t getting to balls he usually gets to.’’
Last year the two were among a group of young Americans who traveled together to play International Tennis Federation events in Colombia and Costa Rica. The families are very close.
Anthrop’s huge first serve and dominating backhand had him coasting in the final set until he broke a tiring Bernard at love, punctuating his backhand volley on match point with a loud, “Vamos,’’ heard in downtown Vero Beach.
“Usually I say, ‘come on,’ in German but that time I went with vamos,’’ said Anthrop, who has been coached by John Roddick, the older brother of 2003 U.S. Open champion Andy Roddick and now the UCF women’s coach Brian Koniecko. “I usually like playing left-handers but he’s the toughest lefty I play against.’’
Segura, a tricky lefty with an ambidextrous serve, defeated Anthrop in a Universal Tennis Rating final in Orlando over the summer, so revenge is on Anthrop’s mind.
“I don’t need much to provoke me,’’ Anthrop said. “He’s weird to play.’’
Segura advanced into the final with a 6-3, 6-3 win over fellow American Charlie Sullivan, who turned in to be one of the surprises of this well-regarded entry-level professional tennis event.
After a few years of shoulder pain, Sullivan thought his tennis dreams were over, so he began focusing on his schoolwork at Florida State while assisting Seminoles coach Dwayne Hultquist at his academy in Tallahassee.
But during the four-month stoppage due to the pandemic, Sullivan’s torn labrum healed and his game returned after practicing with academy students.
So, he decided to test his progress this week and after reaching the quarterfinals, Sullivan’s dream was back on track, especially after knocking off second-seeded Colombian Alejandro Gomez 6-4, 6-1 on Thursday. Gomez is ranked 508th in the world and was ranked a career-high 352 in 2017.
However, on Friday afternoon Sullivan, 23, ran into a determined Segura.
“I’m happy I’m giving it another shot,’’ said Sullivan, a solid 6-foot-3, 190-pounder, a Boston transplant now living in Delray Beach. “Yesterday’s win was good for my confidence beating a player ranked that high, but today I’m a little disappointed I was unable to keep up my level. But Segura was hitting the heck out of balls within a foot of the baseline.
“Plus, I’m a pretty good returner and with him switching serving lefty and then righty it was off-putting and messing with my rhythm.’’
Segura, 20, is living up to his genealogy as the great-nephew of tennis legend Pancho Segura – a former unofficial No. 1 in the 1950s, known for his trademark two-handed forehand. But he got off to a slow start and was down a break at 2-3.
Segura relocated his strokes and began painting the lines with his southpaw one-hand forehand and two-fisted backhand (really another forehand) and reeled off nine consecutive games to go up 5-1 in the second set.
But Sullivan, who was ranked in the Top 10 nationally until he was about 12 before burnout pushed him to basketball, began to return everything Segura threw at him.
“He was getting all my shots and I couldn’t blow him off the court,’’ Segura said. “He was like a wall.’’
Sullivan was down 1-5, 15-40 but broke Segura and then held for 3-5. After shanking an overhead, the error set up match point No. 3 and this time a Segura approach shot pressured Sullivan into netting his attempted cross-court passing shot.
“Whew, I was relieved I finally finished him,’’ Segura said.
Sullivan played a year of tennis at Elon University in North Carolina and then another year at North Florida before transferring to Florida State. He definitely wants to play in next year’s Mardy Fish Children’s Foundation Tennis Championships.
“With no Futures tournaments because of COVID, I was excited to sign up. Seeing this place, and they ran a cool tournament with a DJ and stuff,’’ said Sullivan, who’s working with renowned coach Juan Nunez and Fernando Martinez. “The people are extremely nice and I will definitely be coming back.’’
Matthew Segura vs. Jack Anthrop (SINGLES SEMIFINAL No. 1)
Followed by (Not Before 2:15 PM)
Diego Hidalgo vs. Juan Benitez (SINGLES SEMIFINAL No. 2)
Followed by (Not Before 3:30 PM)
Ricardo Rodriguez / Ignacio Martinez vs. Jack Anthrop / Ben Kittay (DOUBLES SEMIFINAL)
Matthew Segura (Apopka, Florida) def. Charlie Sullivan (Boca Raton, Florida) 6-3, 6-3
Jack Anthrop (Orlando, Florida) def. Alex Bernard (Bonita Springs, Florida) 4-6, 6-3, 6-1
Diego Hidalgo (Ecuador) def. Connor Krug (Bradenton, Florida) 6-3, 6-3
Juan Benitez (Ecuador) def. Ricardo Rodriguez (Venezuela) 7-6(5), 0-6, 7-6 (5)
Alejandro Gomez (Colombia) / Junior Ore (Miami, Florida) def. Diego Hidalgo (Ecuador) / Cesar Ramirez (Mexico) 7-6 (9),6-3
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