Gullikson likes Americans’ chances in Tallahassee Challenger tennis tournament
By St. Clair Murraine
Tom Gullikson hardly took his eyes off Stefan Kozlov during a qualifying match for the last berth in the main draw of the Tallahassee Challenger.
Kozlov, an 18-year-old American, took a three-set victory at Forestmeadow. Gullikson was so proud he greeted Kozlov with a powerful handshake when it was done.
Gullikson was especially proud because Kozlov represents a group of young Americans that Gullikson is grooming as head of the USTA men’s development program. Since ending his lengthy career in 1981, Gullikson has been concentrating on coaching.
Pete Sampras was one of his most successful protégés, earning a No. 1 world ranking in the 1990’s.
Kozlov’s presence in the main draw increased to 14 the number of Americans in the entry-level pro event.
Naturally, Gullikson likes the chances that an American player could upend defending champion Facundo Arguello of Austria.
“I think we have a really good crop of young Americans,” Gullikson said. “It’s an exciting time for American men’s tennis.”
Donald Young is the highest ranked American in the field at No.85 in the world. He also drew the top seed for the weeklong event, which concludes with the championship on Saturday.
Young comes with plenty of credentials, including reaching the fourth round of the US Open twice. He also holds eight ATP Challenger Tour singles titles.
Gullikson’s goal is to get more Americans to attain a ranking similar or higher than Young’s. He and the staff of USTA coaches are developing players who are ranked 100 or lower to help them work to a higher ranking.
With a sense of purpose, of course.
“We haven’t won a grand slam since Andy Roddick won the US Open (in 2003),” he said. “We’ve had a long drought in grand slam winners, but we have a lot of young talented players.”
Most of them are regulars on the Challenger circuit, which Gullikson said is vital to their development. He compared the circuit to playing at the Triple-A level in baseball.
“It’s a very, very important element,” Gullikson said. “You teach people how to hit the ball, some fundamental and you work on the fitness.
“The game is more physical than it has ever been so the fitness and the nutrition and recovery are very important. This is the proving ground for that. You’re playing a lot of competitive matches.”
There are plenty of incentives for the Americans to play well, too. Not only does the winner get a $7,200 check, but they are playing for precious ATP points in selected challengers, with the one who emerges with the points earning a wildcard bid into the Frenh Open.
“That’s been a huge carrot for all these boys,” Gullikson said.
With the 32-player draw being as talent-laden as it is, Gullikson said he won’t be surprised to see a spoiler in the final.
“Sure, there are seeded players but that doesn’t mean a whole lot,” he said. “You’ve got to go out and prove yourself every match. There is not a lot of difference between the first guy and last guy in the tournament.”