POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jan 26, 2011
Dennis Lajola hit another tennis milestone yesterday, decisively making the leap from teenage USTA Futures champion and University of Hawaii anchor to realistic challenger in a USTA Challenger. It took him three years, 1 hour and 20 minutes.
The Rainbow senior from Aiea won his opening round match in the $50,000 Honolulu Challenger, taking out Spain's Pablo Martin-Adalia 6-4, 6-4 at the Patsy T. Mink CORP Tennis Complex. Lajola's inaugural main-draw victory in a Challenger took 80 minutes. It was made up of four service breaks, a sometimes-spectacular serve of his own and dominance in long rallies. There were many.
This was no fluke. Martin-Adalia, 22, holds a world ranking of No. 447. Tennis is his job and has been the past few years.
Lajola, who turns 22 next month, has led Hawaii to its first three conference titles and NCAA appearances. Earlier this month he lost to last year's NCAA singles runner-up from Louisville and this season's top-ranked player, from Tennessee. The losses "tuned him up" for yesterday, he says now, most proud of his ability to close against Martin-Adalia.
"Those players were at about the same level," Lajola said. "He (Martin-Adalia) definitely knew what to do when I gave him a short ball. The only time he missed is when I put him in trouble. College matches are the same, so I was expecting long rallies. I was ready for it this time. It was good. Just as long as I play my game I can compete with these guys. I don't have to do something so special to be competing with them. Just play my game, hang in there in points and be able to maintain it for 2 or 3 hours."
His team leaves tonight, without him, to play No. 5 Texas.
"Will it hurt the team?" UH coach John Nelson asked. "Yeah. But in the long run it will make him a better player. Instead of me as a coach saying here is what the best players do, you get to see it. He wants to go on tour, he's getting points. It will help him get on tour.
"But also, I had our players write a critique about what Duke, Louisville and Tennessee did well, and there was a recurring theme — if you want to be good you've got to have the courage to do it. Do the right thing."
Lajola pulled pretty much all the right triggers yesterday, and wasn't afraid to do it. He broke Martin-Adalia twice early, outlasting him sometimes and outblasting him others. Both players had their serves broken to start the second set, but Lajola broke Martin-Adalia again and, after consecutive aces, was up 4-3, 40-15, when the weight of the moment hit.
He double-faulted twice and just missed a forehand to give Martin-Adalia another break point. This time Martin-Adalia made the error, and Lajola won the game by crushing a forehand and a volley. He hit three more service winners in his final service game to close.
This stop is at the high end of the USTA's Pro Circuit, the pipeline to tennis success followed by players such as Caroline Wozniacki, Melanie Oudin, John Isner, James Blake and Andy Roddick. Those last two won the Hawaii Challenger when it was played on the Big Island.
This stop has become the layover of choice for those who fall in the Australian Open's first week. The top four seeds are ranked in the world's top 150. Top-seeded Michael Russell (No. 100) reached the second round in Melbourne last week, as did third-seeded Ryan Sweeting (116). Fourth-seeded Grega Zemlja, who lost to Russell in last year's final, fell to Marcos Baghdatis in a memorable five-setter in Australia. Yesterday, he was upset by Philip Bester of Canada.
That is what Lajola is up against, much to his enjoyment. He earned seven ranking points yesterday and will get 15 if he makes the quarterfinals. Those points will be banked — he cannot accept prize money — for his next tennis life, which will look much like this week.
"This is definitely the plan," he says. "I've talked with my family and John Nelson, all those close around me. It's what I want to do right after the season is over — go on tour."
Lajola is looking to the pro circuit in Asia in a few months. But for the next few days, he is not looking past Waipio. The singles final is Sunday, following the 11 a.m. doubles final.
Matches begin today at 10 a.m., with Russell playing Wong-Sun Jun in the morning. Brigham Young-Hawaii's Rong Ma and Dillon Porter play a first-round doubles match in the afternoon.
Jeremy Tweedt, Lajola's UH teammate, fell 6-3, 7-5 to 247th-ranked Ryler DeHeart yesterday afternoon. The Hawaii Pacific team of Sebastian Bader and Petr Michnev lost 6-4, 6-4 to Martin-Adalia and Australian Matt Reid.