In the city of Cherkassy, in the centre of the Ukraine, three consecutive ITF Men’s Pro Circuit tournaments were staged during the month of March. Artem Smirnov, 23, took part in all three tournaments and is also our featured player for the month.
The three tournaments were held on the indoor hard courts of the Selena Tennis Club, a venue for the 2008 Davis Cup tie between Ukraine and Egypt in which Smirnov played and won the third singles rubber in a 5-0 victory.
For the opening tournament of this three-tournament series, Smirnov, who has represented Ukraine in Davis Cup ties during 2007 and 2008, was named as the second seed in the singles event and, with Denis Matsukevitch, the No. 1 seed in doubles. In his opening two singles matches, Smirnov was involved in two tight three set matches. Both times he took the opening set only for his opponents, a Ukrainian Wild Card entrant in round one and a Ukrainian Qualifier in the second round, to strike back in the second sets.
Neither player though was able to stop him from progressing and with a 64 36 76(6) first round win followed by a 62 46 63 triumph in round two he took his place in the quarterfinal. Seeded opposition faced him across the net in the quarterfinal in the form of 5th seed Luca Vanni from Italy. Their first set was decided on a tie break, 8-6 in Smirnov’s favour, but the second set saw Smirnov drop just the one game as he wrapped up a straight sets win.
In his semifinal, Smirnov found himself facing a Ukrainian player for the third time in the tournament and, as in the previous two encounters, he was involved in a tense three setter. His opponent in this semifinal clash was Stanislav Poplavskyy, a player with whom he would be partnering in the doubles in the next two tournaments of the month, and in keeping with the pattern of play established against the last two Ukrainian players faced, Smirnov claimed the first set only for this opponent to draw level in the second.
The deciding set, with a place in the final at stake, was, like the first two sets, closely fought by the two competitors and in the end it was Smirnov who was victorious, 76(3) 57 63.
The final was his fourth of 2011 and in it he was up against the No. 8 seeded Russian, Alexander Rumyantsev. Smirnov, aware that Rumyantsev had seen off the No. 1 seed in straight sets in the semifinal, knew he was in for another tough match.
Those in attendance would also have been anticipating a close match and they were not to be disappointed as a 63 64 score line ended the tournament and gave Smirnov his second singles title of the year. The doubles event saw Smirnov teaming up with Russia’s Denis Matsukevitch for the first time and, as the top seeded pairing, they made it as far as the semifinals, losing to the eventual champions on a match tie break, not a bad effort for a first tournament together.
In the second tournament at the Selena Tennis Club in Cherkassy, Smirnov, seeded third, was looking to add to his previous week’s success. Once more he opened with a tough three set win over a fellow Ukrainian and by the end of the first round he found himself as the highest seed left in the event following the eliminations of both the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds, both of whom were forced to retire from their matches.
Andrei Levine, a Russian Qualifier, was then defeated in yet another tight three set contest to set up a re-match of the previous week’s final. The quarterfinal showdown between Smirnov and Rumyantsev provided Smirnov with another long on-court workout with Smirnov winning 61 67(3) 63.
After three successive three-set matches, Smirnov must have been wondering if he would ever get a relatively comfortable match.
Well, he wasn’t about to get one anytime soon as in the semifinal he fought off the challenge from Denys Mylokostov, also from Ukraine, 76(2) 63 to reach the final and a match against his doubles partner from the previous week, Denis Matsukevitch.
This final, a battle of the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds, saw Smirnov in the unfamiliar position of being a set behind for the first time this month when he lost a first set tie break 7-3. Smirnov fought his way back into contention for the title by taking the second set 64 to level the match but was unable to push on and win the match as Matsukevitch claimed the title with a 63 final set win.
Although he missed out on the singles title, success did come Smirnov’s way in the doubles event. As part of an unseeded team with Stanislav Poplavskyy, his singles semifinal opponent the previous week, the event began with a three set win over the doubles champions of the previous week. They followed this with a run of straight sets victories into and including the final, starting with a second round win over twin brothers Peng and Wan Gao.
The title win, coming in their fourth tournament together, came one year after their triumph in their debut tournament as a team, their only other title.
Smirnov’s competitive play for March came in the final match of this three-tournament series in Cherkassy. This time he was the Top Seed in the singles event but he still found himself involved in an opening round three set tussle with a fellow Ukrainian opponent, Wild Card entrant Maksim Malyshev.
For the third tournament in a row Smirnov came through a tough first round test and then made it through to the quarterfinal with victory over a Slovenian Wild Card in straight sets, 63 63. Gleb Alekseenko, his opening round opponent the previous week, was named as the No. 6 seed and faced Smirnov for a place in the semifinal. Any hopes Alekseenko may have harboured of revenge for that first round defeat were soon extinguished as Smirnov cruised to a 63 62 win.
A Lucky Loser was then also seen off in straight sets in the semifinal and Smirnov found himself in his third successive singles final of the month. This feat emulated his run of three singles finals in succession in Turkey earlier this year during January. Looking to end the month on a high by claiming a second title from his three finals appearances, Smirnov would have to hold off the challenge from his second seeded opponent from Latvia, Karlis Lejnieks.
This clash of the top two seeds brought Smirnov and Lejnieks together again for the first time since their only other meeting in 2004 on the ITF Junior Circuit. That day Lejnieks ran out a winner in three close sets on a clay court, now, on a hard court and in opposition on the ITF Pro Circuit for the first time, Smirnov’s long 7-year wait to avenge that defeat was about to come to an end, but, he would be made to work for it.
This final was as close as a match could possibly be on the ITF Pro Circuit, played out over three sets, Smirnov’s tenth three-set singles match from fifteen played this month, with each going to a tie break. It was Smirnov who moved into the lead in this final by taking the first of the three tie breaks 7-5 before Lejnieks hit back emphatically 7-2 in the second tie break. The final set tie break would decide the champion and with a 7-4 win it was Smirnov who took the title.
Over in the doubles event, the Smirnov/Poplavskyy partnership, again unseeded, were unable to repeat their title winning performance of the previous week. Following opening round wins in straight sets, including a second consecutive second round win over twin brothers, this time Gleb and Vadim Alekseenko, they lost out in the semifinals to the eventual champions 63 67(2) [10-8].
In conclusion, a rather satisfying month was had by Artem Smirnov. Three back-to-back tournaments resulted in three singles finals and two titles with an appearance in a doubles final resulting in a title win and elimination from the other two doubles events coming at the hands of the eventual champions!
Also, with the release of the March 21st ATP singles rankings, Smirnov discovered he had broken into the ATP Top 300 ranked players for the first time in his career with a ranking of 289. At the time of writing, Smirnov had climbed even further up the ladder to 263 on the April 4th rankings list.