VERO BEACH, April 28, 2018 (Press Release)
Juan Benitez of Colombia won the anticipated “Colombian Clash” Friday night at the $15,000 Mardy Fish Children’s Foundation Tennis Championships defeating his countryman Nicolas Mejia 7-6 (5), 6-2 in a rousing quarterfinal match featuring powerful forehands, delicate drop shots and outstanding clay-court play at Grand Harbor Golf & Beach Club.
The win in this U.S. Tennis Association Pro Circuit “Futures” event advances Benitez into Saturday’s singles semifinal against American Strong Kirchheimer of Cary, N.C. Top-seed Marcelo Thomas Barrios Vera, a member of Chile’s Davis Cup team, will face Venezuelan Davis Cup team member Ricardo Rodriguez in the first of the two semifinal matches starting at 1 pm Saturday.
Benitez ended the run of the 18-year-old Mejia, who advanced into the main draw via the qualifying rounds and was playing his seventh match in the last eight days. It was a run that Benitez himself accomplished two years ago in Vero Beach when the tournament was at the Boulevard Club. He won four matches in the qualifying tournament, then two more in the main draw before falling in a highly competitive quarterfinal against future star Denis Shapovalov of Canada.
Against Mejia, the No. 7 ranked junior player in the world, Benitez showcased his court speed, rocket forehand and high-energy playing style. Both players traded breaks twice and Mejia even had an opportunity to serve for the set with a 6-5 lead, but the ever-resilient Benitez battled back to break and force the tiebreak. In that tiebreak, Benitez raced out to a 3-1 advantage, but Mejia fought back to level it at 4-all. Benitez was able to take three of the next four points though to close out the set and take the tiebreak 7-5.
With the momentum of winning that first set tiebreak behind him, Benitez didn’t look back in the second set. Two breaks gave him a 5-1 advantage, eventually closing out second set 6-2 to win the match.
Benitez had nothing but praise for his young opponent on Friday night, who played the number of best-of-three set matches over the last eight days, including his four qualifying round wins, that players do over two weeks in Grand Slam tournaments.
“Nico, if he keeps playing this way, he’s not going to be playing much qualies any longer,” Benitez said.
Benitez’s next opponent will be Kirchheimer, a fellow former college tennis player. Kirchheimer played his college tennis at Northwestern, while Benitez played a year at Baylor and was an All-American.
“He’s a great competitor,” Benitez said. “He’s going to be pumped up. It’s going to be a great match. I’m just excited to come back here and keep fighting”
Being just two wins away from the title, Benitez knows what he needs to focus on if he wants to bring hit home.
“I just need to hit my forehand, regardless of who I have in front of me,” Benitez said. “It’s easy math right there.”
Kirchheimer broke the South American stronghold on the semifinals by defeating No. 8 seed Alejandro Tabilo of Chile 1-6, 6-4, 7-5.
“I just want to keep you guys entertained out here,” Kirchheimer said jokingly of losing a one-sided first set. “Figured I’d make it as tight as possible. I mean, credit to him, he’s played very, very well. I’m just glad to get through that one.”
Kirchheimer, a former standout at Northwestern University, felt as if he got off to a slow start, but he was able to quickly turn it around to take the second set before looking like he might roll through the third set as well. He quickly found himself up 3-0 in the third set, but when he served for the match at 5-3, he couldn’t convert.
Staying resilient though, Kirchheimer kept on fighting and eventually broke in the 12th game of the set to close out the match.
“We’ll see if tomorrow I can get off to a quicker start maybe,” said Kirchheimer, who turned 23 on Thursday.
Kirchheimer is still in search of his first professional title, and that could potentially come on Sunday afternoon as he has just two more matches to win.
Another tennis great played his college tennis at Northwestern, former world No. 4 and 1999 U.S. Open runner-up Todd Martin, whose grandparents once lived in Vero Beach.
“He came to one of our matches once. I talked to him a good bit,” Kirchheimer said. “He’s obviously one of the Northwestern greats, and all-time greats.”
For Rodriguez, it was a bittersweet moment in his 6-3, 6-3 quarterfinal win over Agustin Torre of Argentina. Rodriguez, the all-time leading singles player for Venezuela’s Davis Cup team, moved into his first semifinal at a Futures-level professional tennis event since last July, but it came at the expense of his friend and doubles partner, who suffered a right ankle sprain during the match.
“It’s kind of bittersweet,” Rodriguez said. “Obviously I’m happy that I won, but I didn’t want to win under these circumstances.”
Rodriguez was clearly concerned for Torre during and after the match, and that was partly because he had been in the exact position that Torre found himself in.
“I was injured from that same thing, I know how difficult it is,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t desire it to anybody, it’s a nightmare.”
Rodriguez won a drawn-out first set in one hour and 15 minutes as both South American clay court specialists exchanged fierce, top-spin exchanges from the baseline. Torre broke serve to open the second set and kept his service break advantage until his slip on the clay in the sixth game of the second set with Torre leading 3-2. After U.S. Tennis Association trainer taped Torre’s ankle during an injury timeout, the Argentine lost the last four games of the match.
Two hours after the singles match, Torre was able to play with Rodriguez in the doubles semifinals, but the duo lost to Americans Nick Chappell and Harrison Adams 6-1, 6-4.
The 24-year-old Rodriguez will face Barrios Vera of Chile in the semifinals. Rodriguez and Barrios Vera played just last week in Orange Park, Florida just outside of Jacksonville, with Barrios Vera taking the win in straight sets 6-3, 6-2.
Rodriguez says he wouldn’t be at this stage of the tournament though if it weren’t for the hospitality of the community here in Vero Beach.
“You guys treated me like I was one of you guys. I really appreciate that,” Rodriguez said, recollecting on his first trip to Vero Beach last year. He then went on to specifically acknowledge Grand Harbor resident Pat Reynolds, who has been housing Rodriguez and his girlfriend this week.
“Without her, this wouldn’t be possible,” Rodriguez said.
Barrios Vera advanced into the semifinals with a 7-6 (4), 6-3 win over Junior Alexander Ore of Gaithersburg, Md. The win didn’t come easy as Barrios Vera found himself down a break late in the first set, and Ore had a chance to serve it out to take the early lead. Barrios Vera stayed strong though, fought back to get the break, and then kept his momentum rolling to win the tiebreaker.
The second set was much more straightforward for the Chilean as he broke midway through the set for a 4-2 lead and held on to that break advantage to close out the match, closing it out in just under two hours. It marked the 20th win for Barrios in his 23 matches played.
Semifinal action at Grand Harbor will start at 1 p.m. on Saturday afternoon. The singles and doubles finals will be played Sunday starting at 1 pm. Tickets are $20 each day with children 18-and-under admitted free.