In the Zone with Philipp Kohlschreiber

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In the Zone with Philipp Kohlschreiber
(Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Few people can probably understand the fear that seeded players have of drawing Philipp Kohlschreiber in the early rounds of a Grand Slam. If anybody can, though, it’s Anglo/American sportswriters who dread the task of spelling his family name correctly on a consistent basis.

On the one hand, facing Kohlschreiber is perhaps the most daunting task any top 10 player can encounter before the second week of a major due to his brilliant forehand/backhand combination. On the other, his surname is probably the hardest task any Anglocentric tennis journalist is likely to face, at least since the retirement of Alberto Berasategui.

If he consistently won tournaments or reached the second week of majors, then he'd be a latter round opponent the top pros could face after they've finished playing themselves into form. Also, if we were a bit more accustomed to seeing him in the latter rounds, sooner or later we'd have to get used to the polysyllabic conundrum his moniker presents, just as we did with Goran Ivanisevic and Mark Philippoussis.

This year, Kohlschreiber defeated Novak Djokovic in the third round of Roland Garros, and was one of two people to take a set from Roger Federer at Wimbledon. But the main reasons why he strikes fear into the hearts of the game's elites were spelled out in the third round of last year’s Australian Open—as were the reasons why he cannot become an elite himself.

Andy Roddick had played fine tennis in his first two matches, routing his first two opponents after expending minimal effort. Even by then Kohlschreiber had established himself as a threat, having pushed Rafael Nadal at the previous year's AO, so many anticipated a contest. Being only 5'9", though, the German was expected to go down eventually against the overpowering presence of the American.

What fans at Rod Laver Arena were treated to that night exceeded anyone's expectations: Roddick played from behind throughout the match, having lost the first set 6-4 and the third in a tiebreaker. He refused to go down, and fought deep into the fifth set, but after a final brilliant return game in which the German hit the bulls-eye on multiple passing shots, the American was an upset victim in the cruelest of fashions: an 8-6 fifth set.

Throughout that match, Kohlschreiber was in The Zone: He hit a total of 104 winners in those five sets, hardly offset by a minute 33 errors. Despite his average height, his ace total was 32; a total that was practically Croatian in its scope.

And yet, this match will be one of the very, very few we will cover in the In the Zone series that went to five sets. One reason for that is Roddick: The American put up some awfully gilded numbers of his own, with 79 winners and a personal best 42 aces. He saved three match points with aces, including one at 147 mph. Against an Andy Roddick of this caliber, nothing less than five sets in The Zone was going to get the job done for Kohlschreiber.

The fact that he was playing so well and still losing might have contributed to Roddick’s on-court behavior, probably the low point of his career from a public relations' standpoint. In his 2007 campaign shotmakers with one-handed backhands had proven themselves the bane of his Grand Slam endeavors, as Roger Federer beat him in straight sets both at the AO and the US Open, while Richard Gasquet had hit an obscene number of winners to beat Roddick at Wimbledon in (you guessed it) an 8-6 fifth set.

The invective Roddick directed at the umpire was ugly, no doubt. But put yourself in his position: You've put forth a quality performance but are about to fall short once again, this time against a guy who probably won't last another round.

And Kohlschreiber didn't, falling in the round of 16 to the opportunistic Finnish veteran Jarkko Nieminen (another name that gives us tennis writers fits), who himself would fall in the quarters.

At his best, Kohlschreiber's shots are beautiful to watch. In a game chock-full of baseliners, however, beautiful groundstrokes are no longer enough to carry you through tournaments consistently. It’s great to be in The Zone, but if you have be into it to beat top players, you’re not likely to get past the fourth round of a slam or win more than a couple of minor titles.

But Kohlschreiber will always have that one match, where he collected a prize scalp, won a major match and played as well as humanly possible.

For now, let's remember that, and not his shortcomings or his arduous last name.

From here, the In the Zone series becomes a project open to the writers of Bleacher Report's tennis domain. Please contact me through a private message if you are interested in participating. If so, you will receive a schedule and a few rules to follow early in the week.

To view the previous installment, on Agustin Calleri, click here.

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