Alex Rybakov tilted his neck back and opened his palms, eyes closed as he screamed, "ridiculous" toward the sky. The TCU star's first set was unraveling, a mis-hit putting him on the doorstep of a 5-3 deficit with Naoki Nakagawa's serve almost untouchable early on.
The 20-year-old from Plainview, New York, ranked No. 911 in the world, dropped the first set to No. 3-seed Dennis Nevolo in Saturday's semifinal before storming back for a three-set win. In Sunday's final of the Sargent and Collins $15,000 Futures Tournament at Miller Tennis Center in Williamsville, this time against fourth-seeded Nakagawa of Japan, the unseeded American found himself behind again.
Rybakov responded in grand fashion, reeling off a second-straight comeback and a third upset this week, winning 11 straight games and cruising to a 4-6, 6-0, 6-1 win for his first-ever USTA Pro Circuit singles title.
"He was obviously serving really well in the first, and I knew I was gonna get a look here or there," Rybakov said. "It just happened to come early in the second set. Once I broke (serve), it just gave me a little bit of momentum and I just felt I had to hang on from there."
En route to Sunday's championship, Rybakov breezed by David Volfson in the Round of 32 before taking down top-seeded Gonzalo Lama in straight sets in the quarterfinal. At one point last year, Lama reached No. 160 in the world. After topping Maksim Tikhomirov in straight sets in the quarters, Rybakov shut out Nevolo (seven years Rybakov's elder and ranked 538th in the world) in Saturday's decisive third set. As a 17-year-old playing in the same tournament three years ago, Rybakov didn't even make it out of the first round.
The rising college junior was pinned against the 20-year-old Nakagawa, ranked almost 300 spots higher than Rybakov in the ATP World Rankings. Early on, Nakagawa looked the part of a favorite, holding each of his serves while Rybakov succumbed to heavy wind gusts, later calling how he dealt with adverse weather conditions in the first set "immature."
Yet it only took one game for Rybakov to break serve in the second set, and just like that the match turned on its head. Nakagawa looked listless - he later admitted to still having jet lag after flying from Japan - and Rybakov mixed in a variety of shots while his opponent had no answer late despite coming into Sunday having won 76 percent of his three-set matches (16-of-21) this year.
"Third set, I was a little tight in (the) first few games," Nakagawa said. "He started playing really solid."
By the time Nakagawa halted Rybakov's streak at 11 straight games won, it was far too late. The American already held a 5-1 lead in the third set and was well on his way to a Father's Day title even without a single family member in attendance.
Rybakov's father, Nick, was back in Long Island, but Alex vowed to call him once he got the chance. Instead of mingling with family after the match, Rybakov posed for pictures with teenage girls that served as ball girls while they hounded him for his Snapchat and Instagram usernames. Even if it provided only a taste of what winning a title brings, Rybakov finally has one under his belt.
"He's smart and he defends. I think he moved back a little bit. He changed the pace," Todd Miller, head of Miller Tennis Center, said of Rybakov. "...I think he's got more variety in his game and I think he's got more in his toolbox that he can go to.
"This guy figures it out."