One of Natalie Pluskota's goals this year was to play in the U.S. Open.
She took a huge step recently.
Pluskota, a four-time All-American at Tennessee, won the U.S. Open Southern Sectional Qualifying in Alpharetta, Ga., defeating Alabama junior Mary Anne Macfarlane 7-6 (4), 2-6, 6-4. Pluskota rallied from a 4-0 third-set deficit to win the last six games in 100-degree heat.
Pluskota, who lost an SEC match to Macfarlane in April, is among 13 sectional winners vying for a wild card spot in the U.S. Open Qualifying. She will play in the U.S. Open National tournament Aug. 17-20 at Yale University.
"Playing in the U.S. Open has been a goal of mine since I went to UT," Pluskota said from Yakima, Wash., where she was playing singles and doubles in a $50,000 Challenger. "It's definitely exciting to have a chance."
She almost made it her first two years at UT. Playing doubles in the NCAA tournament, Pluskota lost in the semifinals and finals with Caitlin Whoriskey. Winning would have put them in the main draw of the U.S. Open.
In the Southern Sectional mixed doubles, Pluskota reached the finals with UT sophomore Hunter Reese. Both are from Georgia.
Pluskota, who won her first pro event last July in Atlanta, has a busy month. After playing in Washington, she competes in a $10,000 tournament in Evansville, Ind., starting today and an ITA $25,000 event in Vancouver July 29-Aug. 4.
Smith Shines: With the help of a "hat trick," former UT player J-P Smith captured the singles championship at the Winnetka (Ill.) Challenger in stunning fashion.
Behind 6-5 and serving at 30-30 in the third set against sixth-seed Richard Berankis, Smith chased after a ball. As he struck the return, his hat flew off.
The ruling: A let. Replay the point.
"That's happened to me before," Smith said, "but it's the first time it had happened to me all week."
Berankis, who played in the 2011 Knoxville Challenger, was upset.
Smith won the next point, held serve, then captured the tie-breaker for a 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (3) win in the final. Smith was down 4-2 in the third set before rallying.
"I kept competing and going after everything," Smith said.
Smith is the first former UT player to win a Challenger in singles since Chris Woodruff in 1996.
"It takes a commitment to get a Challenger victory," said Smith, who now has three singles and eight doubles titles as a pro. "These guys don't give away any free points."
Smith had to win three matches in qualifying to get in the main draw. He beat three top 200 players.
The same day he won singles, he lost in the doubles final with partner John Peers, a former Middle Tennessee State player. Smith didn't get off the court until 11:45 p.m.
"It was a long day at the office," Smith said.
Rankings: Smith vaulted from No. 298 to 210 in the ATP world rankings.
Former UT player Tennys Sandgren, who reached the Winnetka quarterfinals, is ranked 266.
Rhyne Williams, another former Vol, lost in the second round and is ranked 279.
In doubles, Smith is 147, Sandgren 276 and Williams 339.
Major Upset: Denmark's Frederik Nielsen, who teamed with Great Britain's Jonathan Marray to win the Wimbledon doubles title, played in the Knoxville Challenger last November.
Nielsen and partner Adam Hubble, a former Vol, lost in the doubles final to Americans Steve Johnson and Austin Krajicek.
Smith said he hit with Nielson during the Challenger.
"It's a great inspirational story," Smith said of Nielsen-Marray, the first men's wild card pair to hoist the Wimbledon trophy.
Nielsen-Marray defeated defending champions Mike and Bob Bryan in the semifinals, then stunned Robert Lindstedt of Sweden and Horia Tecau of Romaniain the final.
Another Major: Former UT standout Paul Annacone has another major on his resume.
Annacone coaches Roger Federer, who won his seventh Wimbledon singles title. Annacone has coached Federer since mid-2010.
Annacone coached Pete Sampras to eight of his 14 Grand Slam titles.
Jimmy Hyams is a freelance contributor.