Denis Kudla has spent the first half of 2012 on the brink of a breakthrough, competing toe-to-toe against Andy Roddick and coming within one match of qualifying for Wimbledon.
On Wednesday, Kudla advanced to the quarterfinals of the Fifth Third Bank Championships at the University of Kentucky's Hilary Boone Tennis Complex as he seeks his first professional singles title.
Kudla beat Tennys Sandgren 6-4, 6-2 in a second-round matchup on a sweltering day when temperatures reached the mid-90s.
"I handled the heat well. He was getting pretty tired," the 19-year-old said. "I was on offense the majority of the points. To win quick and get off the court to some air conditioning is a big plus."
On Tuesday night, Kudla dispatched Michael Yani 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 in his first-round match. Yani was coming off a victory in the ATP Challenger Tour event at Binghamton, N.Y., that concluded Sunday.
"The first set was absolutely awful, one of the worst starts of a match since I have turned pro," Kudla said. "I knew he had gotten in just that morning, and it had to be tough on him, especially as hot and humid as it was. I knew it was going to come down to who could last out there. "
Kudla moved from Ukraine to the United States when he was 1, and he began playing tennis at the age of 7, motivated by watching his older brother play.
"I was just tagging along — being an annoying little brother," Kudla said.
His natural talent was spotted early on, and his parents enrolled him in a tennis academy by the time he was 8.
He flirted with playing collegiate tennis at Southern California, but he turned pro instead.
Although he has yet to win a tournament, Kudla has been on the big stage frequently of late.
He battled Roddick at the SAP Open in San Jose, Calif., in February, ultimately losing 7-6 (5), 6-7 (5), 4-6.
"It hit me real hard emotionally. My head was down in the locker room for 30, maybe 40 minutes," Kudla said. "If I had won that match, maybe I would be in a different spot right now."
He said that the match motivated him, however.
"I now know I can play at that level," Kudla said.
"It definitely was a big step forward. I was so close."
In June, Kudla made a run at qualifying for Wimbledon, winning two of the three matches needed, before losing 6-1, 6-0, 6-2 to Jerzy Janowicz.
"I was in the last round of qualifiers, and I got my butt kicked. Janowicz just completely overpowered me," Kudla said. "Looking back, I just had no chance in that match."
Janowicz made it to the third round at Wimbledon before losing a five-set match.
Dustin Taylor, USTA National coach, said now that Kudla has won a couple matches, he may be able to make a deep tourney run.
"Denis has been picking up some momentum, getting better with each week," Taylor said. "He hasn't yet completely put it together, but hopefully this is the week. When he gets a round or two under his belt, his best tennis comes out. It's all about preparation and self-belief. The self-belief for Denis comes from winning matches."
Kudla, who has competed in the Fifth Third Championships in the past, is enjoying his visit to Lexington.
"I've always loved Lexington. I like the Southern feel," Kudla said. "This is the first time I have won matches here, reaching the quarterfinals after struggling the last couple of weeks. Hopefully we can keep going and get that first title."
■ Play continues Thursday, with the first matches scheduled to start at 11 a.m. Both men's and women's, singles and doubles championships are scheduled for Sunday starting at 2 p.m.