Kuznetsov hopes to collect at Atlanta Open

Contrary to published reports, Alex Kuznetsov no longer collects basketball cards.

"The ATP has been hounding me to update that for a while," Kuznetsov said of his profile page on the tour's website. "I think I did that when I had just turned pro."

The cards are now stashed away somewhere at his parents' home in Philadelphia but basketball was elsewhere on the grounds of the BB&T Open on Monday. Hawks center Zaza Pachulia showed up to hit a few shots against Mardy Fish, the tournament's two-time defending champion. An avid NBA fan, Kuznetsov was well-aware of who Pachulia was and the 25-year-old hopes other professional athletes in the area continue to show up throughout the week.

"That would be pretty awesome," said Kuznetsov, who won his qualifying match against Richardo Mello at Atlantic Station, 6-1, 3-6, 6-4.

Kuznetsov said the first set went "exactly how I drew it up" before Mello rallied to take the second. Kuznetsov said his serve saved him in the final set, helping him maintain a comfort level during Mello's service games.

"I got back to making more first serves and got a lot more free points," he said. "That relaxed me a little bit in the return game and I was able to take a game from him there near the end, played a good game with him at 4-5 to break and win the match."

As the tournament begins, Kuznetsov makes a point out of not looking at the entire draw. He focuses solely on his opponent.

"It's a cliche, but I'm just taking things one match at a time," he said. "That's literally what I'm trying to do."

While his card collecting days are behind him, the American wants to start collecting artifacts of a different sort: ATP tour victories. Ranked 208th in the world coming into the Atlanta Open, Kuznetsov has played only one ATP-level match this season, when he made it into the main draw at the Australian Open. Standing at the other side of the net? Rafael Nadal, owner of 11 Grand Slam titles. Kuznetsov was sent packing by the superb Spaniard in straight sets, 6-4, 6-1, 6-1.

For a player as highly-touted as Kuznetsov once was, that was hardly good enough. The 2004 French Open junior finalist's career-high ranking was 158th, accomplished in April 2007. And with only four victories in 19 ATP-level matches, he decided not to make numerical objectives the barometer for his success.

"I'm not really setting a goal for myself, to get to this certain round or wanting to beat this person," he said. "I just want to keep improving my game and keep doing the stuff I do on the practice courts and, hopefully, it'll translate into matches. I've got nothing to lose from here on out."

That's not to say he has never set goals before. They just haven't worked out. Kuznetsov learned his lesson.

"I'm taking a different approach this year," he said. "... If you work on your game, the ranking points will come."

Kuznetsov also hopes another non-tennis dream is realized in the future: returning to Ukraine, the place of his birth. He moved to the U.S. when he was 3 because his parents "wanted a better life for themselves and me." They are all U.S. citizens now, but a return trip to his birth place has yet to happen.

"I regret it," he said. "I hope to go one day, just to see it for myself."