Friday, July 4, 2014

My day at the AC Nielson/Winnetka Challenger (QF edition)

I love live tennis. Pro, college, amateur ... Honestly, it could be two randos on public courts who've never taken a lesson in their lives batting at the ball and I will still find the back and forth endlessly fascinating. While televised tennis has its advantages (especially when there's good camera work, commentary, and production) I definitely prefer the unmediated version.

Today I took my third annual trip up to Winnetka, IL for the Nielsen Pro Tennis Championship. There I saw some good tennis and then some great tennis, and had an overall terrific time.  I suppose it helped that in each match I saw, I had a definite rooting interest (American vs non-American)... 

First up was some doubles. I got there in time too see most of Jarmere Jenkins & Mitchell Krueger vs. Luke Saville & Michael Venus. Venus, of New Zealand, is the highest-ranked doubles player of the foursome at #68 and it showed. He served well, made very few mistakes, and communicated well with his young Australian partner. It was nice seeing both Jarmere and Krueger in person for the first time. Mitchell played pretty solid overall (you can see why he's risen over 200 spots in the past two months) while Jarmere had a number of missed returns and unforced errors, with some flashes of the brilliance that won him so much acclaim in college.

Venus stands with Luke looking on

Saville serving with Venus in the forecourt
Jarmere Jenkins while his partner Krueger is serving.

(L. to R.: Jarmere Jenkins, Mitchell Krueger, Luke Saville, Michael Venus)

The Oceanians were just a bit better on this day, winning 63 62.

After that I settled in to watch the start of Mackenzie McDonald vs. Adrien Bossel. Mackie, of course, is a bit of a legend due to his three-set wins in Cincinnati qualies last year over Nicolas Mahut & Steve Johnson. He earned his way into this tournament via three qualies matches, and then shocked Sam Groth in the first round.

I'd seen Bossel (pronouned "Basel" like the city in the country from whence he comes) before at Winnetka, and was not particularly impressed. It could be that it just wasn't his day back in 2012 - I believe it was awful hot that day - but still, I knew Mackie, a UCLA rising sophomore, had a shot. And he took it. With a composed, mature performance, he overcame his opponent's blazing backhands and reached a challenger semi for the first time, 63 64. His grin after the handshake was, frankly, precious. Sorry I didn't capture it!

McDonald preparing to return, with the ballgirl/scoreboard operator looking on

Bossel not at all happy with a time violation warning he got while toweling off on return. Sent for the tournament director

Bossel serving down a set & 0-30.

He's giddy on the inside. A cool Mackenzie is into the semis!
Then I got the chance to meet Patrick, a young man with a great head for tennis and five fewer wisdom teeth than he had a few days prior. We watched Tim Smyczek warm up with Aron Hiltzik (rising University of Illinois freshman, also works with Billy Heiser) for his evening match, and Patrick pointed out Thanasi Kokkinakis in the background, hitting with Saville. If only I'd known then about Patrick's dark secret (to be revealed in a subsequent post)....

Tim Smyczek warming up with Aron Hiltzik

Next came Austin Krajicek and Farrukh Dustov. I had seen Krajicek play a few times in person and while he still is a bit rough, he has improved a great deal. A year ago he was #290 in singles and #120 in doubles. Today he's cut those to #212 (with a career high of #201 in May) and #80. He's been steady, but not spectacular. You feel like he just needs that one breakthrough event.

Unfortunately, that did not come this week. Facing the 28-year-old Uzbek power merchant, Austin nonetheless won the first set and was up a break in each of the two final sets. But Dustov, whom I'd never watched, played the big points better. Offense, defense, defense-to-offense, and particularly the serve, which was sturdy and at times spectacular. Dustov won 57 73 75. There was no shame in Austin losing that match. A lot of Top 100 guys also would have.

Krajicek has about 56 points to defend this month but after that he's good through October. Hopefully he can get that much-deserved breakthrough and make another run at the top 200.

Austin preparing to return a rocket

Farrukh ready to blast a FEARhand

A cantankerous man in a wheelchair was escorted from the premises, but not before calling these officers "faggots." He continued "I don't know what you are, I assume you're straight, like I am." He was seemingly upset that he wasn't allowed in during a non-changeover time, and then that his view was partially blocked. It was unclear to me whether the tournament offered appropriate seating for those in wheelchairs. 
So I thought that was basically the end of that. Patrick went on his merry way and I stuck around to see if anyone was practicing. Imagine my surprise to see THE TENNYS SANDGREN on court. Austin, who was passing by, told me he was hitting with Tom Fawcett, a local kid who will be attending Stanford in the fall. I told Patrick and he returned to watch them with me. It was great to see him out there, his movement looked solid, and his forehands were as blistering as ever.

When he was done, he came over and chatted with the two of us about all sorts of things - tennis fandom, his upcoming schedule (US Open qualies and fall challengers), that epic match against Steve Johnson in the USTAAOWCPO, racquet abuse (he says he never throws it: "that's your baby"), Chipotle, and much more. Definitely the highlight of my day. Great guy. Cannot WAIT to see him back competing.

Fawcett in white, Tennys in gray, about to crush the inside-out.
All in all, a fun day. I was a bit wary about what I'd be able to watch, from a USA tennis perspective, when the draws came out. But McDonald and Krajicek, by making it to the quarters, gave me lots to root (loudly) for. I headed back to Chicago instead of staying for the night match. There I to watch Denis Kudla straight-set Smyczek (unfortunately for Tim's immediate Top 100 return prospects) and then the replay of Redlicki/McDonald beating the top-seeded Ratiwatana twins. I'll have more on Redlicki in a subsequent post. For now all I'll say is: boy can ball.

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