Friday, August 8, 2014

Welcome to The Zoo

The Zoo - the sobriquet of the USTA Boys 16s and 18s National Championships in Kalamazoo, Michigan - is aptly nicknamed.  Like a zoo, it's in a bucolic setting and is for all intents and purposes a show - a chance for civilized people to view seemingly docile creatures who are in fact wild animals ready and able to attack at any moment. Probably the only difference between The Zoo and a conventional zoo is the fact that the animals in the former are, to a great extent, going to go to college and/or play professional tennis, while the latter are pretty much going to stay in the zoo forever.

I arrived this morning from Chicago for my first-ever tournament as a credentialed member of the media (yes, On the Rise fans, this counts as media) hella excited for what was to come. The highlight was to be two quarterfinals in the 18s (pretty much all American players 18 and under are eligible) that were breathlessly awaited by aficionados of junior tennis, particularly of the American variety. In one, defending 18s champion Collin Altamirano faced Jared Donaldson in a rematch of last year's final (although more pressing to Altamirano, a rematch of the quarterfinals at the Oklahoma City Futures tournament in June at which the Ocean Stater trounced him 62 61). Donaldson has progressed leaps and bounds since last year's final and is the highest ranked on the pro level of all the participants (nearing #300). In the other match, Junior Wimbledon runner-up Stefan Kozlov faced huge serving, big hitting Taylor Harry Fritz, himself a Junior Wimbledon semifinalist. Kozlov, the #4 seed, was the favorite, but the match was sure to be close given big Taylor's prodigious gifts.

Thank goodness that wasn't all on the menu, because those were two bummer matches.

This is a big deal tournament for many reasons - I mean, shucks, it's the national championship - but one prize is most newsworthy: the winner gets a wildcard to the main draw of the US Open. THE US Open. So yeah: big deal. You want to be at the absolute top of your game coming in because there's a real possibility (although we hope it's not ever the case) that the winner will play their sole career main draw at any grand slam event.

So it really sucks that Fritz hurt his ankle yesterday in his win over Daniel Kerznerman and that Donaldson seemed to have started today's match with an ab injury - three games into the match he called for the trainer and after double faulting on the first point while serving up 4-2, he Catholic(?)-crossed himself, walked toward the net, and retired. EVERYONE WAS LIKE DAYUMMMMM THIS SUCKS! Even Altamirano clearly wanted a full match.  (For a full recount of today's action, check out Colette Lewis' excellent overview. But to sum it up: Kozlov will face Altamirano in Saturday's semis.)

This was my first time in anything resembling a media room (actually the open-air second floor of the "famed Fischer Tower" overlooking the ten or eleven lovely courts at Kalamazoo College) and my first time interviewing any player. It's not like there was a gargantuan media presence today. There was me. There was Colette (who was a godsend for this blogger, and I'm not even joking). And there's Pam, the woman who covers the event for the local paper. The paucity of coverage is strange, in my opinion, given the pedigree of the eight highest seeds among the 18s. Five of them were in the Junior Wimbledon quarterfinals and the other three have ATP singles rankings of 309 (Donaldson), 515 (Ernesto Escobedo), and 846 (Altamirano); Donaldson & Escobedo are among the Top 30 teens in the entire world.  It's a really impressive group. Anyway it seems to me that this tournament should have been packed with reporters, tennis TV personalities, celebrity hangers-on, and the like. And while there was a terrific crowd of spectators, there were no ESPN cameras, no New York Times, no Tennis magazine. There was Colette, Pam, and me.

So now I'm THE MEDIA. It's pretty intoxicating, to be honest. I'm not even joking. And here's my first question. Are you ready?  Okay, here it is: "I'm coming from Chicago, I'm just wondering, how you think the Chicago tennis scene plays out compared some of these other regions ... other areas of the country that you've seen?" God, I suck.

The question was directed to Burr Ridge, Illinois, 16s competitor Gianni Ross. Ross was the best part of this excellent day for me. For one, it's always good when a homie gets a win (although as a member of THE MEDIA now, I am not allowed to root for players in tournaments I'm covering, and for one good reason: it's not cool to interview a player after cheering for her or his opponent. Especially at small tournaments it's a dick move); for two, his match against Tulsa's Zeke Clark was quite compelling; and for three, I sat in front of his adorable Polish grandparents during the match and got lots of dirt on him.

Here are five things you should know about Gianni Ross, courtesy of his adorable Polish grandmother:

1) His mother's (married) name is Diana Ross.
2) They have a dog named Rafa.
3) His full name is Gianni Mac Ross and he was named after Johnny Mac, aka John McEnroe.
4) I mean, seriously?
5) His dad can't handle watching his matches and so was pacing the grounds during the match.

Anyway, Ross' answer to my question was that Chicago has a lot of really good players, in particular Tom Fawcett and Martin Joyce. He cut his answer short, saying he was just really happy to get the win but really he was trying to watch the other quarterfinal, featuring top seed & Ross' doubles partner John McNally vs far less heralded #6 seed Sam Riffice (honestly, all the media, all three of us, were very interested in that match as well, as it was entering a third set tiebreak, McNally coming back from a bagel down and 0-4 in the third to force said tiebreak. It was, per Lewis, the match of the tournament).

My second-ever player interview was with McNally, the eventual victor, who will face Ross on Saturday. I asked a couple of outstanding questions and McNally answered thoughtfully and thoroughly but then I erased the recording. Rookie mistake.

In any case, the quality on display in the 16s was fantastic. Even with the best 16-year-olds (Kozlov, Frances Tiafoe, and Michael Mmoh) playing 18s, there was excellent ball striking, athleticism, all-court play, strategy, and drama. was having back issues, Ross had to get a cut on his knee taken care of, McNally and Riffice had an exceptionally tense match... there were solid backhands, forehand blasts, even some good net play.  These kids? Can play.

I also got to interview Altamirano (a very respectful and charming fellow) and Kozlov (whose intensity, coupled with his exceptional feel for the game, will take him far). I don't really have many exciting things to report from either interview other than that my hilarious question about Kozlov's Nike shirt, which has been worn by a bunch of young guys taking the ATP by storm this summer, got a good response: "It started with Zverev I guess; my friend Zverev had a good week in Hamburg - no one knows how he did it - I don't know. Just a new shipment of shirts. When I put it on I think I can beat anyone, too. My Superman shirt."

Also, Kozlov is trying to finish the year #1 so in addition to futures & challengers he'll play as many junior events as he needs to (hopefully) make that happen. Altamirano will be playing some futures and challengers in California after the US Open. He's glad not to have to travel so much.

The day ended with some wonderful doubles play, especially among the 16s.  Ross and McNally teamed to win a quality match against the #3 seeds Alex Phillips and Robert Loeb, 7-5 in the third, to make the final in what may have been the most well-played match of the day. Kozlov and Rubin took care of Tiafoe and Mmoh in 2 tight, frustrating (for Tiafoe fans especially) sets. And Altamirano teamed with taller-than-I-realized Deiton Baughman to beat an overmanned but exceptionally skilled team in Henrik Weirsholm and Tommy Paul. Whoever wins the Kozlov/Rubin//Baughman/Altamirano match will get a wild card to the US Open doubles event. The regular one, not the juniors one. I kind of want to stay for that 18s final.  We'll see.

All in all, an amazing day for me at The Zoo. I'll have more in future posts about the tournament and what it's like to "cover" tennis. It's wayyyyy tougher than I thought it would be. Part of me loved the access and the sense of importance that came with the credential. And part of me just wanted to be the loud, obnoxious, partisan fan that I usually am, tweeting away with no self-imposed deadlines.. I think I'll continue to try both, for a while at least, and see which fits better.

Your thoughts, as always, are sincerely appreciated.


  1. The Zoo is always great fun to go to!

    Quick question though...based on what you saw, who do you think will be the 18s champion?

  2. I'm going to go with Noah Rubin, as he did so well at Wimbledon, and also as he already won by the time I got around to responding to this :-D