Back in civilization after a week+ traversing Michigan and Ohio, I have had time to breathe and write a wrap-up post about Kalamazoo. And what I want to say about Kalamazoo is that it was a revelation. Both the city (lively, lots of college kids, and beer breweries galore) and the tournament. It was my first time watching junior tennis live and I was absolutely-no-foolin' impressed by the level of play, particularly among the 16s that I saw. I'd seen the guys who were playing the 18s a time or two and it's pretty much a given that most of the top-level 18s are good enough to compete right now against top-level college guys and/or on the Futures or even Challenger circuits. In fact just this week we've seen Altamirano, Escobedo, Kozlov, Rubin, and Tiafoe all take at least a set off Top 200 guys. But yeah, man, the 16s. Sure, I was watching the best of the best, but the pace and direction of the shots, consistency of rallies, footwork, speed, and court sense of the players outstripped what I had anticipated.
Saturday at The Zoo featured a great panoply of matches: 16s, 18s, singles, doubles, and consolation matches. Here were a few snippets that stood out.
Walker Duncan's quest for 9th place in the 18s was going nowhere. Logan Smith was all over him like a good writer on a juicy metaphor. Smith, whose elegant had taken him to the third round of Junior Wimbledon, seemed barely to have broken a sweat as he went up 6-1 in the final of the Feed-In tournament. The blond Georgian looked outclassed and frustrated. Down a break in the second set, Duncan finally reached break point at 4-5* (at least I think it was 4-5* ... next time I do this, if I ever do, I vow to be more organized about note taking!) but then hit an unforced error and in a flash of anger threw his racquet, which earned him a point penalty and earned Smith a match point. But Walker saved it, then finally broke Smith, and eventually took him to a tiebreak which Duncan won. The final set was a super tiebreak and that was won 10-8 by Walker and I remember it being dramatic but honestly I couldn't tell you details. Anyway his smile tells it all.
The kid who, for some of us, will always be associated with a certain Taylor Dent commercial, played strong, composed tennis in the match I saw. The #9 seed was in all sorts of trouble, though, in his semifinal against the unseeded (and apparently pretty unknown) Oliver Crawford, the two having split sets and Hance seemingly a bit rattled. Crawford was coming to the net a lot, with good success. Early in the third, though, with Hance in the middle of a marathon game in which he was trying to consolidate a break, he hit a tremendous backhand lob that Crawford desperately ran back to get, only to fall. The South Carolinian wasn't the same after that, perhaps hobbled by the injury, and Hance went on to win 6-4 2-6 6-2. I got a great photo of him in the interview room that I accidentally deleted - so just picture the kid in the commercial all grown up. (Sidenote: Hance indicated he was "kind of over" the commercial - hopefully he'll get to make another one at some point!)
Gianni & John
A major theme of the two days I was at The Zoo was the deep friendship of two top players in the 16s, John McNally and Gianni Ross. I wrote a bit about them in my first installment. They played each other in the second semifinal, and the second set was competitive, with Ross getting it to a tiebreak, but right now 15-year-old McNally is the best American player playing the 16s. He went on to beat Hance 6-4 6-4 and got a wildcard into the main draw of Junior US Open (Ross got a wildcard into the qualies, as did Hance). The pair also won the doubles - twice having to get through in third sets.
But mostly, it was interesting to watch these two, both separately and together. Each referred to the other as his "brother" in their individual interviews, and were clear that their friendship ran much deeper than tennis. It was a nice view into how tennis can bring people together across distance (McNally is from Cincinnati, Ross from the Chicago area).
|Ross & McNally|
As I continue my rapid ascent to the dizzying heights of renowned tennis blogger I find it highly doubtful I'll find a more pleasant interview than this Golden Stater. It's funny that his animated on-court demeanor (on demonstration yesterday as he lost his second-round qualies match at the US Open to former junior star Ricardis Berankis) brought a charge of "obnoxious" on Twitter, because in front of *this* reporter he was thoughtful, respectful, even charming. Watching him in person, he got a bit lucky in reaching the final - Donaldson was up a break when he was forced to retire, and Kozlov wasn't at 100% in his match - but the confidence and intensity he brings to the court is invigorating. The big question around Altamirano is "will he or won't he" go to college (or, more accurately, "should he or shouldn't he"). It's a weird quirk of tennis that only Americans are forced to make that choice, whereas players in other countries are allowed to do so. I won't chime in on this, as I've never been in his position. I do wish him the best, though, whichever path he chooses.
Ernesto Escobedo is in the final round of US Open qualies today while the guy who beat him in straight sets at The Zoo is playing a juniors tournament in Maryland. This guy scared the bejeezus out of Noah Rubin - the only one to threaten the eventual champ. His tools are pretty extraordinary and he looked like he was in 3rd gear most of the time. He's a little under the radar compared to the other seven 18s quarterfinalists right now. Which could be the best thing for him, who knows?
|Mmoh, Tiafoe, Wiersholm & Paul - 4th & 3rd place 18s doubles|
All I'm going to say about this guy is that once he harnesses his game ... watch out. Wow.
Overall, the tournament was a real eye-opener. As I've written, all these guys are so good at what they do and already have achieved great things. It's fun putting faces and styles to names I've only seen and learning about new players. I'd love to do it again some time.
|18s doubles champs Kozlov & Rubin|
|Baughman signing autographs after the doubles final|
Final note: I really do hope they fix the entry system to nationals. Putting the Smiths and the Deiton Baughmans of the world in qualies is unfair both to them (making them play those extra matches, given how much they had to play anyway, put them at a distinct disadvantage in the fourth round against the top eight seeds) and to their qualifying opponents. A coach told me that his player had this one chance to play nationals, impress coaches, and possibly qualify. He one his first-round match but then had to play one of the big three in the second round and never stood a chance. Given the implications for his future it does seem a bit unfair...
Final final note: keep an eye out for Sam Riffice. Not only did the 15-year-old serve a first-set bagel to McNally in the quarterfinals, he served for the match in the third set only to lose in a third-set tiebreak. Then this week he went out to Mmoh in a third-set tiebreak in Maryland, with match point on his racquet (he missed a backhand volley into the net).