Sunday, December 14, 2014

Second-Half Awards!! Part 1: The Fellows

Given that I already did first-half awards, I though it might be nice, rather than doing the whole "year-end awards" if I just did awards focusing on the second half of 2014 -- namely, everything after the French Open. Then you at home can compare, contrast, and construct your OWN year-long awards, and won't that be nice?

Part 1 focuses on male players. But don't you worry! Part 2 is just around the corner...

Also, as a special bonus, I've separated out the 18 & under players from those over 18. Some of these kids had great second halves, but it's really tough to compare

Top 10 second halves, 18 & over
1. Sam Querrey - The Redemption of Sam Querrey came in poetic fashion. If you will remember back to the first round of Davis Cup, Sam - filling in for John Isner at #1 singles - was well on his way to capturing a must-have Day 1 point vs. Great Britain's James Ward on the clay in San Diego, when everything went to hell. So it was somehow fitting that his biggest win of the year came also in Davis Cup, back in his familiar #2 singles spot, with a straight-set win against #1 Slovak Martin Klizan. He followed that up with three challenger titles in three weeks. No, he didn't face heavy competition in those 15 matches. But as Ward showed, it's not your ranking, it's whether you win that last point. And thus did Sam Querrey finish the year where he started: as the second-ranked American.

2. Jack Sock - Would easily be #1 on this list, were it not for one man: that darn Milos (Raonic). Going 0-4 against the Canadian - including twice in third-set tiebreaks - kept Our Jack out of the Top 40. Well, to be fair, so did losses to Becker, Benneteau, and worst to Andujar at the U.S. Open, 46 63 16 (ret.). But in his favor, two semis; wins over Nishikori, Chardy, and Isner; and that sensational Wimbledon doubles title with Vasek Pospisil (see below) gave us a lot of hope for the immediate future. Now we know why they call him J-Sizzle.

3. Bob Bryan and Mike Bryan - They would be higher but (a) I'm more focused on singles, (b) they set such a high standard of excellence that anything short of a calendar grand slam seems hardly worth mentioning, and (c) they had a number of problems early on in the second half. FACT! - they lost their first round match at Queens Club then dropped the Wimbledon final to a couple of inexperienced upstarts ... FACT! - they were unimpressive to start the North American hardcourt season, with early losses in Washington (to Johnson/Querrey) and Toronto (to Cilic/Gonzalez - yes, that was a thing) ... FACT! - it got so bad that I wrote an infamous (and, in retrospect, regrettable) blog post calling for them not to be on the US Davis Cup Team for the World Group play-off tie with Slovakia. But by winning 5 of the last 6 tournaments they played (including 3 Masters Series events, the US Open (their 100th title as a team), and the WTF Final) and absolutely dominating in their one Davis Cup match, they shut me the hell up and earned their spot near the top of this list.

4. Steve Johnson - 4 quarterfinals but no semifinals. Losing 7 of his last 10 matches. That awful cramping end to his first-round US Open match. It was a bit of a comedown from such a great first half for the competitive Johnson. But he still finished at a career-high #37, up 26 spots from his post-Roland Garros ranking. And with wins over Granollers, Isner, Karlovic, and Gulbis, he showed he does indeed belong at the tour level.

5. John Isner - Look, the guy won an ATP title. What other American man won an ATP title? Or even got to a final? NOBODY, that's who. Plus he helped USA stay in the Davis Cup World Group with a win over Norbert Gombos. So - yeah. #5.

6. Denis Kudla - A challenger title in Winnetka. His first main draw grand slam win, at Wimbledon. Winning the Australian Open wildcard with two quarterfinals and a semi to close the year. And oh yeah - overcoming mono, which kept him out for 2 months right as he was playing the best tennis of his life.

7. Austin Krajicek - Raise your hand if you had Austin Krajicek finishing among the Top 10 US men in 2014. Now put your hand down, you filthy liar, because honestly, the guy kind of snuck up on all of us. Austin got it done on the challenger level, especially in the second half, thanks to his title in Medellin and three consecutive quarterfinals to finish the year. He also earned his first career ATP main draw win, a two-set win over then-#107 Tim Smyczek in Newport.

8. Jarmere Jenkins - I had high hopes for Jenkins going into 2014, and things started out great - some huge wins in Australia (including a 15-13 final set tiebreak win over Matthew Barton at the Burnie Challenger and a title at the AUS F1 event in Happy Valley. But then came the clay, and six-match losing streak. After a run to the Tulsa Futures final in June came another four-match losing streak (culminating in a traumatizing (to me) loss in Lexington, mentioned below). But then he went on a 30-4 streak to close out the year, with titles at USA F25 and AUS F's 7, 8 and 10, and a final at Traralgon Challenger.

My only fear is that Jarmere will change nationalities. Overall he went 35-7 in Australia with 4 titles (plus 3 doubles titles).  I struggle to understand why he returned to the States, but I'm glad he did.

9. Bjorn Fratangelo - Notwithstanding winning a futures title in Tampa in April, the Pittsburgher was having a desultory season, which continued into the second half with several early losses in Italian futures. And then the switch flicked. He won his final tournament on his European trip, then turned around and won the Decatur Futures event (which I foolishly didn't attend). Then a final at CAN F7 (beating soon-to-be US Open Junior champ Omar Jasika 8-6 in a third-set tiebreak) and consecutive titles at CAN F9 & F10. Consecutive quarterfinals during the USTA Pro Circuit NorCal challengers got him to a new career high of #255 and, more importantly, cemented his place on this list.

10 (tie) Daniel Nguyen & Dennis Novikov - They've got the same initials, they went to rival colleges (though the former with far more distinction), they each had 3 Futures titles after May. Nguyen had more wins on the challenger circuit (4-1) but Novikov will end the year ranked higher, if only barely.

Honorable Mentions: Connor Smith (OH!), Peter Kobelt (IO!)

Top 5 second halves, under 18
1. Stefan Kozlov - Youngest player in the Top 500. Sacramento Challenger finalist. Wimbledon Juniors finalist. USTA Boys 18s doubles winner. And then today: Orange Bowl singles and doubles winner. Which is even huger given all his close-but-no-trophy tournaments. He gets it by a hair over JD.

2. Jared Donaldson - Donaldson ended the first half with 5 wins to take his first professional title, at TUR F19, which turned out to be the start of a 15-match winning streak (titles at USA F15 & F17, both in Oklahoma) that got his ranking into the Top 400. He opened eyes with a win over Marius Copil in the first round of Binghamton Challenger, and a close loss to Daniel Cox in the second round (admirably covered by The Tennis Nerds). But it was his six wins in NorCal, including a brilliant run to the semis of Napa (and another near-miss, against Tim Smyczek) that allowed him to end the year as the 6th-ranked 18-and-under player, currently at #259. He also announced that he was going pro. So, with only 35 of his 191 points to defend until June, there's reason to be excited - very excited - over this talented young man with the sometimes breathtaking backhand.

3. Noah Rubin - Kid played just one ITF juniors event: Junior Wimbledon. Which he won. As a qualifier. And he won the ridiculously tough USTA Boys 18s (singles and doubles). He also qualified for and won a main draw match at the Champaign Challenger. And he helped Team USA win its fourth straight MasterU event in France.

4. Michael Mmoh - He played 2 pro events in the second half. In the first (USA F28), he got to the semis. In the second (USA F29), he won the whole thing to get himself into the ATP Top 700. He went 26-6 in juniors over the half, with titles in Tulsa and at the Grade A Abierto Juvinil Mexicano (his second Grade A title in 13 months). He teamed with Kozlov to win the Orange Bowl doubles. He and Frances Tiafoe even won a main draw doubles match at the US Open. His upper limit is tough to discern. It may not exist.

5. Taylor Fritz - I'm late to the juniors game, no doubt. Fritz wasn't even on my radar when he advanced to the Roehampton semis in June. Then he got on everyone's radar (except maybe Pete Sampras') with a run to the Junior Wimbledon semis. Then he took the Grade A Osaka's Mayor Cup in October. And then even bigger: he won a lower-grade tournament, the Grade 1 Yucatan Cup, beating junior #1 Andrey Rublev in the process (avenging his losses at Roehampton and the US Open). And keep in mind, he's still learning how and when to employ all his massive gifts. Watch out when he does.

Honorable mentions: Eddie Herr champ Reilly Opelka; US Open Junior semifinalist Frances Tiafoe; Deiton Baughman, because he follows me on Twitter :P. Honorable-honorable mention: Sam Riffice - for his Eddie Herr/Orange Bowl 16s double.

5 disappointing second halves
1. Ryan Harrison - I mean. Yeah. Ryan. #itgetsbetter #ordoesit

2. John Isner - He started the second half ranked #11 and ended the year at #19. His win at Atlanta came without having to face a Top 50 player. Oh and Kohlschreiber (see below).

3. Rhyne Williams - Near the beginning of the year, I thought he'd make it into the Top 100 by the end of 2014. Instead, he fell to #245 in August and currently sits at #220. And given that he has half his points to defend between now and February, and is recovering from a herniated disc in his back, we may be looking at the Futures tour if something doesn't change, and soon.

4. Michael Russell - Three retirements. Only 2 top-200 wins. And just announced that next year will be his last. Let's hope it's a bit better than the second half of this year.
5. Tim Smyczek - He actually had a much better second half than first half - the problem was that he had so many points to defend from his brilliant second half of 2013 that he wasn't able to secure that main draw spot in the Australian Open (and the massive paycheck that comes with it). He'll be well positioned to earn his spot in qualies, but I'm guessing he's a bit sick of Grand Slam qualies right about now. (He's lost in the final round in his last three attempts to qualify.)

5 most exciting wins
1. Sock/(Pospisil) d. Bryan/Bryan 76(5) 67(3) 64 36 75, Wimbledon F
Highlights below:

2. Stefan Kozlov d. Tim Smyczek 36 63 76(1), Sacramento Challenger SF
In his fourth third set in four matches, the 16-year-old Kozlov went down 1-3* 0-40 to the Wisconsinite and everyone thought that the magical ride was over. Kozlov had other ideas. By some sort of wizardry (captured beautifully by NorCal Tennis Czar), Kozlov broke Smee to get back on serve, and then went ahead and won the match to advance to the Sacramento final. He would lose to Querrey (as everyone did during the NorCal swing). But boy did he make a statement.

3. Austin Krajicek d. Alejandro Gonzalez 67(8) 63 76(5), Medellin Challenger QF
Such a clutch win by the American over a guy who had ridden clay court challengers into the Top 100. In front of a partisan, if fair, crowd, Austin saved all six break points he faced, and simply grinded out one of the best (if not THE best) wins of his career. Two matches later, Krajicek left Colombia with the title.

4 (T). Steve Johnson d. John Isner 67(5) 63 76(6), Washington DC 2R; Steve Johnson d. Ivo Karlovic 36 76(4) 76(7), Washington DC 3R
Johnson improved his final-set-tiebreak record to 5-0 with these back-to-back come-from-behind thrillers. He saved 2 match points in the second. Unfortunately, he lost the next round to Milos Raonic. And two weeks later, aforementioned Raonic ruined his perfect deciding tiebreak record in the third round of Cincinnati. Oh, and he also ruined Johnson's trip to Switzerland with a first round win in Basel. Bottom line: Raonic did his best to ruin 2014 for me. Screw Raonic.

5. Chase Buchanan d. Gianni Mina 63 36 75, Charlottesville Challenger 1R
I had to give Chase props for this win, given what I'm about to bring up. It was his only win in three fall US tournaments, following an insane year, and Mina was playing out of his mind. The Frenchman served for the match at 5-4 in the third set, and had match point, but Chase somehow (finally) got the break and then broke again to earn a truly memorable win.

Honorable mention: Jarmere Jenkins d. Thanasi Kokkinakis 67(3) 62 75, Traralgon 2 CH QF; Jenkins d. Lawrence Bataljin 62 26 75, Toowoomba Futures 1R - came back from 0-5 down in the 3rd set to win.

5 most crushing losses
1. Jason Jung l. Rick De Voest 64 67(4) 67(4), Vancouver Challenger R1
Inspired my first (and to date only) match write-up. Go read it.

2. John Isner l. Philip Kohlschreiber 67(4) 64 67(2) 67(4), US Open R3
Isner didn't get broken. He won more points. He lost to this fucking guy for the third year in a row at his home major, all in the third round. Oh and he's 4-0 against the German everywhere else.

3(T). Chase Buchanan l. Joao Sousa 75 67(3) 67(5), Cincinnati R1; Buchanan  l. John Millman 06 06, Tiburon Challenger R1; Buchanan l. Laurent Lokoli 06 06, Charlottesville Challenger R2; Buchanan l. Marcus Willis 76(5) 36 57, Knoxville CH R1
The first was Buchanan's first main draw ATP match since he got a wildcard into the 2009 US Open by virtue of winning the USTA Boys' 18s National Championships, and a win would have likely gotten him a second US Open wildcard. And I was there, yelling my face off, and perhaps gave Sousa (who started giving me dirty looks) a little extra motivation. Sorry, Chase.

The others were just rough, end-of-a-long-season, depressing losses.

4. Jarmere Jenkins l. Dayne Kelly 63 67(4) 46, AUS F6 (Alice Springs) QF
Kelly saved three match points and, I mean, it led to this classic tweet:
5. Steve Johnson l. cramps, US Open 1R
Go find it yourself.

Honorable mention: Frances Tiafoe l. Quentin Halys 26 63 67(6), US Open Juniors SF; Jenkins l. Ruben Bemelmans 76(5) 36 67(1), Lexington Challenger R1 - annoying fans rooting for the Belgian. Gross.

Breakout performance
Stefan Kozlov, Sacramento. Four three-set wins to become youngest American challenger finalist since Andre Agassi in 1986. And he used every weapon in his arsenal to get there.

Most improved
Jack Sock. Something seemed to click this fall with young Sock. After taking a month off following his first round, third-set US Open retirement vs. Pablo Andujar, during which month he turned 22, Sock had wins over Dolgopolov, Tomic (twice), Nishikori, Chardy, and then 61 61 over Andujar. And an enjoyable three-set loss to Dimitrov. Hey, maybe next year he won't have to face Milos Raonic (0-5 in 2014) and will be even MORE improved!

Comeback player of the second half
Wil Spencer. It's a wacky story and you almost don't want to call it a comeback, since he'd never earned an ATP point until the fateful USA F31 tournament in Niceville, Florida. But he'd played in a few Futures in 2006/2007 and won a qualifying round match in Atlanta in 2011. And had a nice college career at Georgia. But just ... if you didn't follow this incredible story, read this.

Honorable Mentions: Kudla - coming back from mono to win the Australian Open wildcard is pretty awesome. Looking forward to 2015, for sure. Tennys Sandgren - seeing him back ... at a high level ... just awesome.

Best soap opera plot
It was kind of a dull half-year for draaaamaaaaa, but Isner vs. the Washington, DC organizers was kind of diverting.

Injured reserve - Brian Baker, Christian Harrison, Dan Kosakowski

Farewell!! - Bobby Reynolds. Never a huge star, but always a fighter. And he carved out a unique niche at the end with the Washington Kastles of World Team Tennis, which was really cool.

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