Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Road Less Traveled

On the Rise (a tennis blog) is pleased to present our first-ever guest columnist! Patrick Rourke is a university student who shares this blog's passion for 'merican tennis. He also happens to be a big fan of Australian John-Patrick "JP" Smith, who is currently up to a career-high #172 in the world. Patrick graciously agreed to contribute a write-up of Smith's Tuesday night match at the Odlum Brown VanOpen, a USTA Pro Circuit/ATP Challenger event. Let us know what you think - all feedback is appreciated - as Patrick says, he's got thick skin!

Its 7,216 miles from Townsville, Australia to West Vancouver, British Colombia, but when he stepped on court for his first round match against Marcos Baghdatis, John-Patrick Smith felt right at home. With the popular “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oi, oi, oi!” chant ringing down from the bleachers before the first ball was hit, the tone was set. The crowd was firmly behind the 25-year-old Queenslander, not the number one seed and former world number eight, and with the show he was about to put on, who could blame them?

Before we delve into the match, perhaps it is best to start with a brief history of how Smith got to this point, because it wasn’t easy. Growing up in Australia, he was ranked as high as sixth in the ITF junior rankings. But instead of traveling overseas to expensive foreign academies, or staying home and training with Tennis Australia, Smith took the unconventional route: he went to college in the United States - the University of Tennessee of all places. As his peers John Millman, Samuel Groth, and Matt Ebden were traveling around the world embarking on their professional careers, Smith was trying to balance his college career with sitting in lecture halls studying economics. Whatever Smith did worked: he graduated from Tennessee with 298 career victories, the most of any Vol in history. During his time at Tennessee he was ranked #1 nationally in singles and doubles, and he graduated as only the second player in the history of college tennis to be named a four-time All-American in both singles and doubles. Suffice to say, the path less traveled was the right one for Mr. Smith.

Thanks in part to his doubles prowess, Smith does not play a “conventional” singles game. Using his lefty serve to set up points, Smith plays a serve and volley style straight out of the 70’s. His coach Yoav Sarrony describes it simply as “old school serve volley,” and while it may be old school, Smith might single-handedly bring it back in style. It is not merely his playing style that is unusual. His groundstrokes, while far from technically perfect, are incredibly effective. His backhand, which terrorized Baghdatis all night, is not a topspin backhand; commentator Mark Bey described it as “some sort of funky sidespin.” You wouldn’t teach it that way, but you also would never reach the lofty heights which Smith has.

Back to Vancouver, where things looked bleak for Smith. Despite playing a near-perfect first set, he fell 6-4 to the one seed. He won 93% of his first serve points, but was just 3/14 on second serves, including losing his first nine second serves. After he went down an early break *1-3 in the second set, the match appeared over. Baghdatis had not been broken all night, and stepped up his level every time Smith got within touching distance on the Cypriot’s serve.

But Smith did not tank, that would’ve been the easy thing to do. So often on the Challenger circuit, players tank when they get down. In the two weeks prior to Vancouver, there were 48 “bagels” (6-0 sets). It’s an unfortunate aspect of the game, and it has become all too common. At the first sign of adversity, players give up, but not Smith. His entire life he bucked the trend, and he continued to do so last night. Smith broke back, and consolidated the break to bring it to 3-3. His sternest test came at 4-4, where he faced five break points. The story, once again, was the first serve; Smith was winning 71% of his first serves, when he could come in behind it and play the net game he wanted. But when he missed his first serve, his winning percentage fell to a meager 31%. But Smith continued to hold on; he bent, but he did not break. At *30-40 down, he hit the shot of the match, a laser-like backhand down the line that Baghdatis could only watch in agony as it clipped the outside of the line. Thanks to his big serving, Smith saved another break point, and another. On Baghdatis’ fifth break point (and virtual match point), a fan yelled out “let’s go JP, no one doesn’t like you!” Instead of backing off and looking irritated, as many players would’ve done, instead of standing there stone faced, pretending he couldn’t hear a thing, the Aussie broke into a smile. Unconventional once again.

After staving off the Baghdatis barrage, Smith suddenly found himself in the driver’s seat. With Baghdatis serving at 5-6, 30-30, Smith fired a bullet of a backhand down the line to set up set point. On set point, it was a role reversal; Baghdatis came to net and forced the issue. After a brief rally, Baghdatis blinked first, floating a volley to Smith’s backhand, and Smith fired it for a crosscourt winner to send the match into the third set. Call the backhand unconventional, call it ugly, bemoan its funky sidespin, call it whatever you like. Because I’ll just call it one thing: damn good.

As the clock ticked past 9:00 p.m. in Vancouver, the match turned into what Bey described as “a one-upmanship show,” and it was not limited to the court. A female Baghdatis fan, clearly trying to outdo the throng of Smith fanatics, gave Marcos some encouragement: “Come on Marcos you’re hot!” It was a raucous atmosphere, with the tone set by the two magicians on court. Smith would hit a 124 mph ace; Baghdatis would hit a 125 mph ace. Baghdatis would produce a stunning drop shot; Smith would produce an even better drop shot and back it up with an inch perfect lob.

By the time the third set rolled around, the stands were filled to capacity. Matches on the outer courts were suspended due to darkness, and the crowd on Centre grew even bigger. Smith’s countrymen, Thanasi Kokkinakis and Jordan Kerr, were enjoying it in the stands, and Smith’s cheering squad grew even more. He might be unconventional, but there sure were a lot of people in Vancouver who like it that way.

It was Baghdatis who drew first blood in the third, breaking in the very first game. After all of Smith’s hard work, it appeared the #1 would pull away. If not, Smith would tank. After all, isn’t that what everyone else would do? But Smith continued to fight, and he stepped up his level yet again; by this point, both players were playing like top 50 players. After the shaky start, Smith dialed in his serve, prompting Bey to say “he [Baghdatis] couldn’t have got that one on a motorcycle.” Hyperbole? I’m not sure, it was that good.

Smith continued to fight, holding his way through games with relative ease. Unlike the first two sets, it was Baghdatis who struggled on serve, winning a paltry 19% of second service points. Smith brought up break point at 4-3, *30-40, but Baghdatis, in imperious fashion, saved it with a 126 mph ace out wide. At 5-3 down in the third, Smith had to hold from the less favorable side, into the wind, to try and force Baghdatis to serve it out. He delivered his best service game of the match. After displaying incredible serve and volley skills on the first point, Mark Bey commented, “That’s so good, that’s as good as old school Rafter, Edberg, Johnny Mac or Sampras.” Smith followed it up with an even better point, and Bey was once again, mightily impressed: “That’s Johnny Mac tennis right there, that’s old school.” Smith had always had the hair, now he was playing like seventeen-time Grand Slam champion. With Bey filling in for the beloved Mike Cation, he is a relative unknown for most viewers. However, he was my junior coach on and off for seven or eight years, and as such, is someone I know very well. So let me say this, Mark Bey doesn’t just throw around compliments like that. In fact, in all the years I’ve known Mark, I’ve never heard him speak so highly of a player as he did of JP Smith last night. He was that good.

Image via Sam Groth's twitter feed
Crunch time, it was up to the former world number eight to serve it out like the experienced veteran he is, and he couldn’t. The nerves were apparent. First point: missed serve, unforced error. (After losing the first point, Baghdatis, as Bey pointed out, had just a 29% chance of winning the game.) Second point: double fault. Third point: double fault. After saving the first break point with another big serve, Baghdatis was broken after more great cat-and-mouse play from Smith. And we played on.

As Smith prepared to serve at 5-5, a fan yelled out to Smith, “You’ve earned this buddy, come on now!” He had, Smith earned it and then some. And so had Baghdatis. It sounds so cliché, it sounds like the “everyone gets a trophy” culture which I’ve ranted so heavily against in other settings, but both players truly did deserve to win. You didn’t want to see anyone lose. But someone had to. Showing incredible composure, Baghdatis rebounded from his nightmarish service game and broke Smith right back. This time, Baghdatis made no mistakes serving it out.

After Baghdatis sealed the match with a 128 mph serve that Smith could only return into the bottom of the net, the Vol’s reaction was perplexing to say the least. He didn’t embark on an expletive-laden rant, he did not break his racquet (his opponent famously broke four at the 2012 Australian Open), instead he approached Baghdatis with a grin that stretched halfway to Townsville. Conventional? Most certainly not. But when has he ever let that stop him?
Enjoy the full match here:

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Old Hero and the Jung Villain: a fairy tale

Once upon a time (that is to say, last night), an Italian-born, South African-representing, Canadian-residing, last-tournament-playing, 635th-ranked 34-year-old tennis player named Rik de Voest faced down a frightening enemy from the south (California, to be specific) and, using a clever mix of defense, offense, grit, pluck, and luck, fought a great battle in front of a small crowd at the Odlum Brown Vancouver Open in his adopted hometown, one of whom was certainly his wife, who had to be the one who kept encouraging him: "Come on, Rik," her voice rang out clearly and strongly. "Right here, Rik."

The enemy was Jason Jung. An unlikely villain if there ever one was, Jung has outlined his recent travails in one of the best, most sincere player blogs this blog has seen. He comes across as so nice and earnest and gosh darn scrappy - truly a poorly cast ogre.  But this is a fairy tale and it has to have a bad guy, even though Canadians tend to be very welcoming toward both sides of a sporting contest that is not ice hockey and in no way did they treat him as a villian.

Anyway, Jung, our villian, came out on fire (not literally, this is not The Hunger Games). His movement was remarkable, his groundies scintillating, and his serve on the money.  When he came forward it was on his terms, and he finished off points like the solid doubles player he is. This, one felt, could be a breakout match for the 25-year-old Michigan alum, one that would give him a new career-high ranking and position him well for a run at the Top 250 or higher this year. With that comes direct entry into grand slam qualifying and seeding at smaller challengers. (Here at the Odlum Brown VanOpen, Jung was the top seed - in qualies.)

Honestly, everything was just going so well. And it's not like de Voest, our hero, was playing poorly by any means. He was just unable to withstand the many haymakers the American was throwing. The second started with both players holding serve, including an impressive one-minute love hold game to get Jung to 3-3. He then broke de Voest at 30 (thanks to 5 pretty poor unforced errors from Rik) for 4*-3 and consolidated easily for 5-3*.

And that's when things got weird and foreshadowy and a bit fantastical.

At 40-30, de Voest hit a forehand off his back foot that clipped the tape and barely rolled over - the second such dribbler of the set - and he forced Jason Jung to serve for the match.

Mark Bey, who did an excellent job commentating on this match in the absence of paternity-leave-taking Mike Cation, made a comment later in the match: "Fortune favors the bold." (He may have said favours, since he's in Canada this week.) Now we all know that "fortune" - as in a force of some sort, perhaps embodied by some sort of humanoid not dissimilar to a Roman goddess or robed figure on a tarot card - fortune, that is, that actually guides balls and net cords and the wind and the like - doesn't exist. It can't exist because if it did exist it would suggest there was some sort of rhyme or reason to chance occurrences, and that perhaps if we understood the force better we could even affect its actions and that's not how any of this works! So that old saw is actually super problematic, even more so since fortune in this case favo(u)red Rik de Voest, our hero, who not-so-boldly hit the ball this paragraph is dedicated to off his back foot, instead of Jason Jung, our villian, who had been forcing the action very boldly all day. Instead, in this case, fortune - as in chance - as in random happenstance - simply worked to the benefit of a guy who desperately needed a break, and who took advantage of the opportunity the net cord gave him to play loose and smart tennis for the rest of the match.

The next game, Jason Jung, who had not faced a break point all match, began what what many spectators assumed (or feared) was to have been the final singles game of Rik de Voest's career with a double fault. A missed return and an ace later and it was 30*-15. But then the loose (in a good way) play came from our hero. An aggressive and successful net approach got him to 30-30 and a poor error gave him his first break point of the match, which Jung saved with his own aggressive approach play. A second break point was saved thanks to a missed de Voest return, and then a great one-two play gave Jung match point. Unfortunately, as Bey pointed out, he went for too much on his first serve and then following the second serve, overhit his second shot and hit another unforced error to set up break point #3.

W hat followed was a deadly, 49-stroke rally in which neither player was willing to take a chance or give an inch. While the stuff of legend, such rallies are not necessarily great. Indeed, quality of stroke simply doesn't matter in such rallies: it becomes about the drama. Remember, this was for either 5-5 or to put Jung again two points from the match.  If this were a Sylvester Stallone 1980s staring-contest movie, this was the climactic moment in which the music swells and spectators cheer and gape and you forget that neither guy is really a professional starer they are just acting.

And, of course, it was our villian who blinked The hero won the point on a backhand error and it was 5-5. A fairy tale was unmistakeably taking place.

Jung, though, held tough and got it to a tiebreak, and went up therein 3-1. But then de Voest turned it on big time with three brilliant points culminating on a backhand crosscourt pass that had Jung flabbergasted to the extent that he dumped two balls into the net in the next two points and it was 6-3 de Voest - three set points. Jung saved the first but then came the second - another long, tense point that went 35 strokes, but 35 fantastic strokes which The Tennis Nerds tweeted was "one of the best rallies I've ever seen at a challenger" and which Mark Bey called "insane." You just need to watch it yourself, below, at 01:37:10. Suffice it to say, de Voest, on defense most of the point, won it on a Jung backhand error and with that, the set.

Somewhere, a Roman goddess figure on a tarot card winked.

By all rights the third set should have been anti-climactic and quality-wise it was patchy at times but drama-wise it just got better.  Jung held in the first game from 0-40 and then got the first break of the set to serve up 3-1. De Voest broke right back, though, as heroes do, and on we went. Jung started to cramp, just a bit (wait, aren't heroes supposed to be the ones who overcome physical ailments?). Four holds later and de Voest served at 4-5 at which point Jung got it to deuce. What commenced may have been the point of the match. Seriously - check it out below at 02:18:00. It was an all-court thrill ride featuring a netcord, lob, blind one-hander, drop shot, volley, overhead combination and after he won it, de Voest pounded his chest and smiled his lopsided smile and stuck out his tongue and the ballkids in the crowd were standing and cheering and three points later it was 5-5.

Jung was broken in the next game (on a passing shot from de Voest that would have gone long but for the wind) and it seemed absolutely certain that the end was nigh but, since this is a fairy tale, the ogre rose again and played some of his best tennis of the set to get us to a third-set tiebreak.  And then this nutty match got. Even. Nuttier.

Jung serving to open the tiebreak: Missed first serve. Made the second serve. Except it was a fault because it was a FOOT FAULT! Which I guess happens at inopportune moments when you're cramping but COME THE HELL ON, LINE JUDGE!!! At 2-0, though, Rik hits a Shankerer shot. But then Jung hits his first serve at 1-2 into the net and his second serve bounces before it gets to the net and it's 1-3. Next: a let serve and then a serve into the net and a second serve that's returned with interest but then Jung hits a HUGE forehand down the line and it's 2-3. A missed return from Jung and we change sides, 4-2 de Voest.

But then! De Voest, who has hit exactly one double fault through nearly two and a half hours, hits his second double fault to get us back on serve.


Okay, so, at 3-4 Jung hits a backhand long and at 3-5 he absolutely club-level aspirated-WH whiffs on an overhead. And yet we don't blame him because at this point of the fairy tale, the princess has to defeat the ogre, right?  And so, with three match points, de Voest goes to the service line to give the emotionally exhausted Vancouver crowd the perfect ending they so needed and desired.

And he double faults.

Thankfully for fans of fairy tale endings, de Voest won the next, final point. Jung played a fantastic point, got to the net with an approach to the de Voest backhand, and then dumped a backhand volley and lost the match. Over. 4-6 7-6(4) 7-6(4).  Each man had won 115 points but Rik de Voest won the last one and his career will live happily ever, or at least until Wednesday, when he plays the winner of #2 seed Jimmy Wang and up-and-comer Thanasi Kokkinakis.

In the end, even a blog as pro-USAmerican-player as On the Rise (a tennis blog) couldn't help but tip this blog's cap to the outstanding show these two men put on. This blog was heartbroken for Jason Jung, let there be no doubt. This blog really loves his game and his attitude and so much wants success for him at the highest levels of the sport.

But at the same time, as stories go, this was a damn good one. And so this blog may have smiled, just a bit, along with Rik de Voest, our hero, as he went to the net to shake hands with his gutted, cramping, not-really-villainous-at-all defeated opponent.

Because who doesn't enjoy, at some level, a good fairy tale?

Watch the whole thing, with far superior commentary, below:

Monday, July 28, 2014

New USA Career-High Rankings, July 28, 2014

Each week I will endeavor to bring you a list of USAmerican players who have reached a new career-high ranking. This list is not exhaustive but will cover most players in the Top 1000. 

New WTA Career-High Rankings - July 28, 2014 (previous high & date achieved in parentheses)

Grace Min: 109 (111 - 7/21/2014)
Madison Brengle: 128 (135 - 1/27/2014)
Allie Kiick: 138 (141 - 6/16/2014)
Taylor Townsend: 143 (144 - 7/7/2014)
Peggy Porter: 525 (531 - 7/21/2014)
Katerina Stewart: 528 (534 - 7/21/2014)
Josie Kuhlman: 638 (669 - 7/7/2014)
Anamika Bhargava: 651 (654 - 7/21/2014)
Alexa Guarachi: 688 (818 - 7/21/2014)
Tornado Alicia Black: 718 (860 - 7/21/2014)
Karina Kristina Vyrlan: 749 (751 - 7/21/2014)
Alexandria Stiteler: 894 (1026 - 7/21/2014)
Marie Norris: 945 (1016 - 7/21/2014)
Emma Higuchi: 961 (973 - 7/21/2014)
Michaela Gordon: 964 (976 - 7/21/2014)
Rianna Valdes: 974 (985 - 7/21/2014)
Kate Turvy: 1014 (1055 - 7/21/2014)
Nadja Gilchrist: 1030 (1039 - 6/16/2008)
Usue Arconada: 1056 (1070 - 7/21/2014)
Natalie Suk: 1114 (RANKINGS DEBUT!)
Kaitlyn McCarthy: 1166 (1210 - 5/19/2014)
Kelly Chen: 1266 (1271 - 7/21/2014)

This week there are four top-200 women in the New Career-High Rankings list, and then a whole lot of nothing, and then a whole bunch below #500. Interestingly, all but two of the members of this week's list are teenagers or NCAAers (I'm almost certain - please correct me if I'm wrong). The two exceptions are at the top: 20-year-old Grace Min, who didn't play last week but moved up when others didn't defend points, and 24-year-old Madison Brengle. Brengle, of course, is a player most everyone should root for due to her sticktoitiveness (she's run off a remarkable string of 24 consecutive grand slam qualies events in which she has failed to qualify) and it's thrilling for this blog to include her name for the first time in our weekly list. Unfortunately for her, despite beating Nicole Gibbs to win her first-ever $50K tournament (in Lexington), she lost out on the USTA Pro Circuit US Open Wild Card as Gibbs' final and her win last week gave her the margin she needed. It will be interesting to see if the USTA looks kindly upon her and her efforts - a wild card isn't outside the realm of the possible.

Three other significant jumps to bring to your attention: Guarachi, Black, and Stiteler.  Guarachi (a former University of Alabama player) is in thanks to her win a week+ ago at the Vancouver $10K ITF event, her first career singles title, which she won in a third set tiebreak.  Black, the 16-year-old 2013 US Open Junior finalist, is in thanks to her second career title that same week in Evansville, Indiana. She'll be on this list next week, as well, after having qualified for the WTA event in Washington, DC. And Stiteler, with whom this blog was completely unfamiliar prior to checking the rankings last night, reached back-to-back semifinals at $10K tournaments in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. Research on the 18-year-old led us to this wonderful article from 2008 by Zoo Tennis on the then 12-year-old reaching the final of the Junior Orange Bowl 12s (she lost to Indy de Vroome). See if you can recognize any current stars in the piece (hint: they include Vicky Duval, Sachia Vickery, Noah Rubin, and Borna Coric)!

New ATP Career-High Rankings - July 28, 2014 (previous high & date achieved in parentheses)

Jack Sock: 60 (69 - 7/14/2014)
Chase Buchanan: 177 (184 - 7/21/2014)
Jared Donaldson: 326 (333 - 7/21/2014)
Dennis Nevolo: 420 (427 - 7/21/2014)
Evan King: 426 (432 - 6/23/2014)
Connor Smith: 506 (570 - 7/21/2014)
Ernesto Escobedo: 514 (515 - 7/21/2014)
Evan Song: 578 (610 - 7/21/2014)
Alexander Sarkissian: 690 (825 - 7/29/2013)
Kyle McMorrow: 708 (721 -7/21/2014)
Raymond Sarmiento: 867 (910 - 7/21/2014)
Spencer Papa: 918 (965 - 7/14/2014)
Ronnie Schneider: 1194 (1197 - 8/5/2013)
Nicolas Podesta: 1572 (1850 - 7/14/2014)
Nathan Ponwith: 1598 (1599 - 7/21/2014)

As much as this blog loves it some Chase Buchanan, no question that the story of this week was #jacksock making it to his second career ATP semifinal, on the heels of his first in Newport.  (He also won the doubles event with Vasek Pospisil, with whom he is undefeated.)  He's got nothing to defend for August, so there's every possibility of a Top 50 debut before the US Open, when he'll have 90 points to defend from last year's 3rd Round appearance. Unfortunately he's got a rough DC draw, with Milos Raonic, the man who beat him at Wimbledon and Miami, as a potential second round opponent.

Donaldson today was within a few points of a Top 300 breakthrough but fell to Ram 7-5 in the third in DC. Still, steady progress for the emotional 17-year-old from Rhode Island. Beyond that the best jumps are for Sarkissian, winner of the Futures event in Vancouver a week or so ago (and recipient of a wild card in the Vancouver Challenger event this week, which will be his challenger main draw debut!), and Smith, who was runner-up to Sarkissian in Vancouver (and who qualified for the Vancouver Challenger event this week, which will be his challenger main draw debut!).

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Worst. Week. Ever.™ Part 4: Silver Linings.

This blog series, "The Worst. Week. Ever.™" began before the week was out, on the heels of 3 days of bad losses (and injuries) by American men in tournaments on North American soil that left this blog feeling frankly glum.

That's the thing about tennis, though. Sports generally but especially tennis, and especially tennis in the middle of a loooooong season: don't like the results? Just wait a few days. Assuming you have multiple players you're pulling for (such as "Americans generally") you're bound to have some wins, at some level, somewhere.  And every time a draw comes out, even if it's a rough one, there's hope.

Day 6 & 7 (Saturday & Sunday, July 19 & 20, 2014): A New Hope  It Gets Better  Could Be Worse

Here at On the Rise (a tennis blog), we published Part 1 of our series when things seemed darkest: metaphorically, before the dawn (dawn coming pretty damn early in summer, particularly on a Saturday). But then the weekend came, and new qualifying events started, and USAmericans notched a few wins. At the Lexington challenger, qualifiers included Raymond Sarmiento and Marcos Giron, both of whom recently left their star-studded Southern California NCAA programs for the professional tennis life. One could easily see each player making relatively swift progress up the rankings (Sarmiento is currently below 900, while Giron is inside the Top 500.  Over at the ATP stop in Atlanta, there were some nice weekend qualifying wins for Kevin KingRyan Shane & Francis Tiafoe (although none survived qualies).

Better yet, at the lowest levels of pro tennis, USAmericans won five tournaments. Now to be fair, they were all ITF events. For non-tennis heads who read this blog (aka, my beloved friends and family), the International Tennis Federation sponsors basically all the professional tournaments that the ATP and WTA can't be bothered to sponsor.  These tournaments have total purses of $10,000-$15,000 (for men) and up to $125,000 for women. Any given week there are a couple of dozen of these events between the men and the women, and 5 out of 20 is good but isn't THAT good. And all five tournaments were in North America, which, it is crucial to understand, is certainly our players' comfort zone. (A key factor in the relative decline in American men's tennis is the internationalization of the tour. In 1980, 33 of 98 ATP events (34%) were held in the US. In 2014 it's 8 of 62 (13%). That said, US men are still underperforming relative to where we should be, about that nearly everyone agrees.) Also, the draws were VERY well represented by USAmericans. Still, though, five wins!!

Three of the five tournament winners were women. 2013 US Open Junior finalist Tornado Alicia Black (age 16) won the $10K in Evansville, Indiana while former University of Alabama standout Alexa Guarachi won her first career title at the $10K in Vancouver, BC. In the biggie, Nicole Gibbs won an all-American final against Melanie Oudin (after each had won their respective all-American semifinal) at the $50K in Carson. You can watch the match here:

As far as the men go, 2014 NCAA finalist Alexander Sarkissian (Pepperdine) won a $15K in above-mentioned Vancouver and rising University of Virginia senior Mitchell Frank won his first tournament at the $10K in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

It was all quite lovely, I would say. Left this blog with a bit of a smile on this blog's face.

Then there was Wayne.

Wayne, Wayne, Wayne.

For those not familiar with the Wayne Odesnik story, go ahead and Bing him. He was already not so popular even before his 2010 doping ban (for possession of HGH, though he never tested positive), Biogenesis link, and introduction of the phrase "substantial assistance" to our tennis lexicon. His own actions have made it nearly impossible for any good and right-thinking American to really pull for him. And yet there he was, into the Binghamton final thanks in great part to a decimated half (he got the walkover against Klahn in the quarters, avoided Kudla thanks to mono, and Garanganga injured himself in their semi) and thanks in part to his excellent play. In the final he gave a fine accounting of himself, losing 46 67(9) to #2 seed Stakhovsky (whom I considered the tournament favorite going in).

Here's the thing about Wayne: he served his time. There's likely far more to his story that we don't know and that he's likely precluded from telling us. And as toxic as some find him, he may well end up winning the USTA Pro Circuit US Open Wild Card Challenge, and even if he doesn't, absent further proof of wrongdoing, it may be time to consider letting go of bygones. I honestly am torn. You're a tough one, Mr. O. Boy howdy.

In conclusion

So that's it! That was a really pretty craptacular week for a lot of guys. This blog freely admits that these are tough times for US men's tennis, and who knows, it's quite possible that things will get even worse.

But when all is said and done,  The Worst. Week. Ever.™ really wasn't so awful. Tennis is well and truly alive, if most often in foreign garb, and we are very lucky to live in a time where we can consume so much of it in its various incarnations. The USA guys who were beset by bad fortune will return, and there are others who are making fine progress. USA women are in a very decent position all things considered.

And in the end, it's just tennis. It's a game. It's meant to be fun. It is fun.

Besides, things could be worse.

(And to be fair, even in Sweden things are getting better!)

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Worst. Week. Ever.™ Part 3: The Worst. Forty-Eight Hours. Ever.™

Day 4 (Thursday, July 17, 2014): Is it over yet?

Hundreds of people's lives were lost in an instant on Thursday, July 17 as Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was destroyed near the Russia/Ukraine border by a missile for reasons yet to be conclusively determined. That same day, Israeli forces began a military invasion of Gaza with a death toll so far matching the air disaster's and certain to rise higher. High profile stars died as did millions who were famous only to their loved ones. Conflict rules our world and always has and death is and always will be an inevitability. Poverty, bigotry, disease, and violence seem endemic.

And in Bogota, Rajeev Ram and Jonathan Erlich lost to Vasek Pospisil and Radek Stepanek. And Nick Monroe and Michael Venus lost to Carlos Salamanca and Eduardo Struvay. In Granby, Eric Quigley lost to James McGee. And Adam El Mihdawy lost to eventual champion Hiroki Moriya in three. And Jason Jung lost to Vincent Millot. In Binghamton, Austin Krajicek was done in by Thanasi Kokkinakis and Daniel Nguyen was beaten by Sergiy Stakhovsky and Rhyne Williams lost to Takanyi Garanganga (yes in three) and Denis Kudla withdrew from the tournament and honestly I am not trying to make light of the tragedies I mentioned.

It's all a little surreal to contemplate why we get even a tiny bit emotionally involved in the athletic performances of people we don't know. This guy scoffs at the whole thing:
Marx was wrong: The opiate of the masses isn't religion, but spectator sports. What else explains the astounding fact that millions of seemingly intelligent human beings feel that the athletic exertions of total strangers are somehow consequential for themselves? The real question we should be asking during the madness surrounding this month's collegiate basketball championship season is not who will win, but why anyone cares.
but clearly there's an element of human nature in all this.  (Here's another cynical look at the "mass psychosis" involved in team sports enthusiasm.)  To me an interesting parallel is our interest in reality television, talk shows, documentaries, even at some level the news.  We thrill in the naked displays of emotionalism inherent in these cultural products. Not only are we not embarrassed when someone has a breakdown on video, a "real" breakdown - a real good breakdown - will guarantee you multiple millions of YouTube views. We want unvarnished FEELING - we are practically addicted to it - and I have long speculated it's because letting others experience FEELINGS for us in this still-ironic world is a lot easier than having to experience them ourselves.  And sports, with its ecstatic celebrations in victory and the strain of nervousness visible on their faces in tight moments and the towel-over-the-head awful agony in defeat, and particularly in its realness, gives us some of that sweet, sweet FEELINGS.

I know this is all over the top but last week was over the top. I had another Twitter account before @jokelley_tennis (still have it) where I partook in many discussions about politics and LGBT rights and debated issues of justice and also talked tennis but that felt like too much and nearly all my focus this year has been with tennis. Is it an escape? I still bring my ability to feel and particularly to feel bad when a loss happens to a player I like or a player representing the country I identify with. And I know I'm not alone in this because I follow a lot of other tennis fans who legitimately feel sad when their player loses. So it's clearly not a total escape.

Yet it's ephemeral.

But yeah, American men won one match on Thursday, July 17, 2014 on the ATP Challenger circuit, and that was Ernesto Escobedo over Kudla via a walkover, which doesn't actually count as a "win." And zero on the ATP World Tour. So total wins: zero.

Day 5 (Friday, July 18, 2014): Doomsday

Turns out, Kudla had mono, which is why he withdrew from Binghamton and the following tournament in Lexington, Kentucky.  No clue when he'll be back at 100%.  

Then we got news that Bradley Klahn withdrew on Friday from Binghamton and Atlanta. A fantastic chance for him to reach this final and rescue a dodgy several months just ... evaporated. 

Escobedo won his first set against Takanyi Garanganga! But Garanganga won the next two. Out with the 18-year-old with some real promise ... we think. He's tough to keep up with to be honest. 

And finally Chase Buchanan, he upon whom my last real hopes for the week relied, crashed out to #500-ranked Fabrice Martin in Granby. I felt bad.

What if our sports bad-feelingness somehow stands in for the real sadness in the world? What if it can be a way of dealing with grief that's at times too awful to deal with?  I suppose there would need to be a flipside to that. That sports happiness (whether ours or via identification with others) gives us a feeling of elation that we need to keep going in that grief-filled world. (Of course, it's a little insane that someone MUST LOSE in order for any elation to be felt.)

One image from The Worst. Week. Ever.™ that will stick with me was eventual singles champion Sergiy Stakhovsky's wry smile after a particularly entertaining point in a doubles match versus Rhyne Williams and Jarmere Jenkins. He's suffered quite publicly this year via social media as his beloved Ukraine has continued its descent into war. But he found some emotional solace in the performance of his job, as an entertainer and athlete, and he found real happiness, no matter how fleeting, within this reimagined world in which we play out conflicts virtually, with stakes that are not nearly so high. In this reimagined world we can admire and even applaud a foe's particularly devastating shot as being "too good" and if the last point doesn't go our way we can shake his or her hand afterword and if we're lucky even give a nice runner-up speech and perhaps one day look back and wonder what the hell the big deal was. That's much tougher to do in actual real-real life.

Imagine if we could, though.

Monday, July 21, 2014

New USA Career-High Rankings, July 21, 2014

We interrupt our series on "The Worst. Week. Ever.™" to bring you our weekly list of USAmericans who achieved career-high rankings this week. As always, the list is not exhaustive but covers most players in the Top 1000 of each tour.

New ATP Career-High Rankings - July 21, 2014 (previous high & date achieved in parentheses)

Chase Buchanan: 184 (189 - 7/14/2014)
Kevin King: 322 (329 - 5/19/2014)
Jared Donaldson: 333 (343 - 7/7/2014)
Dennis Nevolo: 427 (446 - 7/7/2014)
Ernesto Escobedo: 515 (582 - 7/14/2014)
Sekou Bangoura: 553 (568 - 2/18/2013)
Connor Smith: 570 (606 - 7/7/2014)
Devin McCarthy: 582 (589 - 7/14/2014)
Evan Song: 610 (612 - 5/26/2014)
Kyle McMorrow: 721 (722 - 7/14/2014)
Peter Kobelt: 742 (809 - 7/7/2014)
Raymond Sarmiento: 910 (964 - 7/14/2014)
Tommy Paul: 1195 (1201 - 7/14/2014)
Aron Hiltzik: 1636 (1637 - 7/14/2014)

Yet again, the top guys aren't breaking any new ground. Our highest-ranked new career high is Chase Buchanan, who had a quarterfinal at the challenger in Granby, Quebec, but lost to eventual surprise finalist Fabrice Martin. In any event, it's the 7th CHR for the "former"* Buckeye in the past 10 weeks.

Nice jumps for Kevin King, who qualified for Bogota, and for Dennis Nevolo and Sekou Bangoura, both of whom reached the second round of the Binghamton Challenger. Hopefully this will provide some salve for their tough three-set losses.  Escobedo got a bit lucky with his walkover due to Denis Kudla's mononucleosis but he acquitted himself quite well.  And Sarmiento is having a nice post-USC climb from #1428 just a month ago.

Finally, Donaldson is knocking on the door of the Top 300 thanks to his first-round win in Binghamton, which is awful exciting, and Kobelt is in the Top 750 due to his semi run at Hong Kong Futures 1.

*Once a Buckeye, always a Buckeye, am I right?

New WTA Career-High Rankings - July 21, 2014 (previous high & date achieved in parentheses)

Lauren Davis: 43 (44 - 7/7/2014)
Grace Min: 111 (114 - 7/14/2014)
Nicole Gibbs: 142 (145 - 7/7/2014)
Louisa Chirico: 218 (240 - 7/14/2014)
Bernarda Pera: 329 (340 - 7/14/2014)
Danielle Lao: 383 (402 - 7/14/2014)
Tori Kinard: 392 (396 - 6/9/2014)
Denise Muresan: 427 (428 - 7/14/2014)
Peggy Porter: 531 (544 - 7/14/2014)
Katerina Stewart: 534 (543 - 7/14/2014)
Christina Makarova: 586 (591 - 7/14/2014)
Anamika Bhargava: 654 (656 - 7/7/2014)
Ellie Halbauer: 700 (701 - 7/7/2014)
Karina Vyrlan: 751 (756 - 7/14/2014)
Emina Bektas: 789 (797 - 8/19/2013)
Alexandra Riley: 800 (807 - 7/14/2014)
Alexa Guarachi: 818 (825 - 7/14/2014)
Tornado Alicia Black: 860 (863 - 7/14/2014)
Catherine Harrison: 863 (866 - 11/4/2013)
Emma Higuchi: 973 (984 - 7/14/2014)
Michaela Gordon: 976 (986 - 7/14/2014)
Rianna Valdes: 985 (993 - 7/14/2014)
Marie Norris: 1016 (1022 - 7/14/2014)
Kate Turvy: 1055 (1058 - 6/9/2014)
Usue Arconada: 1070 (1073 - 6/9/2014)

A huge women's list this week with a lot of +1s and +3s. Attention must be paid to Chirico, whose semi in Carson brought her ever so close to the Top 200. With literally nothing to defend until the US Open, it's an exciting time for the young New Jerseyan Yorker [ed. Thanks for the correction, @carolchirico!].

In defending her title this week (in Carson, which moved from Yakima for a year due to a fire), Nicole Gibbs took the lead in the USTA Pro Circuit US Open Wild Card Play-Off and set herself up well for a run at another new CHR. 

Lastly, another Pac-12er, Danielle Lao, is newly into the Top 400. Here's a nice profile of her from NorCal Tennis Czar. Unfortunately, Lao lost in the first round of qualies in Lexington this week. But this blog trusts that even higher planes await!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Worst. Week. Ever.™ Part 2: The Crumbling

Let's see. Where were we?

Ah yes. Day 2 (Tuesday, July 15, 2014): Dark Tuesday

This blog woke up expecting to see Peter Kobelt avenging his straight-set semifinal defeat to Wishaya Trongcharoenchaikul (to be honest, I just love typing his name. I've always had a huge soft spot for Thai players and their often extraordinary names) at Hong Kong F1 the prior week.  Kobelt was up 61 42 and at deuce on the Thai's serve when we finally dozed off. And then we saw the score, in orange and black: Winner: Wishaya Trongcharoenchaikul (THA) 16 76(4) 76(4).  It had been such fun following Kobelt's post-The Ohio State University career as he excelled in three Israeli Futures, and got to the semis of HGK 1 - going 17-4 in his first four tournaments as a professional. (He and fellow Buckeye Devin McCarthy went 15-1 in doubles in those tournaments.) It was a wild ride and seeing that result was a bit aback-taking. 

And portentous.

Next up was Jason Jung in his first round match in Granby, Quebec, facing high-energy Steven Diez. But, first, I want to clarify that I'm not one to traffick in signs or jinxes or anything like that. When I say "portentous" I mean in more of a literary sense: foreshadowing more than actually connected events.  American men weren't cursed this week, they just had a number of gutting losses, quite a few from a set up. Anyway, Jason has been undergoing some tough times lately, which you can read about in his highly recommended blog. Yet he's been hanging around #300 and should end this week not too far from his career high of #288, thanks to his tidy 62 64 win on Tuesday. So that was nice. Check it out here:

Next door to that match, Eric Quigley (UK) got a straight-set win against Michael Shabaz (UVA). The two fellow former NCAAers are separated by 17 months and a mere 3 ranking points but on Tuesday Quigley got the upper hand, losing only 6 games. I don't usually have too much of a rooting interest when one American plays another, but was happy for Eric, who may have the higher ceiling. Shabaz is the only one I've seen play in person, last fall in Champaign, and his inconsistency is what stood out to me. Thing is, consistency is in my opinion the biggest element separating the different levels of tennis players. It's why you OCDers do better than us ADDers. Anyway, not part of The Crumbling.

The true The Crumbling started in Binghamton with Jarmere Jenkins. Jarmere (yes, another favorite of this blog) just finished his first year as a pro after a sterling career at UVA. He's risen to the mid-200s with some good Futures results and a few challengers quarters and semis. But clearly his confidence is down right now, and it doesn't feel like he's matching his intensity from last year. Tough to tell if it's The Grind or something else. In any case, he lost his first-round match 63 62 to Daniel Cox (GBR), someone who will match or exceed anyone's intensity as we shall see later in the week.

Then Thanasi Kokkinakis (AUS) beat Raymond Sarmiento (USC) which surprised nobody but perhaps made a few American hearts yearn: where's our Big Kokk? (See also: where's our Kyrgios? See also: where's our Zverev? See also: where's our Noah Rubin? Wait, scratch that last one.) And Takanyi Garanganga (ZIM) beat NCAA champ Marcos Giron. The African diaspora in tennis is an interesting phenomenon, with a lot of children of sub-Saharan African immigrants achieving more or holding far more promise than those representing the continent (Tsonga, Ymer, and Francis Tiafoe spring to mind immediately). In any case, it's nice to see the Zimbabwean moving higher and higher, I just wish it weren't based on beating my guys <insert sobbing emoticon>. Giron won the first set, by the way. Bookmark that tidbit.

To nobody's surprise, Sergiy Stakhovsky (UKR) handled Chicago's Evan King, well, handily.

Continuing their match from last night, Bradley Klahn stayed even with Jordan Thompson (AUS) until 3-3 in the third and then a cold wind appeared suddenly out of the south.  A long game featuring a lucky deuce netcord set up break point #4, which Klahn converted on a netted backhand and went on to win a huge match for him. HUGE. He'd gone 0-9 since winning the West Lakes Challenger in February. Huge.  !

Other matches that day featured all-USAmerican match-ups in which the seeded player won: Wayne Odesnik [8] over Dennis Novikov (who won the first set); Rhyne Williams [8] over Robby Ginepri (who won the first set) in a 3rd set tiebreak (another epically long blog post - hell, a full novel - could be written about that match but I'd prefer not to dwell, I will leave the dwelling to Rhyne's most ardent fans, the poor things); Austin Krajicek [7] over Winston Lin (COLUMBIA) in a surprisingly tough two sets; and Denis Kudla [3] over Mitchell Krueger 76(3) 63. So four Americans through, four Americans gone. Inevitable. Not part of The Crumbling.

The real killer of the day was back down in Bogota. He was up a set and late in the second held match point on his opponent's second serve. As astute (that is, still awake) readers of yesterday's post will remember, had Kevin King converted that point on Thiemo de Bakker's serve he would've gained enough points to bust his way into the Top 300 and there all the treasures of the world would have awaited him (actually just an extra $5K but honestly that's a big deal to a guy who's career earnings are under $50,000). But King did not convert and into a tiebreak we went and King double faulted on the first point and neither lost a point on serve the rest of the tiebreak and so the Dutchman won it and then got the break in the third and that was it. King is yet another favorite of this blog and his ranking is steadily improving. He represented well in his first career ATP tour-level main draw match and nobody should cry for him. He's one to watch. But oh dang I wish he'd converted that match point. <Insert pouting emoticon.>

For an entertaining night cap, we got one of the craziest results you'll ever see.

Following this match up in Granby was a trip. You would think from the scoreline that it was a servefest but Escobar had ONE ACE in 135 points on his serve and Adam El Mihdawy had 4 in 113. Fourteen breaks is a lot for any match but particularly one that goes to a third set tiebreak. In any case, a great win for the 24-year-old, 29th-ranked USAmerican who is doing what he can to get back into the Top 400.

Day 3 (Wednesday, July 16, 2014): Humpday? More like Suckday.

Alex Kuznetsov lost 75 75 to Vasek Pospisil in Bogota. Everyone was like "yay Vashy" but I was like "sob".

In Binghamton, Dennis Nevolo lost 26 64 64 to Darian King. Jared Donaldson lost BY AN IDENTICAL SCORE to Daniel Cox. BOTH WERE UP A SET. Both seemingly in control versus their speedy counterpunching opponents. But the relative slowness of the courts combined with the relative awfulness of the universe in which we reside combined for two heart wrenching results. Donaldson will have his day, the should be no doubt, and if president at the time this blog will declare a national holiday the day he overcomes Cox in the rankings and never looks back. You can read The Tennis Nerds' great write-up of the match here.

For Novolo/King, I will direct you to the video.  It's a bit rough to watch at the end.

Good things did happen for USAmericans on Wednesday. Chase Buchanan put the beat down on Canadian hope Filip Peliwo 61 62 in Granby (really young Filip beat himself) and good ol' Wayne Odesnik took out Erik Crepaldi (ITA) 63 60 in Binghamton. Sekou Bangoura fought hard as hell but fell to fellow USAmerican Klahn 63 76(10), and seeing Klahn reach the quarters was like being kissed by a thousand butterflies in a field of lilies, but not in a creepy way.

Still, the three aforementioned losses left this blog with a deep emotional void. Particularly that Nevolo score. This blog really wants Nevolo to do well. <Insert forlorn emoticon.>

And the worst was yet to come.

Next: The Worst. Week. Ever.™ Part 3: The Worst. Forty-Eight Hours. Ever.™

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Worst. Week. Ever.™ Part 1: When Hopes Were High

The Worst. Week. Ever.™began so promisingly. 

Following a solid, if not brilliant week in Winnetka, American men had a mixed week in Newport that was shaped by a weird draw featuring 7 Americans in the top quarter and 11 in the top half, with only two in the bottom half, both of whom lost in the first round to eventual semifinalists Groth and Karlovic. In a foreshadowing of this week, Ryan Harrison took the first set of his first round match against Lleyton Hewitt, only to crumble at the end despite being up a break in the third.  But three Americans reached the quarters and Jack Sock got to his first main-tour semifinal and then three Americans (Daniel Nguyen, Sekou Boungoura, and Raymond Sarmiento) qualified for the Binghamton Challenger stacked (if mostly on the top half) with solid Americans on their favorite surface. 

Intense tennis fandom is an odd phenomenon. Like many other pastimes it can engulf you, and yet you have no ability to affect the results. Unlike many other specific fandoms, it is at once a year-round series of events and a nearly 24-hour-a-day activity. One could (hypothetically, of course) wake up to catch the European matches, follow those while the East Coast scores start rolling in, which meld seamlessly into the West Coast tournaments, and then drift off to sleep as the Asian events are starting.  In this day of live scoring of events, one could literally spend all day every day watching zeroes turn to 15s, 15s to 30s, 30s to 40s, 40s to Ads or back to zeroes and feel a tiny thrill of excitement or tiny pang of disappointment based on whom that number turns for.

These tiny emotional shifts can happen even to those who do not place wagers on the outcomes of those turns. It can happen to those with no personal connection to either player, but who still manage to work out a rooting interest based on past viewings or encounters, playing styles or on- or off-court personalities, national or regional or collegiate affiliation, or a story you once heard tell about or by one or the other player.  That rooting interest can be a negative one fomented in reaction to excessive hype or a vaguely positive one connected to that player's age or prior results (if they're up and coming, say, or returning from a long injury) or a strongly positive one based on the tingly sensation a player's ass or breasts or eyes gives one when one gazes at them long enough.

In my case, as devoted followers of this blog will know, the rooting interest is predominantly based on national affiliation. I follow both men's and women's tennis from the majors to the very, very minors and before I memorialize the Worst. Week. Ever.™, I need to say that overall the USAmerican woman have had a solid week, with 3 of 4 semifinalists at the $10K ITF tournament in Evansville, Indiana; 2 of 4 at the $10K in Vancouver, B.C., and 4 of 4 at the $50K in Carson, California. Moreover, Grace Min (one of only three USAmericans playing WTA events this week) also beat #2 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the first round of Bastad.  But then she lost she lost 64 62 to unheralded Russian Alexandra Panova (following Irina Falconi's retirement in Bastad qualies and Anna Tatishvili's loss to #2 seed Roberta Vinci in Istanbul) which made it tougher to say that the women helped mitigate the Worst. Week. Ever.™.  Particularly once attentions began turning to the unfolding disaster that henceforth shall be known simply as ... Binghamton.

Day 1 (Monday, July 14, 2014): False Hope

So promising. Kevin King won a second round of qualifying match over Colombian Julio Cesar Campozano at the Bogota 250 event, then turned around the same day and played the final round of qualies, upsetting Carlos Salamanca in a dramatic 57 76(3) 62 win. He survived 9 double faults in that match to reach his second career ATP main draw. How great for the former Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket! While most of his success has come in doubles, he has a big game that deserves a shot in the big leagues. It's been a slow climb for him but he's knocking at the door of the Top 300, which will mean more direct entries - even seeds - at challengers. A first-round win would secure his spot in that tier.

Also in Bogota, world #155 Alex Kuznetsov upset #93 Adrian Mannarino to advance to the second round.  Many wondered why Kuznetsov was playing an ATP World Tour event when he had 80 championship points to defend in Binghamton but the win helped offset the damage with a solid 20 points.  It was a very nice win for a guy who was hoping to finally reach that coveted Top 100 after his performances in challengers last year, but  who wasn't able to build on his successes and remains stuck around 150. 

Up in Granby, Quebec, one of this blog's favorites Chase Buchanan took apart Canadian Philip Bester 4&0 to secure a second round appearance in a very nice looking (read pretty weak) draw. Excellent.

And in lovely Binghamton, New York, Americans got wins. Lots of them. Qualifiers Bangoura and Nguyen took out Facundo Mena and wildcard Ryan Shane (UVA) while in a battle of young guns, the younger (Ernesto Escobedo) defeated Winnetka hero Mackenzie McDonald in three sets. Another of this blog's favorites, Dennis Nevolo, went up a set and two breaks against Handsome Dan Smethurst. He served twice for the match only to see Dan up his game and take it to a tiebreak. There, Nevolo was the better man and won 7-3. A great result for the undersized Illinois alum who is fighting to make a career of this. 

Most remarkably, Jared Donaldson beat Marius Copil (ROM) 75 61. Copil had to qualify as he entered the tournament late, but at #160 in the world, he still was seeded #4. In all honestly, he gave the match away but Donaldson still showed composure and a hell of a lot of talent in getting his 16th consecutive win.

To end the day, Bradley Klahn took on his doubles partner for the week, Jared Thompson, a very promising young Aussie. Klahn was not at his best in the first set, and Jared was, taking it 7-5. In the second, Klahn righted the ship to take it 6-1 but it was getting dark and Klahn agreed to postpone the rest of the match until Tuesday even though Thompson was limping after having rolled an ankle.

In any case, USAmerican men were undefeated on the day and hopes were so high they could've been mistaken for a reveler at a Phish concert (or, let's face it, a Phil Collins concert. Bottom line: people like to smoke weed at concerts).

And as we went to sleep, way over in Hong Kong, where it was already Tuesday, July 15, Peter Kobelt had a decisive lead over his conqueror from last week, Wishaya Trongcharoenchaikul, up a set and a break and all was well in the world.

Or so we thought.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Interview with Mike Cation, voice of USTA Pro Circuit men's tournaments

We at On the Rise (a tennis blog) make no secret of our fandom of Mike Cation's work on broadcasts of ATP challenger events in the US. He combines a wry sensibility with utter professionalism and a clear love for his work. Most importantly, he has a real appreciation for the brilliant athletes who perform at a high level week in and week out. He's a great asset to the sport, and fans of tennis (particularly those who follow American players) are fortunate to have him.

And On the Rise (a tennis blog) is fortunate that Mike agreed to be the first-ever interview subject for this young blog! A huge thanks to him for responding so quickly to the emailed questions and for his thoughtful and thorough answers. We hope you enjoy!

Introduction: Mike Cation (@MikeCTennis), from Champaign, Illinois, worked in radio as a news/sports director for 13 years, and served as press aide for the JSM Challenger in Champaign for 7 years. Mike is the PA Announcer for Illinois tennis (and basketball/baseball/soccer) at the University of Illinois.  He has been the voice of USTA Pro Circuit events since last summer in the employ of Livestream LLC, which carries broadcast rights to these events.  Definitely check out their archive of challengers to get a look-see at a whole passel of events!

He responded to these questions in advance of the Binghamton Challenger going on right now in New York State.

Q. Of the challengers you've worked, what pops into your head as being a particularly (or surprisingly) great experience for players, fans, and staff?

A: I think you'd find that it varies from player to player, from tournament to tournament.  And I think that's the same for me too.  I don't want to name a ton of names, for fear of excluding people...but that's what stands out to me.  The people who are involved in these events, and I'm talking about 95% of them, are doing it because they love the sport.  And love the ability to try and help grow the sport.  Two weeks ago, in Winnetka, you have Jimmy the stringer, who is there until 1AM every night. This week, Lori, the Tournament Director, is amazing at continuing this event, despite the challenges that they have. Chris Arns in Napa always tweets at me about how excited they are for year #2 in September.  My friends Jim and Christine at the Atkins Tennis Center in Champaign....that's what does it for me.  The people and the passion for this sport.

But more directly to your question, each event has its own charm. I guess what surprised me was the Canadian fans in Vancouver. They were loud, even during points, and it was a great atmosphere.  I know, as an American tennis fan, that might not be what you like to hear, but that atmosphere was the most unique.

Q. What is one tournament outside the USA that you'd love to cover as a commentator?

A: I think I'm supposed to say Wimbledon, but I'd have to say the Australian, just to be able to work again with my friend Craig Tiley, the CEO of Tennis Australia.  I would love to see how he runs things, and compare it to how he was running the Champaign Challenger 10 years ago.

Q. One of the more fun elements of your broadcasts is when you have guests on. In particular I've enjoyed hearing Mark Bey join you as a commentator, and Tim Puetz as an interviewee. Who would you love to have join you in the booth for an afternoon? One each, commentator & interviewee.

A: I also really enjoy having guests on.  It's hard to get those on a regular basis, as I have a limited time between matches to go to the bathroom, get water, the basics, before restarting.  So grabbing a guest is tough.  But Puetz was wonderful.  Groth is always good, and Tennys Sandgren still owes me a guest spot.

But to answer your question: This is going to sound ridiculous, but I was really hopeful to have Dirk Nowitzki join me in Dallas.  I think the take that a pro athlete has is always fascinating.  Especially with his love of the sport.

Commentator: I've always wanted to work with Gimelstob.  But I'm going to choose another old friend, Mike Kosta.  Comedian, former tennis player at Illinois, and had a show with Regis on FS1.

Interviewee: Patrick McEnroe.  (Or Fed, obviously.  I don't get star struck too often at this point in my life, but when I was introduced to him at Wimbledon a few years ago....I was rather quiet and shy, unlike me.)

Q. What's the toughest part of your job?

A: Very clearly being away from my wife, and shortly, being away from our daughter, whose birth will cause me to happily miss both Vancouver and Aptos, events I really enjoyed last year.  That's a sorely overlooked aspect of the lives of these guys on tour, too...they're away from significant others, children, family, friends...

As for what's the most difficult when I'm actually on the job, it's the hours, prep, and quick turnaround.  I'm not saying this in a way that I want to be misconstrued as complaining, because I love what I do, and enjoy this challenge.  But in tournaments where we have night matches, we're broadcasting 6-7 matches, maybe 12-14 hours, with 10 minute breaks.  We sleep for 6 hours, and then I'm up doing prep for the next day, and doing it again.  I do wish I had the opportunity to reflect on a match, think about it more, write some notes about how they played, so that I had a better bank of knowledge and better notes for the next match.  But when it's midnight, and I have to get up at 6:30, I'm not one to do a ton of note writing.

With that being said, again, I like to hope that we continue to put together a pretty decent broadcast.  Our cameramen have really grown, I think I have too, and we continue to add new wrinkles, and adapt.  Plus, with this being our 2nd season, there's definitely more going on upstairs in my brain too.

Q. What would you say to a lay [i.e. less avid] tennis fan - who focuses primarily on majors and perhaps a few other big tournaments each year - as to why "minor league" tennis is a worthwhile way to spend time and/or money?

A:  It's a great question, and one that I wish we had a great answer to.  It's also a ridiculously complex question as well.

First, I think we need to make sure these events are in the right communities, and at the right times.  By that, I mean that our California swing gets a great attendance because it's right after the US Open and the casual fan still has it in their head.  Maui, same thing.  Having worked the Champaign Challenger for 7 years as a press aide, I've always said that one is so tough because it's in the middle of football season, the start of college basketball, and no matter how hard you fight there, it's difficult to get the casual fan to spend their entertainment dollars there.  I would LOVE to have the Charlottesville/Knoxville/Champaign swing in March, in the heart of college season.  But none of the staffs can put that together.

It's a long answer to say I don't know.  I would love more media exposure, but how do you get the Tennis Channel to buy in? I would say better marketing on a local level, but where does that money come from to pay for staff/advertising?

I know that the ATP is working on finding answers too.  But here in the States...I think it will remain a challenge.

Q. You've seen a lot of players at various stages of their careers.  Who has "wowed" you the most the first time you saw him in person?

A: Of late, Nick Kyrgios.  I don't talk tennis too much to my wife, but I was telling her about his Sarasota run as it was happening.  He was very impressive, very quickly.  I just didn't see him doing that this summer.

Years ago, Brian Baker.  Oh that backhand.  Good lord that was fun to watch, even early.

Q. Is there anyone at the juniors or Futures level that you've been wanting to see play in a USTA Pro Circuit challenger event?

A: I just can't answer this.  I don't have nearly the experience at the futures and junior levels.  Most of my free time at home is spent doing work at the University of Illinois, and I just don't have the opportunity to see that much.  This is a Colette Lewis question. :)  That being said, I remember saying during a Noah Rubin match in Sacramento last year that you could see how he will develop in to a very solid pro.  I'm interested in how he does at Wake Forest next year.

Q. There's an ongoing debate about the place of NCAA tennis in the wider world men's tennis, particularly for US juniors. What are your thoughts on the matter?

A: Obviously, it's proven to be a good enough breeding ground.  I think it takes an extremely unique individual to be able to be successful at the age of 18 with no college.  The things that are most important to me with a college tennis experience are the following:

1) A good strength and conditioning/nutrition program.  So overlooked.  Great building blocks moving forward.

2) The ability to have a coach on hand. Obviously, it's important to find a coach who wants to develop your game, and not someone who will solely focus on what will get him team wins.

3) The ability to change/develop/improve WHILE you're also winning a majority of your matches.  This obviously touches on the maturity issue.  You go to futures/challengers at the age of 18, you're likely to get beat up a bit.  You play in college, your winning percentage is likely higher.  That can NOT be overlooked when you mix that with the idea that you're doing it while experimenting and changing things in your game.

Q. What advice would you give to tournament organizers looking to improve attendance at their events?

A: We touched on this a little bit earlier, but very few of these events struggle with attendance because of lack of trying.  But with a media/promotions/marketing background, I think that this is where I would like to see more funding or staff.  Listen, when it gets down to it, everyone knows that the ATP is looking at increasing points/money at these events, and that will obviously help the players. But having some extra money coming in, specifically for staff, will also help.  When I was a media aide in Champaign, I received a small stipend, which I was thankful for, but I also know that I was getting paid less than minimum wage when I looked back at the hours.  I didn't care, and neither do any of the people who volunteer, or work as tournament directors.  But you know what?  The staff is strapped for time.  The budget is ridiculously tight.  Most of these challengers due the bare minimum in terms of advertising, because it's hard to get the necessary sponsorship.

Little things:
1) Find ways to free up players for media work a couple weeks before.  Yes it costs money.
2) Find creative TV opportunities.
3) Find unique sponsorships.

The problem is, almost all of the Challengers have tried to do this.

Ultimately, as sad as this sounds, I think we just need these events to get some validation.  We need the Tennis Channel coverage.  When Tim Smyczek reaches the 4th round, we have to make sure that they talk about the fact that he's been playing against other really good players at this level, not just blown off.  I think the tennis media needs to be a little more accepting of this as a building block, not just a minor league.  Random aside, as I watch the World Cup, and think about soccer, and relegation...that's such a European concept, isn't it?  The idea that if you drop down to a different league, you've failed in a sense, but have opportunities to go back up.  I feel it's very American of us to just dismiss it as "not good enough."

Q. Finally, as a blog focused primarily on US tennis, I have to ask: How do you see the state of US men's tennis? What is an area you feel could be particularly improved among US men?

A: It's obviously a lot better than most give it credit for. The number of players in the top 150 is good.  It's just that we don't have it at the top.  I think ultimately, most of us can agree with that. But, again, because of how we pay attention to sports in this country, we need a winner on the higher level to really see that media perception turn around.

Now, as for the second part of your question, I have been a big believer that we need to be developing the top young juniors, at the 12-14-16 level on the clay.  If that means setting up a training base in Europe, so be it.  If that means getting Har-Tru to do a ton of courts throughout the states, so be it.  I think that developing kids at that level on the clay, they learn how to develop points, extend points, and finish.  We've got some very good players with great serves, great forehands, but it takes them a few more years to learn how to create chances on the clay, which translates so much better on to the hard, in my opinion.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

New USA Career-High Rankings, July 14, 2014

Each week I will endeavor to bring you a list of USAmerican players who have reached a new career-high ranking. This list is not exhaustive but will cover most players in the Top 1000. 

New WTA Career-High Rankings - July 14, 2014 (previous high & date achieved in parentheses)

Coco Vandeweghe -- 41 (42 - 7/7/2014)
Vicky Duval -- 90 (92 - 7/7/2014)
Shelby Rogers -- 104 (109 - 3/31/2014)
Grace Min -- 114 (128 - 6/19/2013)
Louisa Chirico -- 140 (150 - 7/7/2014)
Bernarda Pera -- 340 (354 - 10/7/2013)
Danielle Lao -- 402 (445 - 7/7/2014)
Denise Muresan -- 428 (431 - 7/7/2014)
Katerina Stewart -- 543 (547 - 7/7/2014)
Peggy Porter -- 544 (594 - 6/9/2014)
Christina Makarova -- 591 (593 - 6/16/2014)
Karina Vyrlan -- 756 (772 - 6/16/2014)
Alexa Guarachi -- 825 (835 - 7/7/2014)
Tornado Alicia Black -- 863 (870 - 7/7/2014)
Emma Higuchi -- 984 (987 - 6/9/2014)
Michaela Gordon -- 986 (988 - 5/19/2014)
Rianna Valdes -- 993 (997 - 7/7/2014)

The brilliant run by Shelby Rogers this past week to the final in Bad Gastein lifted her 43 spots and a mere 24 points away from the Top 100. That may well be enough for direct entry to the US Open, the rankings cut-off for which is this week. Either way, it's a welcome respite from her nine-game losing street earlier this year, and an exciting springboard for the summer. She does have 100 points to defend through the rest of the month, but then nothing until after the US Open. Should be interesting.

Grace Min also got a big boost from her Bad Gastein semifinal, but will likely be just outside the Open cut-off (I'm guessing she'll get a wildcard). USTA folks and others have been waiting for a Min breakthrough for a couple of years now (check out this 2012 "Vanguard" New York Times article). She only has 42 points to defend through the summer, so with a couple of decent draws, a Top 100 debut this year is quite possible.

The other three key movers are Chirico and Lao, due to their querterfinals at the $50K in Sacramento, and Pera, who is up 19 spots from last week thanks to her title at a $15K in the Netherlands at the end of June.  An interesting tidbit about Pera: she's only every played FOUR pro tournaments in the USA. Two this year and two in 2011.

New ATP Career-High Rankings - July 14, 2014 (previous high & date achieved in parentheses)

Jack Sock -- 69 (74 - 4/28/2014)
Austin Krajicek -- 188 (201 - 5/19/2014)
Dennis Novikov -- 450 (457 - 8/12/2013)
Mackenzie McDonald -- 480 (482 - 7/7/2014)
Noah Rubin -- 532 (536 - 7/7/2014)
Ernesto Escobedo -- 582 (593 - 7/7/2014)
Devin McCarthy -- 589 (590 - 7/7/2014)
Kyle McMorrow -- 722 (749 - 7/7/2014)
Raymond Sarmiento -- 964 (969 - 7/7/2014)
Deiton Baughman -- 974 (1029 - 5/26/2014)
Spencer Papa -- 985 (1413 - 2/25/2013)
Ryan Shane -- 1093 (1096 - 7/7/2014)
Tommy Paul -- 1201 (1253 - 7/7/2014)

Again this week, not too much movement at the top, although a tip of the hat must be given to Jack Sock for reaching his first ATP semifinal in Newport immediately after his doubles crown at Wimbledon. Also in Newport, Krajicek qualified, then got his first ATP win (in four attempts), and a welcome debut into the Top 200. He's hoping for a big week in Binghamton, as he has 56 points coming off (from a Canadian Futures win and last year's Binghamton semi). But then he's golden through the Open.

Speaking of Canadian Futures, Novikov gets his points from his semifinal a week ago in Kelowna. Just 6 weeks ago, the guy was #611. But a 13-2 run in that period has put him back on track.

Finally, the youngsters: Baughman, Papa, and Paul all up 50+ spots thanks to their match wins at the Mexico F8 tournament.  Papa's final was the most impressive, as he came through qualies to get there.  

(Oh, and a special shout-out to Noah Rubin, who has posted career highs for 6 straight weeks despite not playing a pro event since May!)

Monday, July 7, 2014

New USA Career-High Rankings, July 7, 2014

Each week I will endeavor to bring you a list of USAmerican players who have reached a new career-high ranking. This list is not exhaustive but will cover most players in the Top 1000. 

New ATP Career-High Rankings - July 7, 2014 (previous high & date achieved in parentheses)
Chase Buchanan -- 187 (196 6/9/14)
Jared Donaldson -- 343 (474 6/16/14)
Dennis Nevolo -- 446 (453 3/3/14)
Mackenzie McDonald -- 482 (646 8/19/13)
Noah Rubin -- 536 (539 6/23/14)
Devin McCarthy -- 590 (696 6/23/14)
Ernesto Escobedo -- 593 (630 5/26/14)
Connor Smith -- 606 (717 5/26/14)
Kyle McMorrow -- 749 (756 4/21/14)
Peter Kobelt -- 809 (873 6/23/14)
Collin Altamirano -- 847 (881 6/9/14)
Raymond Sarmiento -- 969 (1286 7/16/12)
Ryan Shane -- 1096 (1624 8/12/13)
Nathan Pasha -- 1187 (RANKING DEBUT!)
Tommy Paul -- 1253 (1508 5/12/14)

Light at the top as US men ran into a rough draw at Wimbledon but impressive down below as a run of good futures results (and an outstanding performance at by McDonald at the Winnetka Challenger) gave us SEVEN different guys who improved their rankings by 100+ spots, plus a very nice debut just outside the Top 1000 for University of Georgia's Nathan Pasha.

Interestingly, all 15 of these guys were born in the 1990s (well, except for Nevolo, who was born on December 22, 1989) and all are either under 18 or current/recent college guys. Looks like the NCAA can hold it's head extra high this week!

New WTA Career-High Rankings - July 7, 2014 (previous high & date achieved in parentheses)

Madison Keys -- 27 (30 6/23/14)
CoCo Vandeweghe -- 42 (51 6/23/14)
Lauren Davis -- 44 (55 3/17/14)
Vicky Duval -- 92 (114 6/23/14)
Taylor Townsend -- 144 (147 6/23/14)
Nicole Gibbs -- 145 (150 6/23/14)
Louisa Chirico -- 250 (268 6/23/14)
Denise Muresan -- 431 (434 6/16/14)
Danielle Lao -- 445 (446 6/16/14)
Katerina Stewart -- 547 (658 9/9/13)
Anamika Bhargava -- 656 (670 6/16/14)
Josie Kuhlman -- 669 (833 6/16/14)
Ellie Halbauer -- 701 (719 6/16/14)
Alexa Guarachi -- 835 (860 6/16/14)
Tornado Alicia Black -- 870 (875 6/16/14)
Rianna Valdes -- 997 (1004 6/23/14)

First, a huge celebratory shout-out to VICKY DUVAL who qualified for and advanced to the second round of Wimbledon - after being diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma. The cancer diagnosis will take her off the tour for several months but the good news is a strong prognosis. I wish her the best and am so glad she got the Top 100 next to her name, which is an awesome accomplishment for any athlete.

Second, great jobs by Kays, Vandeweghe, and Duval. None of them had their ideal tournaments at Wimbledon but all are in good shape as we go into the North American hardcourt season. And also big "propers" as the kids these days don't say to youngsters Chirico, Stewart, and Kuhlman for their big jumps thanks to success at the ITF level.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Postscript on Winnetka

Despite a nice two days at the Nielsen Pro Tennis event in Winnetka - my third trip in three years - not everything was a bed of roses.  As with anything there were plusses and minuses. In many ways it's a fine event, and I'm sure it's delightful for the North Shore folks who make up the bulk of attendees.  But I feel obligated to bring up a few concerns I have with the tournament, along with the good parts.  So here they are, five of each:

Good on ya: Layout & accessibility to the players. Of the tournaments I've been to over the years, I don't know that I ever felt as close to the players, who were unfailingly gracious when I asked for a photo. Jack Sock last year, Kudla, Redlicki, McDonald, King & Sarmiento this year. All the complaining I do later in this post is definitely tempered by that bit of awesomeness.

Let's work on: It's too expensive. $25 for a day session followed by $25 a night session? For a *challenger*? If I'd decided to stay for both sessions each day, it would have run me $100. $200 for two of us.  FOR A CHALLENGER!  It's not healthy for building a culture of tennis in a metropolitan area with a wide range of income levels.

Good on yaMike Cation. I know that it has more to do with USTA than the tournament, but I have to yet again give a shout-out to a really solid commentator. He goes around the country and gives us insightful and entertaining commentary, which is not as easy as it sounds. He's possibly the perfect fit for these events. I wish the big women's USTA Pro Circuit events had a Cation.

Let's work on: Better communication/publicity/outreach. In February I emailed the tournament about volunteering. Never got a response. Also on Friday (July 4) it was unclear where attendees should park after the lot filled up. And more to the point, it was a little weird that upon doing a Google News search for "Kudla Winnetka," only articles from Wilmette Life and Winnetka Talk (both suburban papers affiliated with the Chicago Sun-Times) show up.

More to the point, I didn't get any email via USTA. The *only* pro event in the Chicago area, the third largest metro area in the country. Easily reachable by train. And while attendance was good compared to other challengers, it just felt super "country club" - like this was Winnetka's little party.  If Chicago's ever going to get a main tour ATP or WTA event, we need to do better.  All of us.

Good on ya: Nice sized crowds. Especially for the evening quarterfinals and finals (the former conveniently falling on the night before Independence Day, the latter on Saturday evening) - perhaps not the most educated group (yes I know how snobby that sounds) but definitely sizable and relatively engaged.

Let's work on: Less weirdness. After my I tweeted about yesterday's blog post, I got a response from the tournament's Twitter account:

I was doing some housecleaning (honestly) and so missed this, and then it was taken down after some haranguing by my tweep Kevin (@3GamesToLove). There's nothing on the website about this policy and no signs on-site. Perhaps there's no actual policy and this was an honest mistake on the part of the tweeter. Nonetheless, it left something of a bad taste in my mouth.

Good on ya: Wildcards. Okay here's where I go nationalistic. I really like that they gave all four main draw wildcards to US players. Specifically, to US NCAA players. Two are local (Evan King & Jared Hiltzik) and two highly ranked recently-out-of-collegers (Marcos Giron & Raymond Sarmiento). Unfortunately none was able to record a victory.

Let's work on: Wheelchair access? As I mentioned yesterday, a belligerent, foul-mouthed guy in a wheelchair had some issues with entry and sightlines. I can't speak to the specifics of his situation but it is worth mentioning that the only seating I saw for those in wheelchairs was in the corners next to benches. Not ideal viewing. No ramps into the stands and no seating up there.

So overall, a nice couple of days and a happy tournament with Denis Kudla doubly victorious. Hopefully they do a few things better next year and into the future, because it's an amazing opportunity for us CHIers to see top-level players in a beautiful environment.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

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

I know your breath was bated so here you go: part 2 of my coverage of the Nielson USTA Pro Tennis Championship 2014. Part 1 is here.

I tend to prefer to attend tournaments earlier in the week. You get more bang for your buck, and the chances are higher that you'll see a truly excellent match. I've probably seen one final in person ever, with dozens if not hundreds of matches earlier in tournaments. That is, I see parts of matches. My ADHD (diagnosed!) makes it tough for me to stay in one place at one time.

So Friday's venture to Winnetka was kind of nice, because I was able to see three full matches, including two very tight, entertaining ones, with nothing to compete for my attention other than my phone and a plane flying overhead with an odd "Hey stranger, will you marry me?" sign. Plus I was with my boyfriend, Adam, which always makes it better.

And again, all the matches featured Americans. :-)

First up was a second helping of Mackenzie "Mackie" McDonald. The somewhat small-framed Californian had his hands full all day with the large, powerful Farrukh Dustov. He was forced several feet behind the baseline and while his movement and anticipation were excellent, he couldn't really make an impression on the Uzbek. Chances are he was a bit worn from his 8 singles + doubles matches leading up to Friday. I gotta say, though, I love the kid's attitude on court. He's a positive guy who plays his heart out, with great racquet skills and a willingness to go for his shots. I expect him to excel next year at UCLA at #1 or #2 singles.

Then came the MOST SCANDALOUS MATCH OF THE YEAR. Let me set the stage.

As I mentioned yesterday, I had what I'd thought was the pleasure of meeting my tweep Patrick Rourke (@rourkeytennis) and we talked about our mutual support for American tennis players, and our shared annoyance at some US tennis fans who seem to go out of their way to root against US players. As if to prove a point or something. It's not just that their favorites happen to be non-American. Or that they don't like certain or even most non-American players. It's the reflexive rooting against, often without acknowledging that they're doing it, that gets to me.

SO IMAGINE MY SURPRISE when the man who consistently tweets his support for Americans turns out to be the sole person in the crowd supporting Australian J.P. Smith over American Denis Kudla! And not just supporting him. Vociferously supporting him. At one point OBNOXIOUSLY VOCIFEROUSLY SUPPORTING HIM. He explained something about the Aussie being "nice" to him. My hope for him is that someday he'll learn that you can't just be fans of everyone who's "nice." This is tennis, after all, not ... umm ... nice ball.

Anyway, it was an enthralling match. Smith was on fire in the first set, hitting through his backhand (and making his shots) to a degree I'd never seen in the previous times I'd encountered the former Tennessee Volunteer. He was all over the place, hustling and controlling play, and Denis started flat and frankly uninspired. He was broken twice in the set and never reached break point against the big-serving lefty. He then went down a break in the second and it looked like it was not going to happen for the 'merican on the Fourth of July. And then out of nowhere, errors started creeping into Smith's game. A long point at 30-30 featuring a textbook leaping backhand down the line got Kudla to break point, and he converted with a brilliant forehand pass on one of Smith's surprisingly few net approaches. From there, the two held to 5-5, at which point Kudla was able to break and then serve out the second set.

Approached Denis after his singles match.
Me: "Can I get a pic for my blog?"
Kudla: "How about a selfie??"
The third was a dogfight. Denis' game was finally clicking and he went up an early break for 2*-1 and had multiple chances to get another break at 1*-3. But Smith held and eventually broke Kudla to get things back on serve at 4-4. I believe that's when Mr. Rourke yelled "KAMAN AUSSIE!!!" louder than an actual Aussie ever would. (He immediately apologized on Twitter, I suppose I should add, helped no doubt by Kudla's giving him the evil eye.)  They traded holds for 5-5 and then Denis broke to love and served for the match. But Smith came right back to send the match to a third-set tiebreak, which I like to call a BUSTER!  They traded mini-breaks and it was 3-3 at the changeover. At 4-4, a 25-stroke rally ended in a Smith backhand error, at which point I may or may not have yelled "'MERICA!!!" (but not as loud as Patrick yelled). Two points later and it was all over. A great win for Kudla, who tonight consolidated his victory with a tournament title. He'll rise back to #120 next week, which won't be enough for US Open direct entry but will come in handy with seeding at upcoming challenger events.

Our final match on Center Court was also terrific. I won't dwell on it as this post already has gone on far too long. But it was two local guys facing each other: Evan King (of Chicago and University of Michigan), a terrific doubles player who was featured in this excellent profile of life on the Futures Circuit, teamed with Raymond Sarmiento (recent USC graduate) against Martin Redlicki (a northwest suburb of Chicago and rising UCLA freshman) and McDonald. The professionals (King & Sarmiento) were victorious in three entertaining sets, which gladdened me as they need the points and money as they continue their young careers, plus I love their talent (especially King's (lefty) doubles skills). But I want to say this about Redlicki: I adore this kid. I'd seen him on the Livestream replay but in person he was even more impressive. He was entertaining and personable, and full of energy and competitive fire.  And he has a HUGE (again, lefty) game.  It may not be fair based on such limited exposure, but I think this guy can have a great pro career. Clearly he needs seasoning, and hopefully the team at UCLA can help with that.  But if he keeps his nose to the grindstone and stays healthy (he's built like a linebacker, which doesn't always lend itself to tennis), I see happy days ahead for him. And for 'merica. :-)

Bruins prior to their big semifinal

The victorious Big 10/Pac 12 champions, King & Sarmiento
 Tomorrow: what I liked best about the tournament and what I think could be fixed.