Sunday, March 29, 2015

This week in American tennis: 8 takeaways

1. US men in Miami earn a solid C ... minus.  Look, I know how hard it is for an unseeded player to make it to the 3rd round of a 96-draw tournament. Unlike in a Grand Slam, you have to beat a seed, since they all have byes.  And all the American men, save John Isner, were unseeded. So even getting two Americans into the Round of 32 was, purely by ranking, playing above themselves. But.

With the exception of Donald Young losing (again) to Andy Murray, none of the losses sat right.  Third set losses by Tim Smyczek, Steve Johnson, and Sam Querrey (who served for the match against Anderson); tight losses in winnable matches by Austin Krajicek and Ryan Harrison. In match after match, we came close, but couldn't defend our home court(s).

But then again, Miami doesn't really feel like a "home" tournament.  Querrey plays Victor Estrella Burgos and it sounds like they're playing in Santo Domingo. The wildcards are, with rare exceptions, for non-Americans (for more on that, see #4, below). And the courts are said to be slow ("purple clay" they call it), which doesn't particularly suit Americans' go-go style of play.

But we did have that one, Wondrous Wednesday, when in the first round American guys went 5-0, dropping just one set in the process. The 7 total wins are the most we've had in three years, as are our 55 total pre-clay wins for 2015. And John Isner still has a half chance to up those numbers when he faces Grigor Dimitrov on Monday.

So as we start to leave the hard courts behind for a while, let's hold our heads high. It's been a good first quarter.

2. US women in Miami earn a solid C ... plus!  Some rough, rough losses (Nicole Gibbs in qualies to Glushko; CoCo Vandeweghe - defending 4th Round points - to Ula Radwanska; Alison Riske/Madison Brengle/Christina McHale failing to win as many as 3 games in any set in their losses) were more than counterbalanced by some fine results: Ingrid Neel introducing herself to the world with a 1st Round qualies thrashing of Donna Vekic; Irina Falconi qualifying, beating crowd favorite Monica Puig in two gritty tiebreaks, and then scaring the daylights out of Ana Ivanovic fans; and most remarkably, CiCi Bellis losing only 7 games on her way to a 3rd Round brief encounter with Serena Williams.

The three players in the round of 16 are the Williams Sisters and Sloane Stephens. All have very tricky, but winnable, 4th round matches (Serena vs. Kuznetsova, Venus vs. Wozniacki, Sloane vs. Bencic). Let's hope for at least 2 quarterfinalists.

3. Sloane's solid swing. Look, I'm the last person to get too excited about Sloane Stephens right now, but how nice is it to see her follow up her great Indian Wells run with three straight-set wins over (in order) Yanina Wickmayer, Madison Keys, and Johanna Larsson. Larsson, of course, was responsible for that awful defeat at last year's U.S. Open and then the beat down last month in Acapulco. A loss in today's match would have been the icing on the Swedish pastry.

But she played a very composed match, hitting 27 winners, averaging just over 1 unforced error per game, and overcoming a second set deficit to win 6-4 6-4, acting as if the result was not in doubt.

This is two consecutive three-win tournaments for Stephens, with her sole loss being last week's three-setter against Serena Williams. For those who discount Stephens' 2013 Australian Open win over Serena due to Serena's injury, note that Indian Wells was the first time in 9 years a non-injured Serena has lost a set to an American other than her sister. That's really not nothing. It's really something, in fact.

Belinda Bencic is next. Watch this space next week for the result. Or, you know, watch the match, or, like check the internet.

4. Miami wildcards give me the sighs.  Okay, so here's the deal. I understand that IMG - the company that runs the Miami Open - has a strong business interest in having players it represents, from around the world, get a chance at the points and exposure that come with playing this event. And I know that won't be changing unless the tours basically get rid of wildcards entirely.

But I still want to gripe.  The last two players not to get into qualies were Americans Jared Donaldson and Bjorn Fratangelo. Had there been no wild cards given, those two would have gotten in. I know these things are planned well in advance but nonetheless it stings when Gianluigi Quinzi, Elias Ymer, Taro Daniel, and Omar Jasika are given preference over two rising American players. None of them qualified, nor did American Michael Mmoh, who was given the fifth wildcard despite being ranked hundreds of spots below his two compatriots.

If anyone from IMG or the Miami Open is reading this, please consider in future years that at least some of us are paying attention, and aren't huge fans of your decision-making process.  It's not something that would happen in any other tournament, in any country, and this year it harmed American players.


5. Katerina Stewart is a boss. In happier news, how about that Katerina Stewart? Two weeks after winning her fifth $10K tournament, she qualified for and then won the $25K event in Palm Harbor, Florida. Unfortunately, I don't know of any video from the tournament, but having seen Stewart play before, I I know she's got a big game that should get better over time. And clearly she's got a lot of fight in her. She won the quarterfinal over Alexa Glatch in three tough sets and then the final 1-6 7-5 2-0 (ret.) over top seed Maryna Zanevska.

Stewart should make her Top 300 debut when the next rankings come out and, with nothing to defend until June, she might start thinking big (French Open qualies, anyone?).

6. 7 American quarterfinalists in Calabasas. Speaking of French Open qualies, Dennis Novikov will make that cut, with his first title of 2015 at the $15K in Calabasas, California taking him into the Top 200 on April 6.  His most impressive wins were a quarterfinal win against Giovanni Lapentti in which he seemed completely out of it, down a set and 1-4*, but came back to win; and the according-to-ZooTennis well-played final against Frances Tiafoe, ending the 17-year-old's winning streak at 9.

But the real story in Calabasas was the dominance of an array of young Americans: all four semifinalists, 7 of 8 quarterfinalists, and 11 in the Round of 16. Fine form, fellows.

7. Martin Redlicki pulls off an unusual double. On Monday, Martin Redlicki won his final round qualies match in Calabasas, and then headed down to Los Angeles to play singles in the UCLA dual match against Oregon.  It's a rare occasion, to be sure, that a college match and Futures match are anywhere near each other, but I just wanted to send out a special shout-out to the kid for pulling off the extremely rare - perhaps unprecedented - pro/college same-day double victory.

The best part is that he provided the clinch for the Bruins (although the result was not in doubt).

8. Vicky!!

Gold stars: Krajicek (qualifying for Miami and winning his first career Masters 1000 match), Allie Kiick (Palm Harbor semifinalist), Glatch (Palm Harbor quarterfinalist), Jason Jung (Calabasas semifinalist), Mackenzie McDonald (same), Clay Thompson (Calabasas quarterfinalist), Taylor Fritz (same), Mitch Krueger (same), Jeremy Hunter Nicholas & Oscar Fabian Matthews (Calabasas doubles winners), Eduardo Nava (qualfied for TUN F5 and reached his first semifinal, beating Benjamin Ballaret 1&3 in the process), and doubles players still alive in Miami: Jack Sock, Quisner, Harry/Ram, and the Bryan Brothers.

Sadly, all the US women are out of Miami doubles already.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Two days in Parsadise, Part 2: Crashing the Pro-Am

On the Rise (a tennis blog) presents the debut guest post from Parsa, a stalwart young USA tennis fan from Southern California. Today we give you part two of his two-part report from Indian Wells. See Part One, The Steve & Ivo Show, here.
Viktor Troicki

Another personal highlight of mine was on Saturday when I got access to the practice courts that are closed off to fans. It was late Saturday evening, and there weren’t many players practicing anymore, but I did spot Marcos Baghdatis, who was getting ready for his match against world number one Novak Djokovic, as well as Viktor Troicki. Troicki was just doing drills with his coach, and when he finished I asked him if he needed help picking up all the balls, but he rejected my offer. A few minutes later, I found out he was the tennis ball pyramid making champion. 
When Baghdatis came off the court, I told him to go beat Novak, and he said he'd try his best (his best turned out to be getting only four games off Djokovic). After Baghdatis and Troicki left I then went on the famous Indian Wells grass field, and marveled at how awesome it was. What a cool thing that must be for players; since they play so much tennis, it is probably relaxing to engage in some pickup soccer games with fellow players. At the time, the practice courts were pretty empty and were not being used, so I just went on the courts and did some shadow swings and felt like Roger Federer for a few minutes. The courts even had a nice water jug with cups on each them, a nice luxury for the players, so I grabbed some and felt like Roger even more…except no one was chanting my name or taking pictures of me.
On the pitch
I was about to leave the courts when all of a sudden a bunch of doubles stars and media journalists appeared so I decided to stick around. Wayne Bryan entered along with many doubles stars like Leander Paes, Daniel Nestor, as well as media journalists Ben Rothenberg and Richard Evans. It turned out I had ended up in the middle of a big doubles pro-am hosted by the ATP! (The inaugural ATP World Tour Media Doubles Showdown, to be precise.) ATP CEO Chris Kermode was in attendance and before the event he made a nice speech to everyone. To paraphrase him, “Doubles is an essential part of this sport, and it is important to show the fans how important it is to the sport, and having these journalists interact with the some of the doubles guys will help them also become more aware of how you guys play and how you are off the court.” Wayne Bryan then chirped in that it was the doubles guys who played well at the World Tour Finals while the singles matches underperformed, and he asked Kermode what he thought about the matches in London last year, to which Kermode smiled and said, “On the record, both the singles and doubles matches were fantastic in the year-end finals.”

The players then picked which journalists they wanted as their doubles partners and they split up on four courts playing tiebreakers, with the winners and losers moving up and down. There was a nice buffet with all kinds of food so I headed straight for the brownies, and I saw that British doubles star Dominic Inglot had the same idea. While munching on our brownies, I asked him whether he actually did have a side-chick or if Andy (Murray) was just blabbering. He laughed and stated that he does not have a side-chick and that it was all banter, banter that went wrong. Remembering how genuine Andy and Dom’s reactions were in the interview after their Davis Cup win, I did not believe Inglot.

Paes & Klassen 
enjoying the buffet
I walked away from Inglot and came across doubles partners Leander Paes and Raven Klassen eating some sub sandwiches and bagels. Tennis players have a big appetite I’m learning. I also saw New York Times writer Ben Rothenberg and when I introduced himself he commented that I was a “prime favorite” on Twitter. In another rather amusing experience, I got Canadian tennis writer @StefMylesTennis to unblock me, neither of us remembered why she blocked me although I suspect it may have been my overwhelming “favorites.” One does not usually have an opportunity to confront people who have blocked them so I thought that was interesting.

After a few rounds of the tiebreakers, all the players and journalists got together on two courts and played King of the Court playing some nice doubles games as there was a winners’ court and a losers’ court. Wayne Bryan saw me watching and asked if I wanted to be the lone ballboy on the court and of course I gladly abided. After about a half-hour of chasing down balls and quickly returning them to Wayne Bryan so he could continue feeding, we finished up. Oh and while I was picking up balls, I was responsible for giving updates on the Ferrer/Dodig match for ATP stats guru Greg Sharko since his phone ran out of battery. It felt both weird and awesome that I was the one giving updates to the man who is known for his amazing stats on men’s tennis.

After we finished up King of the Court, everybody gathered around as Wayne Bryan thanked everyone for coming and said how awesome it was for the journalists to interact with the doubles stars and also play with them. He also commented that all across America on Saturday and Sunday mornings, the majority of club players are always playing doubles so it is important to keep bringing awareness to the doubles players on tour as well. Wayne Bryan is a fantastic ambassador for the sport of doubles, as are his sons, who just so happen to be the greatest doubles team of all time. Mr. Bryan also said something interesting in that he never wants to know who the Bros play right up until a few minutes before the match. Therefore, I made the smart decision not to tell him that they faced Anderson/Melzer in the first round. Before he left, he insisted that I take $20 for my efforts as a ballboy, which I thought was unnecessary since it was very fun for me to do, but he didn’t leave until I accepted the money. 

Reflecting back on this great experience, it was wonderful to meet some of the doubles guys on tour as the singles players are generally the ones in the spotlight. The majority of club players across America are doubles players and it is important to continue to keep bringing awareness to professional doubles.  Most doubles matches are not streamed, even when the courts have cameras. One match on Stadium 1 between Wimbledon doubles champions Vasek Pospisil and Jack Sock against the Bryan Brothers was not able to be streamed, leaving many fans disappointed. Instead of showing the doubles match, ESPN showed old Serena Williams matches while Tennis Channel was showing a Tennisoraphy on Tomas Berdych. There are obviously guidelines the networks must follow which did not allow them to broadcast the doubles matches, but efforts should be made to promote doubles so fans can become more engaged and so that more exposure is brought to professional doubles. 

The ATP has done a great job in the past year showing the majority of challenger matches around the world online through a streaming website which has definitely brought more attention to the grinders of the challenger tour. Although I love watching the challenger matches and think that it's great they are being streamed, I wonder why there has not been enough efforts made to also show doubles matches. These guys are integral to the sport of tennis as well. In addition to less TV time, doubles players also receive less prize money than singles players. Other than at majors or in Davis Cup matches, doubles has no-ad scoring as well as a supertiebreak in lieu of a third set making it fast-paced and more exciting. Indian Wells always gets many singles players to enter in the doubles event since it is a two-week long tournament and also since they get a day off in between singles matches. With many top singles players playing doubles, this brings a lot of attention to the doubles which was great to see.

After the event was over, I ran into Mr. Sharko again and I told him that Ferrer had just won 7-6(6) in the third set, and he wondered if he had saved any match points, so I told him we could check and I pulled out my phone. He commented that unfortunately the ATP app (by the way he is the ATP Communications Director) didn’t show point-by-point scoring, but I showed him a third-party app which did indeed have point-by-point and he was fascinated. So I told him the name of the app and recommended that the ATP include a point-by-point feature. After I said my farewells to all the wonderful people I had met, I made sure to grab one more brownie on my way out.

Editor's note: Everyone should follow Parsa on Twitter: @Smith_J1989. It's an experience you'll never forget.

The Pros
The Ams
Dom Inglot
Ross Hutchins and Wayne Bryan

Ben Rothenberg
Let's huddle up, boys and girls

Two days in Parsadise, Part 1: The Steve & Ivo Show

On the Rise (a tennis blog) presents the debut guest post from Parsa, a stalwart young USA tennis fan from Southern California. Today we give you part one of his two-part report from Indian Wells. You can read Part Two (Crashing the Pro-Am) here.

The BNP Paribas Open. Wow, what a tournament.

Considered by many as the unofficial "fifth slam" of tennis, this Masters 1000 level tournament has truly elevated itself over other tournaments. It solidified its presence on tour even more as it welcomed back world number one Serena Williams to the event for the first time since 2001. A favorite perk of many is that on the mobile app, fans have the ability to check out the practice schedule of all the players, enabling them to see what court and what time their favorite players will be practicing on. The app also lets fans stream practice courts 1 and 2 giving fans the opportunity to watch players practice, even if they are at home! How revolutionary, YOU CAN WATCH PRACTICE COURTS!

Another thing that makes this tournament so wonderful is that every court has Hawkeye technology, and it's even used for the qualifying tournament!
In addition, there is a grass field for players to exercise and also play some Frisbee or soccer. Many players comment that this is one of their favorite tournaments all year as many players indulge in nearby activities such as golfing or shopping as well as grabbing a bite from the scrumptious In N Out.

This was my 6th consecutive year attending the tournament, but the first time that I attended the tournament both on Saturday and Sunday (first weekend). A personal highlight of mine from this year's tournament was the opportunity to watch my favorite player, American Steve Johnson, in his second round match against the 21st seed, Croat Ivo Karlović. Stevie had won two previous encounters with Karlović in third-set tiebreaks, but had lost to him a couple weeks before in Delray Beach.
Jack Sock

Now back to Indian Wells. The Johnson-Karlović match was played on Stadium 3 as the fourth match in the day session right after American Jack Sock won a thrilling match in a third set tie-break over the thirty-third seed, Gilles Müller. Some guy named Roger happened to be playing at the same time as Stevie in Stadium 1, but there was no way I was leaving my first-row seat for the Johnson-Karlović match. The crowd did an amazing job of getting behind both Sock and Johnson in their respective matches.

I had met Ivo the day before (Saturday) at his practice and wished him good luck in his match the following day, but then I suddenly remembered he was playing Stevie, so I half-jokingly/half-seriously told him never mind. I tweeted our conversation and tagged him in the tweet to which he replied later, "That was messed up." (Now deleted).

Peter Lucassen serving
to Steve Johnson
I also got a chance to watch Stevie practice on Saturday as he was preparing for Ivo. A highlight of the practice for me was watching Stevie's coach Peter Lucassen standing at the service line and hitting serves at Stevie as hard as he can. Obviously, it is hard for someone to replicate Karlovic's monster serve, but serving at the service line rather than the baseline gives the returner less time to react to the serve which gave Stevie the chance to try to emulate returning a serve like Karlovic's.

The following day, a few hours before the match, Stevie hit with former USC Trojan teammate Eric Johnson (no relation to Stevie) a few hours before the match and they happen to be practicing right next to young Canadian star Genie Bouchard. I was lucky enough to find a first row seat for Sock's match which enabled me to have the same seat for the Johnson-Karlović match. Stevie's player box was a few seats to my left and it included his current coach, his father, his girlfriend, and his coach from USC, Peter Smith. Also in attendance were several of Stevie's former USC teammates including Nick Crystal, Roberto Quiroz, and Eric Johnson. USTA Strength and Conditioning coach Rodney "Rocket" Marshall was there, as was Stevie's agent Sam Duvall, who is also the agent for fellow Americans John Isner and Denis Kudla. I also spotted ATP World Tour commentator Nick Lester and American tennis fan @ParentingAces in attendance. This was essentially Stevie's home tournament with so many friends and family in attendance and he definitely looked a bit more pumped up.

By the start of the match, Karlović knew what I looked like, what my Twitter was, and the fact that I was cheering very loudly for Stevie. Stevie broke Karlović early in the first set for a 2-0 lead, and since Karlović certainly isn't known for his return game, @JaredPine who was seated next to me shouted, "Time for the 2nd set!" Karlović thought I shouted it so he looked right at me from about 20 feet away and quickly cussed me out in both English and Croatian that included a couple of F-bombs. As a fan rooting for the opposing player, seeing that I was upsetting Karlović made me feel good and I made sure to redouble my efforts for the rest of the match. After getting the early break, Stevie cruised to take the first set 6-3.
Stevie J

The second set was much tighter as neither player had any break point opportunities. In the tiebreak there were no mini-breaks until Karlović finally got one to take a 4-3 lead which got Stevie enraged at himself. Stevie then kept himself under control and won the following point coming up huge to even up the score at 4 all. There were no more mini-breaks until Stevie had a match point on Karlovic's serve at 6-5 in the tiebreak. On match point, Karlović came into the net and Stevie was running toward the deuce side on the baseline to hit a running forehand which he HIT BEAUTIFULLY for a down-the-line winner! Stevie screamed in excitement and gave some big fist-pumps before giving some high-fives to Peter and Peter, his current coach and his USC coach. Karlović had already shook the umpire's hand and had sat down, while Stevie was celebrating so Stevie ran over quickly to make sure they shook hands to conclude the match, certainly one I'll never forget.

The Johnson-Karlović match was the last match I saw at the tournament, and I couldn't have dreamed up a better scenario for me to leave. After the match I tweeted my excitement about Stevie’s win and also said, "Suck it @IvoKarlovic!!!!" Soon after, I got the expected block from the big man. I'll miss following one of the funniest players on Twitter, but it felt good to know I may have gotten into Karlovic's head during his match. Then again, maybe he'd just had enough of me and didn't want anything to do with me anymore. Oh well, it was worth a Steve Johnson win.

Editor's note: Follow Parsa on Twitter at @Smith_J1989.

Monday, March 23, 2015

New USA Career-High Rankings, March 23, 2015

Each week I will bring you a list of USAmerican players who have reached a new career-high ranking (CHR). This list covers all players in the Top 1000. Any player outside the Top 1000 will not be included unless they actually have earned at least one point from their previous career-high ranking. See all the CHR posts.

New WTA Career-High Rankings, March 23, 2015

Player name
Last wk
*= previous   CHR
+  from last week
If prior to last wk
Date achieved
If prior to last wk
Sachia Vickery
Louisa Chirico
CiCi Bellis

Lauren Embree

Katerina Stewart
Alexa Guarachi
Ellie Halbauer
Rianna Valdes
Ingrid Neel
Sofia Kenin
Jessica Ho
Alexa Graham
Caroline Dolehide
Kaitlyn McCarthy

Not included: Claire Liu (1215)

Indian Wells: Big jump for Sachia Vickery, thanks to her two-tiebreak win over Alla Kudryavtseva in the first round of Indian Wells. Another wildcard, Chirico, lost to Donna Vekic but still gained the benefit of 10 points for the main draw appearance. Embree's jump came courtesy of a first-round qualifying win over Kimiko Date-Krumm. She felt juuuust shy of an even bigger jump when she lost to Daria Gavrilova in an intense, long three-set match.  In any case, she's on the happy side of 300 for the first time, which is pretty damn good, particularly with nothing to defend until the end of June.

Bellis, Guarachi, and Dolehide got their highs thanks to others falling.

As for the others:

Gainesville $10K: This was an exceptional tournament for a LOT of American teens.  Katerina Stewart won this tournament, but her jump was mitigated by the points from her final run at the same tournament in 2014 coming off.  She has another 21 points coming off two weeks from now, so every result will be meaningful this spring. Sofia Kenin reached her first final at this tournament, bringing her into the Top 1000 for the first time; Ellie Halbauer, Ingrid Neel, and Alexa Graham all reached the quarters; and Rianna Valdes got to the second round. Kaitlyn McCarthy, meanwhile, won three matches in qualies, and then three three-setters in the main draw to earn a cool 4 points and enter the rankings for the first time! Congrats to all!

El Kantaoui $10K: In Tunisia, 18-year-old Jessica Ho won two matches back the week of March 3. Sometimes, it pays to go out of your way.

New ATP Career-High Rankings, March 23, 2015

Player name
Last wk
*= pvs CHR
+  from last wk
If prior to last wk
Date achieved
If prior to last wk
Bjorn Fratangelo

Dennis Novikov
Daniel Nguyen

Alexander Sarkissian

Tommy Paul

Taylor Harry Fritz
Wil Spencer

Michael Grant
Collin Johns

Not included: Dennis Uspensky (1280), Alexander Centenari (2040)

Bjorn Fratangelo beat Gastao Elias in Indian Wells qualies and then qualified for the Irving Challenger, both of which counted in this week's rankings. If only he'd converted one of his match points against Coric in the Indian Wells final round of qualies...... Oh well, next year!

Dennis Novikov actually did qualify for Indian Wells, and is now in position to play Roland Garros qualies, which he's psyched about.
And Taylor Harry Fritz recorded an impressive win over #109 Dudi Sela. Turned a lot of heads with that one.

Alexander Sarkissian reached the final of Australia F2 and then the quarters of Australia F3 to burst into the Top 500.

Michael Grant got a first-round win at the Canada F1 event, while two-handed-on-both-sides Collin Johns makes this list for the first time this year after his quarterfinal in Nicaragua.

Paul and Spencer each moved up thanks to others falling down. We'll take it!

Edited to add! Daniel Nguyen reached the semis of the Canada F1 event, then won a round at CAN F2 to add to his haul, giving him his new career high ranking. Our apologize to Daniel and his loved ones for this error.