Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Last week in American tennis: 5 takeaways

A quick rundown of some stuff we learned last week:

1. Serena. Back. Awesome. What an incredible, emotional return for Serena Williams to the place of her most difficult on-court moment. Despite some fears, the crowd was embracing of her return and strongly supportive of her win over the frustrating/tricky/amazing Monica Niculescu. 

As I said on Twitter, I've never felt the situation in which she and the Indian Wells crowd was involved was as black and white as others believe. CNN, as an example, stated as a matter of fact that Serena was subject to "racist abuse" in 2001 but I believe the reality is far more complicated. Serena, Venus, and Richard Williams all have carried an immense weight around them for decades now, and it's always been tied up with America's (and much of the world's) culture of white supremacy. But other factors were at play as well, and to deny those is to deny the complexity of the situation.

But back to tennis: she failed to drop a set in her first two matches, setting up a reunion with Sloane Stephens today. And that is it's own kettle of really, really complicated fish.

2. USA men looking solid at the top. It wasn't a great start to the BNP Paribas Open for US men, as only 1 player (out of __ entered), Dennis Novikov, managed to qualify. Bjorn Fratangelo lost a gut wrencher to top seed Borna Coric (but opening a lot of eyes at the same time) while Taylor Fritz upset World #109 Dudi Sela - the biggest win of his career - but couldn't follow it up against #125 Thiemo De Bakker.

Still, four guys reached the 3rd round, including Jack Sock in two dramatic, emotional matches. This is Jack's first tournament of the year, since undergoing pelvic surgery. While he was out, his brother Eric had a massive health scare. Jack has dedicated his wins at Indian Wells to Eric.

Donald Young and Steve Johnson got upset wins over Jeremy Chardy and Ivo Karlovic, respectively, while Johm Isner was dominant in his first match against Jurgen Melzer. Unfortunately, unless Isner can reach the semis again this year, USA will again be without a Top 20 men's player. But compared to where we were a year ago (Isner at #13 but no other men in the Top 50; 4 guys total in the Top 100) things are looking much better.

3. Some very nice results for women. In addition to Serena's run, US women notched 13 wins in the first week of the tournament. That's more wins than they'd secured at any full Indian Wells tournament since 2006.  Particularly impressive were first-round wins by Sachia Vickery (in two exciting tiebreaks over Alla Kudryatseva), Irina Falconi (over Alja Tomljanovic, a win that should bring her back to the Top 100) and Taylor Townsend (sadly, over Bethanie Mattek-Sands in a fantastic three sets), as well as Sloane's first three-match winning streak since the 2014 French Open.

The Vickery match, by the by, is where I captured this bit of awesomeness from chair umpire Anja Vreg. It's somehow amazing even without the sound.

4. Tennys Canada! He lost the final, but Tennys Sandgren upped his winning streak in Canada's first two futures to 9 matches. He should be at least back in the Top 500 come Monday (no rankings came out yesterday due to Indian Wells), and could be higher depending on how he does in the Drummondville Challenger.

Also in that Sherbrook, Canada Futures, Eric Quigley had three remarkable comebacks to reach the semis.  In the quarters, he was down 2-6 in the third set tiebreak to Daniel Smethurst before rallying to win the last 6 points of the match. Unfortunately, he fell to eventual champion Edward Corrie in the semis, depriving us of an amazing all-SEC Kentucky vs. Tennessee final. Hopefully some day...

5. Teen American girls thrived in Florida. Finally, a huge round of applause to the six young American women who reached the quarterfinals of the Gainesville $10K event. Three qualifiers (Kaitlyn McCarthy, Alexa Graham, and Sofia Kenin), a Lucky Loser (Ingrid Neel), and the top seed Katerina Stewart - all under 18 - made it quite the event to follow scores for. Stewart won the title 6-4 4-6 6-4 over Kenin.

The most amazing win, however, belonged to 17-year-old Ellie Halbauer. Facing the #2 seed Elena Bogdan (who had just the week prior beaten Lauren Davis), the American took the first set 6-0 and raced to a 5-2 lead in the second. Serving for the match, she had match points at 40-0 (or 40-15, I'm not 100% sure) but got broken. She got the set to a tiebreak but lost it 7-2.

Halbauer then went down a break and Bogdan was serving up 4*-3. But then Halbauer won the next two games. With Halbauer serving at 5-5, the live score did something nutty. After several game points, Halbauer faced break point. And soon, the score changed to show Bogdan would serve for the match at 6*-5. But a minute or so later, it changed, and all of a sudden it was game point again for Halbauer. This time she converted, and a Bogdan hold later it was a third-set tiebreak - won by Halbauer 7-4.  All in all, a thrilling match to follow and a huge win for the youngster.

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