Sunday, March 22, 2015

This week in American tennis: 13 takeaways

1. Serena Williams' successful return to Indian Wells continued nearly perfectly. Then it got weird. This week, Serena took care of business against Sloane Stephens and Timea Bacsinszky and had a semifinal set up against Simona Halep when all of a sudden the most unbelievable plot twist occured: she withdrew. Given the incredible build up around Serena's return, and the parallels with 2001 (last-minute withdrawal before a blockbuster semifinal), there was a high level of anxiety (at least on Twitter) about what would happen next.

For many, this became a "test" of the fans - the fans' second test of the week (they had, it seemed, passed the first test, her first match, with flying colors).  When push came to shove, when things got tense, would good sense overcome bitterness or, it was assumed, prejudice? And if it did not, what great lessons could we draw - or pretend to draw - from that around race, gender, class, etc?

I suppose it's fortunate for everyone that the crowd (guided with great aplomb by Andrew Krasny) was respectful, if disappointed. Serena has a way of forcing us to hold a mirror to ourselves - but, like, a two-way funhouse mirror, where we don't necessarily see ourselves as we really are; rather, we see others as exaggerated versions of themselves. Their reactions to anything she does, far more than our own, we see as incredibly meaningful. She's amazing like that.

And best of all? Serena promised to be back next year, and we can all go through this again in 11.5 months!

2. Serena still undefeated in 2015. She's only won one tournament, the Australian Open, but the withdrawal against Halep means she doesn't have a loss yet. In fact, Serena hasn't lost a fully-played, tournament-ending match since last summer, when Venus beat her in three sets in Montreal. She's had a retirement, a couple of walkovers, and the round robin loss to Halep in the WTA Championships in which she emerged the ultimate winner. Just an interesting side note to all this.

3. Sloane Stephens is not ... done ... yet. Sloane didn't win any matches this week - although she become the only player to win a set off Serena Williams at Indian Wells - but she showed confidence and enthusiasm. Despite falling a match short of defending her 2014 quarterfinal points, she will stay in the Top 50 for at least a bit longer.

She also spoke at length about the negativity she's received on Twitter from Serena fans, and named herself the "Queen of Blocking", which led to even more criticism by those who noted that she had blocked some people who hadn't even tagged her in a tweet. While some took that to mean she had proactively searched her name on Twitter (supposedly a bad idea), I think that is an unwarranted assumption - because some of the cracks about Sloane could easily have been retweeted into her timeline, and she took proactive steps to make sure that didn't happen again.

But maybe it is correct, that Sloane searches her name and then blocks people who tweet nasty things about her rather than to her. In which case, I'm of two minds. On the one had, Twitter is full of a special kind of snarkiness that may be meant as lighthearted but which can easily be read as being mean for meanness' sake. And in the relatively small world of tennis Twitter, it's fine with me if the subject of the snarkiness wants to reach out and send folks a message, passive aggressive as it may be, that their snarkiness isn't really harmless. On the other hand, Sloane's desire to shield herself from criticism could be read as symbolic of a larger problem - an oversensitivity, a "gold star" mentality (see below) that could lead her to avoid adversity rather than facing it and fighting through it. Which might be affecting her career for the worse. Pure uneducated speculation but hey, it's a possibility.

4. Jack Sock is a winner. He and Vasek Pospisil won their third doubles title (Jack dedicated this one to his brother, Eric, who recently survived a health scare), with yet another win over the Bryan Brothers in the semis. They've now won a major, a Masters Series 1000, and a 250 in just 7 tournaments together. This guy also has won a mixed doubles slam title and a junior slam title. He also had a very nice Top-20 win over Roberto Bautista-Agut on Tuesday. He was taught a lesson in the next round by Federer, sure, and has notable flaws in his game, but damn if he doesn't give us fans of American tennis reason to celebrate, and hope, more often than not. And wow: what a memorable first tournament of the year.

5. Wayne Odesnik is a loser. I mean - yeah, everyone's taken turns pissing on the guy, but jeez. Importing HGH, being in the Biogenesis notes, and now a drug test in which you fail for multiple substances? A lot of American players and fans were happy to see him go, in part because he wasn't so popular to begin with and in part because they felt like he was a stain on "American tennis." I certainly won't miss him, even if I think he could be a bit of a scapegoat. Another guy not sorry to see him go:
I partook in a discussion in which I argued that responses like Andy's were understandable rather than a sign of American arrogance or exceptionalism. What's your call?

6. Claire Liu is WOW. The first player born in the 2000s with a singles ranking became the first player born in the 2000s to win a title, as she completely dismantled Hungary's Fanny Stollar in the Orlando $10K final. Incredibly, the wildcard didn't drop a set in the tournament.  When the post-Miami rankings come out, she'll be well inside the Top 1000.

US women have now won 5 of the 8 USTA Pro Circuit events this year. Nice.

(Speaking of which, it's interesting that there have only been 8 women's tournaments so far, compared to 12 men's events. That's not counting the 3 ATP Challengers, for which there's no WTA counterpart, or the two pre-Indian Wells ATP World Tour events compared to zero for women. Overall: 18 US tournaments for men, including Indian Wells, and 9 for women. And yet US women are doing much better in the rankings. Interesting. Discuss.)

7. The BNP Paribas Open Collegiate Tennis Challenge Powered by Oracle did not get the royal treatment. The University of Oklahoma did a great job of winning the 8-team event but it felt completely buried. Did the tournament social media even mention it? I'm pretty sure they didn't. So ... what was the point again?

8. Steve Johnson has a Tennisography! Which is worth it, if nothing else, for the hairstyles from his youth. Any chance he'll decide to grow it out again? Because that would be rad.

Watch it here:

Tennisography: Steve Johnson (Final) from Tennis Channel on Vimeo.

9. GLATCH! A woman who has been beset by injuries ever since she came upon the tennis scene, Alexa Glatch beat four seeds, including world #110 Tatjana Maria, to win the $25K title in Irapuato, Mexico. In the final she beat Renata Voracova, who kept her out of the Australian Open with a final round qualies straight set defeat.

It's her first title since returning from injury last fall, and should vault her back into the Top 300. Very, very awesome.

10. Smee! Beats 3 top-50 players in getting to the final of the Irving Challenger, dubbed by Joey Hanf as the Irving 250. Tim Smyczek is back in the Top 75 and has zero points to defend until the French Open (and only 32 points to defend until July). Excited to see how the next few months go for him.

11. Usue Arconada wins Grade A Porto Alegre! She becomes the first American girl to win the prestigious clay court juniors event since Melissa Middleton in 1997 (when it was held in Venezuela).

American girls are now defending titlists at three of the five annual non-major Grade A juniors tournaments (the other two are Sofia Kenin at the Orange Bowl and CiCi Bellis at the Italian Open). Same can be said about the boys. Unfortunately, besides Noah Rubin, the same can't be said about the junior slams. Which is weird. But anyway, junior American tennis is having a terrific run of late. Of course, the next step is what most people really care about. We'll see how that goes.

12. Jarmere Jenkins goes viral ... again. He had a rough loss in the quarterfinal of Drummondville (while another erstwhile college player, J.P. Smith, picked up the win) but in the second round, he got lots of views for this:

After last year's epic face plant in his win against Tennys Sandgren, it's pretty clear that Jenkins needs to get into majors sooner rather than later.  He's pure social media gold.

13. Oh yeah. Tiafoe. Wow. It's been that kind of weekend. After spending the last 24 hours praising Frances Tiafoe's awesome run to his first career title at the Bakersfield $15K, I totally left him off this list (thanks @CrackedCourtsNY!). The 17-year-old started with three three-set wins and then rolled through his last two matches. In all he beat four former college guys (all of whom played in southern California) and won a tournament with a very strong field. Great to see a guy who has had heavy expectations placed on him get that first notch on his belt.

Gold stars:

I firmly believe that EVERYONE deserves gold stars in life, just for showing up. But I guess that's a bad thing now, and the reason kids these days are assholes, so I will limit my gold stars to the following Americans who had really nice weeks: Maria Sanchez (Irapuato semis), William Blumburg (Porto Alegre boys final), Walker Duncan (Bakersfield QF), Raveena Kingsley (Orlando semis), Connor Farren (Bakersfield semis), Sekou Bangoura (Bakersfield doubles title, with Darian King, AND a qualies win on the same day), Ingrid Neel (Orlando doubles title with Fanny Stollar), and Kylie McKenzie (first career QF, in Orlando).


Who had the best week March 16-22?

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