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.

/rant

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.

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