Monday, April 6, 2015

This week in American tennis: 9 Takeaways

1. Serena. She had a couple of tough matches in Miami but dominated, as she so often does, in the final.  Not only has Serena won 21 straight matches (including going 18-0 so far in 2015), she's won 12 straight finals - and she's won 20 consecutive sets in finals.

But there is a hint that indeed there will be a Serena rival in 2015, based on her match with Simona Halep in the semis.

Perhaps, as we move to clay, the rivalry will heat up more.

2. John Isner is back in the Top 20. Well that didn't last too long. When John Isner lost to Novak Djokovic in the 4th round of Indian Wells, it meant that the subsequent rankings would reflect the unfortunate reality of no Americans in the ATP Top 20. Last time that happened, back in August 2013, it caught the attention of countless media outlets and helped solidify the mainstream consensus that US men's tennis was a lost cause (and the corollary: not worth paying much attention to). This time, it was barely noted as far as I could tell. I think I preferred it the other way, to be honest.

In any case, his back-to-back-to-back upset wins this week against Grigor Dimitrov, Milos Raonic, and Kei Nishikori helped provide a corrective and, even though he yet again couldn't get past Djokovic (but few can this year) to reach the final, he left people chattering in a positive way.

Isner, who is turning 30 this month, suggested that something clicked after his Davis Cup loss to James Ward. Since then, he's lost three matches - to Murray, Djokovic, and Djokovic. If he keeps it up on clay, where he has relatively little to defend until his 4th Round Roland Garros points, America's Top 20 place should be secure for the foreseeable future.

3. Sloane and Venus had similar weeks. Just a shout-out to those two women who, at very different stages in their careers, won very solid matches this week to reach the Miami quarters. Sloane Stephens beat 18-year-old Belinda Bencic in a match some called the best of the tournament, while Venus Williams dispatched of #4 seed Caroline Wozniacki for the 7th time in their careers. (Caro has won just one set against Venus, ever.)

Interestingly, they won by very similar scorelines: Sloane won 6-4 7-6(5) while Venus won 6-3 7-6(1).

Unfortunately, both ladies lost their next round matches, Stephens to world #3 Halep and Williams to incoming Top 10 debutante, eventual finalist Carla Suarez Navarro.

4. The best doubles team in history added to their legacy. Bob and Mike Bryan, whom I'm guessing you've heard of, won their 105th title together in Miami, defeating Indian Wells champs Jack Sock and Vasek Pospisil in the final. After splitting sets, the Bryans jumped out to a 5-0 lead but the youngsters chipped away at that and finally got it to 8-8, but a couple of loose points gave the twins the wins.

Interestingly, I got into a bit of a discussion on Twitter about whether they indeed were the best doubles team in history:

But looking at history (and granted, I'm no expert in men's doubles history) it strikes me that most of the last 40 years the top guys have focused on singles. John McEnroe was an exception but the teams he and Peter Fleming were beating in the finals for their 7 major titles included the likes of Tim & Tom Gullickson and Fritz Buehning and Van Winitsky.

In any case, I'm sticking to my "greatest team ever." But they've definitely got a rivalry going with PospiSock, who are now each in the Top 10 in doubles (Vasek ending Daniel Nestor's 14-year reign as the top-ranked doubles player in Canada). I'm very interested to see how they do on clay.

5. The atmosphere in Miami was ... a bit much. Okay, I have said over and over again I think there's room for more enthusiasm in the crowd when Americans are playing in America. Well, there certainly was enthusiasm in a number of matches this week, but more often than not it was for the Americans' opponents.

The Stephens/Halep match was the one that got me. From the first point, the Romanian fans were at their full-throated best, and it took until well into the second set for the rest of the crowd to step up and try to drown them out. Many others commented on it in Halep's next match, against Serena.
Meanwhile, earlier in the week (in a non-streamed match), both Ryan Harrison and Rajeev Ram were gobsmacked by the overwhelming Brazilian fan support for eventual winners Bruno Soares and Marcelo Melo.

If you don't think it's discouraging for players to see others get massive support in their home countries - and on the road from their compatriots - and then not get the same in the US ... well, frankly, you're wrong.  I saw people on Twitter accuse Ram of sour grapes, and others suggest that American players have to "earn" fan support (I guess by winning? Because America only supports winners?). But to me it's only natural to want support at home.  I'm guessing you'd want it too, if you were out there.

6. Houston wildcard fail. As I pointed out, only two ATP tournaments this year failed to give out one of their wildcards to a player from that nation: Dubai and Houston. Now, Dubai has only one player in the rankings - Omar Alawadhi - and he has a single point. The US, by contrast, has dozens of players in the Top 300, several of whom would have loved a wild card but instead had to try to go through a very tough qualifying draw. Insterad the tournament gave them to top seed Feliciano Lopez (whose team forgot to sign up for the tournament before the deadline), Lleyton Hewitt (a legend and fan favorite), and Janko Tipsarevic, a popular guy who is making his return from injury (but who I guess decided last-minute to play Houston, and so failed to enter and use his protected ranking).

Not included: Mike Russell, the only Houston resident I know of in the ATP, who has been quite successful at that tournament over the years. He wasn't thrilled with this turn of events:
... and it's hard to blame him.

Miami, too, is  notorious for the paucity of wildcards it gives to Americans. I doubt wild cards are going away any time soon, but maybe, if enough fans and players start talking about it, US-based tournaments will be more responsive to us and do what literally every other tournament in the world does: support local players.

7. Alexa Glatch is not messing around. Still only 25 years old, Alexa Glatch has had a really rough time with injuries in her career. Since coming back in September, she has had a number of good wins, while her losses have been tight (8 of her 12 losses have been in three sets or two tiebreak sets).

Two weeks ago she won the $25K in Irapuato and then this week she used her WILD CARD (see above) to outclass the field at the $50K in Osprey, beating three Top 110 players including top seed Madison Brengle in the final. Between those two tournaments and a quarterfinal last week in Palm Harbor, Glatch jumped 140 spots to #203. This means she'll almost certainly have direct entry into qualies for the French Open and Wimbledon (she has nothing to defend until September).

The one downside is that by winning her quarterfinal in Osprey, Glatch had to withdraw from the Charleston WTA tournament, as the qualies conflicted with the Osprey semis and final. Fortunately she made it worth her while with those 80 points (she would've had to qualify and win two rounds in Charleston to match that).

Update: The Sarasota Herald-Tribune had a nice article about her run to the title.

8. Taylor Fritz is an impressive lad. Yes, he lost in the final of the inaugural ITF Junior Masters tournament in Chengdu, China, but boy did Taylor Fritz play lights out in the matches I watched against Orlando Luz and Andrey Rublev.

You won't be disappointed if you watch the full final. Fritz has just about all the tools, it's just a matter of putting them all together. I know his dad is taking things slow, so we may not see him make the same impact other 17 and 18 year olds have been making. But watch this and tell me what you think:

9. Martin Blackman is named head of USTA Player Development. Best bet is to follow @zootennis for much, much more on that in the days ahead. Here's her initial report.

Gold stars. In addition to those mentioned above, let us recognize the following for their performances this past week: Sofia Kenin & William Blumburg (ITF International Spring Championships winners), Jessica Pegula (qualified for Charleston), Eduardo Nava (Tunisia F12 quarters), Raleigh Smith & Cameron Silverman (Turkey F13 doubles title), and Sam Querrey (Miami doubles semi with Isner).

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