Sunday, May 31, 2015

What Premier League team should I support

A few days ago, I got trapped in a vortex of YouTube videos about British stuff.

It started with a comment on Twitter about commemorating the anniversary of the 1985 Heysel Stadium disaster*, which truth be told I'd never heard of. I mean, perhaps I'd heard of it at the time, but the horror didn't make much of impression on me as a young teen, or got lost amid general reports on English soccer hooliganism. It continued into watching videos about Liverpudlians vs Mancunians, and then comparative accent videos, and then swung back around to more soccer disasters, and eventually I decided I need to come up with an English Premier League team to support.

Now clearly I don't *need* to support any team. My interest in international football is shallow at best, and I honestly don't foresee it becoming particularly deep any time soon. After all, my interest in other non-tennis sports - your baseball, your basketball, certainly your god damn American football - has waned substantially over the years, inversely proportionate to my waxing interest in tennis at all levels.

That said, though, at least I know enough about MLB, NBA, and even the god damn NFL to be somewhat conversant, although the roster names have become increasingly obscure, even on the teams that I root for (your Chicago White Sox, your Denver Nuggets, your god damn Denver Broncos).  I can certainly bandwagon it if and when any of those teams makes a deep run to the playoffs.

But with soccer, I'm pretty lost. I see all the Brits on my timeline pulling for Spurs or Villa or whatever and even after having looked into it a few times, I couldn't tell you for sure where those teams are based (maybe both in London?), nor even a little bit about their histories, relative strength, or god forbid any of the players, beyond Steven Gerrard and Liverpool, and even that only because of his recent defection to MLS. Or is he only on loan? I literally have no idea how that works.

Anyway, I figured the best chance for me to at least attempt an interest in this worldwide sporting phenomenon that is Premier League is to adopt a team. At the very least, I might understand some of the terminology people are using, and more than a couple of player names. And that's where I need some help:

Which English soccer team should I support?

Generally I like to support teams (sides?) that aren't huge super winners all the time. I like a little bit of an underdog vibe to my teams. But I don't want a team mired in last place year after year, with no successful history or realistic future prospects. And finally, it would be nice if it were in a city or town that was fun to visit, so that I could incorporate a football match on a trip some time.

I've set up a poll with 10 possibilities, but feel free to vote OTHER should you think I'm totally missing out on the amazingness that is Stoke City. And please consider giving reasons for why I should support a team - or most certainly NOT support another team - or focus on another league - or leave football ALONE, damn it.

Thanks all! (Or as we say in England, cheerio!!)

What Premier League team should I support?

*It was amazing to learn that Michel Platini, about whom I'd only heard earlier this week based on his criticisms of Sepp Blatter, scored the only goal in the game that continued despite the deaths and to this day has people mad at him for celebrating that goal.

Monday, May 25, 2015

This Week in American Tennis: 7 Takeaways

1. Ryan Freaking Shane. I mean ... what can you say about this dude? He, along with Most Outstanding Player Mitchell Frank and freshman star Collin Altamirano, leads the University of Virginia to its second NCAA team championship at #1 singles, then goes and, without a day off, wins six matches to claim the NCAA singles championship. In the final match, he was down 0-5 to odds-on favorite Noah Rubin of Wake Forest, then mounted a comeback that was helped, no doubt, by a shift indoors due to rain. Still, Rubin went up 5-3 in the second set and served for the match at 5-4. But Ryan kept to his guns, broke, and then ran away with the tiebreak and the third set.

I saw the guy in person for the first time in February and was frankly blown away by his power on both the forehand and one-handed backhand wings. He flat-out hits the felt off the ball. And he is a great competitor, as shown by his comeback in the team final against Oklahoma's Axel Alvarez, another instance in which he broke back at the end of the second set to extend the match, taking the pressure off Frank, who ended up clinching soon thereafter.

Shane had a nice run last summer to the semifinals at the Futures in Rochester but otherwise has been quiet on the pro level. His game is one that should translate well to the pros, where it helps to have a weapon, and helps even more to have a lot of confidence. Hopefully the confidence he gains from this past week will stay with him for a long time.

2. Noah Rubin was three points from an astonishing feat. Even though he came up a bit short, let's take a moment to appreciate Noah Rubin. He was manhandling Shane, up 5-2 in the first set when events were moved indoors, which I can only speculate played right into Shane's hands. And he still served for the match, but fell behind in the game and was broken at 30. Had he served it out, he would have become just the tenth player to have won both the USTA Boys 18s and the NCAA individual championships, and the first since Billy Martin in 1975. He would've been the first to do the two in consecutive years - AND he had a junior grand slam championship just before Kalamazoo - a three-peat nobody had ever accomplished over a career.

It didn't end up happening but boy what a year for the Long Islander. ITA rookie of the year, led his team to just its third-ever Sweet 16, and the individual finals. Whether he stays at Wake Forest or goes pro may or may not be settled - only he knows for sure. He's got high expectations of himself for the pros and that's about the best we can ask for.

3. Jamie Loeb's dream comes true. Speaking of an amazing player from the John McEnroe Academy who went to college in North Carolina, and had a great freshman campaign leading her team to an historic finish ... but who came up shorter than hoped for in the individual singles tournament - how about Jamie Loeb!! Last year as top seed she lost in the quarterfinals to Lynn Chi of California in three sets.  This year, as seventh seed, she won the whole thing, winning six of her seven five of her six (thanks, Colette!) matches in three sets, including the final against Stanford's Carol Zhao. She'll almost certainly appear late this summer (along with Shane) in the singles main draw of the US Open, effectively her home town tournament (Ossening, NY is an hour north of Queens). Your friendly blog proprietors couldn't be happier about the win, and wish her the best of luck in Flushing Meadows - as well as in various other pro tournaments - in the coming months.

4. Vandy reaches Astra-l heights. Although they were the #4 seed, Vanderbilt surprised a lot of folks by winning its first women's NCAA title. But they had big win after big win, thanks in huge part to their outstanding Aussie redshirt freshman Astra Sharma, who was rightfully named Most Outstanding Player at #2 singles. Sharma clinched the quarterfinal against Florida, the semifinal against #1 seed USC, and the final against defending champ UCLA. Her final match was particularly fun to watch, given the contrast between her and counter-puncher Chanelle Van Nguyen, who is never out of any match until the last ball bounces twice. She was bold in the face of incredible pressure, and made a lot of new fans, including me.

5. French Open qualies didn't go so hot. Alexa Glatch was the only American to qualify for Roland Garros. It looked like Jared Donaldson might join her after crushing top seed Chung Hyeon 0&1 in the first round and Ramkumar Ramanathan 2&0 in the second round. But then came Nikoloz Basilashvili, the man who in the prior round beat blog favorite Bjorn Fratangelo in a dramatic 6-1 6-7(9) 6-2 win after the American saved several set points.

The only other American man to win a match was Jason Jung, who beat Andrej Martin in three sets (all the more impressive given that it was Jung's first clay match of the season). A few women besides Glatch won one match, but only Jessica Pegula joined her in the final round of qualies, before falling to Paula Kania in two sets. In all, a very disappointing - and apparently portentous - start to the clay major.

But hey - FREAKING AWESOME JOB, ALEXA!!! Her first grand slam main draw since 2013 Wimbledon. So nice. So nice.

6. French Open days 1 & 2 - such rough terrain. As was mentioned in this blog's French Open preview, the first couple of days of the French Open featured few obvious wins for Americans. Indeed, Adam picked only one player to win on Sunday or Monday, besides the all-American Sloane Stephens/Venus Williams matchup. And while Lauren Davis fell in three sets on Sunday to the dangerous Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, spirits were lifted a lot by Steve Johnson's epic five-set win over Spain's Guillermo Garcia-Lopez.  After going up 2 sets to 0, most people assumed Johnson had the match in the bag, but he never had a lead in either the third set, which ended in a 7-1 tiebreak, or the fourth. In the fifth, he got broken in the first game but then broke back immediately in a three-deuce game, broke again in the sixth game, and never looked back.

As for Stephens (coming off her first semifinal - in Strasbourg - since the 2013 Australian Open), she was poised and confident in her match. With the exception of getting broken in her first service game (she broke back immediately) and double faulting on her first set point (she won the next one), her attitude, demeanor, and tactics were absolutely on point. Her backhand in particular was fantastic, especially down the line - she had a bushel of winners on that shot. Next up will be her arch-nemesis Heather Watson, whom she's never beaten. But with Sloane and slams, particularly this slam, it's tough to say she can't turn things around.

But yeah, otherwise, sucky first round so far for America.

7. Daniel Nguyen gets yet another Futures title. By winning at the Korea F1 $15K, USC alum Daniel Nguyen became the 11th different American man to win a Futures title in 2015.
Three times this week, including in the first round and the final, he came back from a set down to win. This is his 7th Futures singles title, and third in Korea. His ranking will rise to a new career high after the French Open - here's hoping his current ranking of #242 will be enough to get him into Wimbledon qualies (today's rankings should be the ones used for that).

Gold Stars: John Isner (Nice semifinal), Ernesto Escobedo (Mexico F4 final), Alex Rybakov (qualified & reached Spain F14 semis, upsetting #1 seed in process) and Taylor Fritz (Milan Grade A juniors semifinal).

Sunday, May 24, 2015

New USA Career-High Rankings, May 25, 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, May 25, 2015

Player name
Last wk
*= previous   CHR
+  from last week
If prior to last wk
Date achieved
If prior to last wk
Alexa Guarachi

Nadja Gilchrist

Ellie Halbauer
Ingrid Neel
Nicole Frenkel
Marie Norris

Kylie McKenzie

Super short list this week, thanks in part to an relative dearth of mid-level tournaments, as players in the 100-150 range were playing Roland Garros qualies. But we still have seven players, consisting of two former SEC college players (of special interest given that this week is the NCAA tournament!) and five teens.

The Raleigh $25K - featuring an all-American final of Julia Boserup and Samantha Crawford - got us our youngsters' highs. The biggest news was from 16-year-old Kylie McKenzie, who beat fellow wild card, 17-year-old Nicole Frenkel in the first round, and then veteran Alexandra Mueller to reach the quarterfinals, where she fell to top seed Florencia Molinero of Argentina. This marks McKenzie's rankings debut, so a huge party is in order. I'll bring the chips.

16-year-old Ingrid Neel also reached the quarters in Raleigh, beating 17-year-old Ellie Halbauer in the second round, accounting for the rises of both young women.  Frenkel got a point for her first-round appearance, as did qualifier Marie Norris (also age 17).

The former college women had to travel a good deal further. In China, former University of Alabama star Alexa Guarachi had a nice run to the quarters of the $50K in Wuhan, at which she came thisclose to beating eventual finalist Liu Chang, falling 64 67(4) 26 in a hard-hitting, thoroughly enjoyable match.

Lastly, former University of Georgia Bulldog Nadja Gilchrist's fantastic run in Sharm El Sheikh came to a conclusion with a finals appearance (following her title the week before and semifinal the week before that). The three-week trip took her from #547 to her current spot at #451. Brava!

**Edited on June 9 to add: Marie Norris' ranking was initially listed - at least on the WTA/ATP app - as 756. Dozens of other players in her range were similarly given rankings off by 1 or 2 spots from the current May 25 listing, but only hers affected the CHR list.

New ATP Career-High Rankings, May 25, 2015

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

Dennis Novikov

Frances Tiafoe

Alexander Sarkissian

Stefan Kozlov
Peter Kobelt
Deiton Baughman

Tommy Paul
Wil Spencer

Taylor Fritz
Dennis Uspensky

Alex Rybakov
Dominic Cotrone

Stephen Madonia

Not included: Matt Seeberger (1364 / +2)

The top four gents on this list made it via others' falling, but everyone else gained points in various futures tournaments.

Mexico F3: In Mexico City, Stefan Kozlov made his second final in two weeks, and made our list for the first time since February. Added to this past week's success at MEX F4 in Cordoba, it's great to see Koz getting his mojo back. I'm looking forward to a fruitful summer from the Floridian, who is defending one lonely point until the US Open.  Fellow teen Deiton Baughman had an impressive win (considering he was just in Nigeria the week before!) over #2 seed Alex Sarkissian in the second round, accounting for their rises, but lost in a third set tiebreak to Luis Martinez of Venezuela. Then he went home.

USA F16/Tampa: An impressive 7 of 8 quarterfinalists here represented the USA - all but eventual champion Thales Turini of Brazil. One of them was Wil Spencer, who upset #2 seed Darian King to reach the quarterfinals and pick up 2 more points. Another quarterfinalist was rankings newbie Dominic Cotrone. The dreadlocked University of South Florida transfer (who sat out this year of college ball) got a wild card and beat another former Florida State Seminole Jean-Yves Aubone, and then qualifier (and fellow ATP rankings newbie) Stephen Madonia.  Gaining 1 point  was wild card Dennis Uspensky, by virtue of his win over qualifier Patrick Daciek.

Spain F13/Valldoreix: As I wrote about last week, Tommy Paul celebrated his 18th birthday with 5 three-set wins to grab his first pro title and climb to the outskirts of the Top 500. Along the way, he beat 17-year-old Taylor Fritz in the semis. Alex Rybakov picked up a point by beating Spaniard Jaume Munar, who was #3 in the world in juniors a few months ago.

Israel F6/Akko: #2 seed Peter Kobelt reached his 4th career final - all in the past 12 months - with four straight set wins, before falling to Israeli Edan Leshem. Unfortunately, he's 0-4 in those finals, but still he's well inside the Top 500 just in time for his points from last summer's terrific run to start coming off.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

2015 French Open preview by my boyfriend

A few hours to go until the 2015 French Open, and On the Rise (a tennis blog) is pleased to bring you our preview - featuring the extremely hot takes of my boyfriend, Adam. He's an avid tennis watcher and nearly as big an American tennis fan as yours truly. And it takes the heat off of me if the picks turn out to be a disaster!

First, here's how Adam sees the draws unfolding:

Women's Draw

Adam sees the 17 Americans going a semi-respectable 7-10 in the first round, with Venus Williams defeating Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys taking down Varvara Lepchenko in the two all-American match-ups. He's also calling Serena Williams, Alexa Glatch, Christina McHale, Irina Falconi, Lauren Davis and Taylor Townsend to win. For the tournament as a whole he has:

4th Round:
Serena Williams d. Venus Williams
Caroline Wozniacki d. Andrea Petkovic
Petra Kvitova d. Tamira Bacsinszky
Svetlana Kuznetsova d. Anna Karolina Schmiedlova
Ana Ivanovic d. Ekaterina Makarova
Simona Halep d. Elina Svitolina
Carla Suarez Navarro d. Angelique Kerber
Maria Sharapova d. Lucie Safarova

S. Williams d. Wozniacki
Kvitova d. Kuznetsova
Halep d. Ivanovic
Sharapova d. Kerber

S. Williams d. Kvitova
Sharapova d. Halep

S. Williams d. Sharapova

Men's Draw

Adam predicts Americans will go 2-5 in the first round, with only Jack Sock upsetting Grigor Dimitrov and John Isner beating Andreas Seppi. Beyond that, he's got:

4th Round:
Novak Djokovic d. Richard Gasquet
Rafael Nadal d. Jack Sock
Andy Murray d. John Isner
David Ferrer d. Marin Cilic
Kei Nishikori d. Juan Monaco
Tomas Berdych d. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
Gilles Simon d. Stan Wawrinka
Gael Monfils d. Roger Federer

Djokovic d. Nadal
Ferrer d. Murray
Nishikori d. Berdych
Monfils d. Simon

Djokovic d. Ferrer
Nishikori d. Monfils

Djokovic d. Nishikori

So, to recap: two American men and two American women in the Fourth Round, and two players who will be halfway to calendar-year Grand Slams.

And 14 of 16 quarterfinalists from Europe. Plus ├ža change, I suppose!

And second, here are 10 questions & answers:

Q. What is your favorite memory of Roland Garros?
A. Agassi ’99. His career had been on the decline, and it was his comeback. Was down 2 sets to love. First major final since the 1995 US Open. And he completed the career grand slam, the first player to do so since Roy Emerson in 1964.

Q. What makes you think Jack Sock can upset Grigor Dimitrov in the first round?
A. Jack has a clay court title this year, while Dimitrov has had some good wins but has looked a bit pedestrian in his losses. Jack’s topspin could get Dimitrov’s backhand in trouble.

Q. You picked a Serena/Venus fourth round. Should that come to pass, how do you see it playing out, quality wise? 
A. It's really hard to say The last match they played against each other (Montreal SF) was high quality. But in the past they’ve had some matches that were full of errors and just felt flat. It's to play your sister, of course.

Q. Now the biggie: you have Djokovic beating Nadal. On Chatrier. What makes you think Djokovic can finally get over his Nadal hump this year? 
A. Nadal is committing a lot of unforced errors this year. Against someone as consistent as Djokovic, that’s not going to work. Djokovic is having a really good year (editor's note: Adam tends to understate things), and owned him in Monte Carlo.

Q. Should Serena and Sharapova meet in the final, what, if anything, can Maria do to break the Serena spell? 
A. I'd say a high percentage of first serves … maybe. Hit more in the middle of the court to take away angles might help ... to an extent. And pray.
Q. What players outside the Top 10 have the best chances to win the title? 
A. On the men's side, I'd say Monfils. He's French, and made the semis here. For the women, I'll go with Kuznetsova. She's had a good clay court season, she's a veteran, and she usually plays well against top players.

Q. Of the 256 players, what two would make you happiest to see holding the winners' trophies at the end of the tournament? 
A. It would be fun to see Venus win another slam at her age. I don’t know if I have a sentimental favorite for the men. Maybe Nishikori?

Q. If you could change one thing about Roland Garros, what would it be? 
A. Final set tiebreaks.

Q. What's your favorite thing about the tournament? 
A. It shows off defensive skills, which can lead to entertaining rallies.
Q. Finally what can Americans do to improve their performance on clay, whether tactical or technical? 
A. I'd say generally hit with more topspin, work a lot more on sliding, and just be more patient.

Thanks, Adam, for your help in constructing this first-ever On the Rise (a tennis blog) Roland Garros preview! You're a peach. :)

Monday, May 18, 2015

New USA Career-High Rankings, May 18, 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 ATP Career-High Rankings, May 18, 2015

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

Jared Donaldson

Dennis Novikov
Daniel Nguyen

Frances Tiafoe

Alexander Sarkissian

Eric Quigley
Deiton Baughman

Wil Spencer

Cameron Silverman

Dennis Uspensky
Frederick Saba

Not included: Clay Thompson (1147 / +2), Matt Seeberger (1366 / +4)

It was a slow week for men, featuring no big breakthroughs at the Rome Masters, and some disappointing results in challengers. Donaldson got a win in Bordeaux, while Novikov got one in Heilbronn. Fratangelo did reach the quarters in Heilbronn, with a big win over Dustin Brown in the first round, but his loss after being up a set on Alexander Zverev took some of the shine off. Nonetheless - welcome to the Top 150, Bjorn! Glad to see your nice year continuing.

Everything else happened a week ago in Futures:

Nigeria F2: Great run to the final for Eric Quigley, with wins over compatriots Deiton Baughman (QF) and Evan Song (SF). Quigley is in the Top 250 of the race - if he can maintain this level, the US Open qualies isn't outside the realm of possibilities. Baughman, meanwhile, is continuing to impress and gain new fans for his grinding efforts.

Mexico F2: Alexander Sarkissian won his third title since leaving college with an NCAA runners up trophy - one in each major North American country.

USA F15: Neither Stefan Kozlov's final nor Sekou Bangoura's semifinal got them to new career highs. Instead, Wil Spencer's quarterfinal and three second round appearances brought appearances on this list: Cameron Silverman (LL), Dennis Uspensky (WC), and Frederick Saba (Q).

In Moving Up Thanks to Others Moving Down News: Frances Tiafoe and Daniel Nguyen fit the bill here.

New WTA Career-High Rankings, May 18, 2015

Player name
Last wk
*= previous   CHR
+  from last week
If prior to last wk
Date achieved
If prior to last wk
Madison Keys

Lauren Embree

Caitlin Whoriskey

Nadja Gilchrist

Erica Oosterhout

Marie Norris

Sofia Kenin

Dasha Ivanova
Kristina Smith
Eva Raszkiewicz

Raveena Kingsley
Malika Rose
Caroline Dolehide
Jessica Golovin

If it was a slow week for the men, it was muuuch worse for the women. Only three players on this list added even one point, and only one added more than a point.

That one case was Madison Keys over Madison Brengle, but her rise was much more due to Sara Errani failing to defend her Rome final points. A Keys first round loss would have had the same effect. But hey! Look! Keys with that win was guaranteed a Top 16 seed at Roland Garros, meaning she'll avoid Serena Williams (and Maria Sharapova, and Simona Halep) until at least the 4th round! So perfect time for your Sweet 16 Ranking!

The other two players to add one point each were (1) Kristina N. Smith who got a bye through qualies and who then beat a 14-year-old Greek wildcard at the $10K in Mytilene, Greece. I'm not kidding about the bye through qualies - there were 8 qualifying spots, but only 6 competitors. So yeah. and (2) Jessica Golovin, who also beat a 14-year-old wildcard, this one at the $15K in Obregon, Mexico. (She won 6-0 6-0. On Cinco de Mayo no less!)

Literally everyone else? Rose due to others' falling.

Next week we'll have the results of this past week's Futures events, plus a few ATP and WTA events featuring a good number of Americans. Hopefully a couple of big names will do well there. And then after that, a week's break ... and then the French Open results on June 8! That could prove quite eventful.

Or not.