Friday, May 15, 2015

Last Week in American Tennis: 1 Takeaway

1. Katerina Stewart is a shining star in the tennis universe. Clay court season is, without a doubt, one of the tougher times to really get enthused about American tennis. It's truly not that Americans as a species are absolutely incapable of wins - our men and women have won junior slams (Bjorn Fratangelo), regular slams (Serena Williams), run-of-the-mill tour events (Sam Querrey) and even a Davis Cup tie (against Switzerland). But let's face it - the margins are slim in tennis, and below the very tippy top of the sport, success is more often than not a matter of comparative advantage. Players around the world have fabulous strokes, athleticism, desire, etc. but some will thrive on one surface or another. Take two generally equal players, and the one who grew up on clay will more likely win a clay match, while the one who grew up playing indoors will succeed there.

Katerina Stewart grew up on clay - well, as much as any 17-year-old can be said to have grown up. Both of her parents are from countries in which clay is far more common than in the US, and she developed her skills on the green clay that predominates in Florida. Like a true clay courter, she has a game that exploits the dimensions of the court, and fills it with variety. Her shots have lots of different spins, speeds, directions, and depths. In fact, I thought of her as a power player when I first watched her at the US Open qualies last year - she has the ability to power through her forehand impressively. But watching her during the three USTA Har-Tru Wild Card Challenge tournaments, it was clear that she was anything but a "brainless ball basher." She played a savvy, clever, stylish game, yet still hit plenty of winners: authoritative down-the-line backhands, huge cross-court forehands, infuriating (for her opponents) drop shots.

And she's determined. She put herself in position to win all three tournaments. In both Dothan and Charlottesville, Stewart reached the final, at which she dropped a tight first set (6-7(1) in Dothan, 5-7 in Charlottesville), rebounded to win the second set, then dropped a tight final set (6-7(1) in Dothan, 5-7 in Charlottesville). Undaunted, she battled into her third consecutive final in Indian Harbour Beach (beating Charlottesville conquerer Allie Kiick in the semis) and then, playing her newfound rival Louisa Chirico in the final - the fellow teen whom had already claimed the French Open wild card the day before - was absolutely steely eyed in the third set, taking it 6-3 to win her first career $50K title, vaulting her up to #161 in the world - the third-ranked player under 18 in the world.

And, more important to her, the USTA provided her with the reciprocal wild card to the French Open qualies next week. Given that she barely missed the cut, and will be significantly higher ranked than many other players in the draw, it's a well deserved honor.

(There is a bit of a mini-controversy over whether the USTA's method of choosing the wild card recipient is fair. They only account for players' two best results in the three tournaments, meaning Chirico's title/1st round/final carried the same weight as Stewart's final/final/title. Then for the tiebreak they use the players' rankings, which gave Chirico the edge despite Stewart's 2-1 head-to-head record and despite Stewart's better result in each player's third-best tournament. If it were up to me, I'd make the tiebreak the third-best tournament. Head-to-head would make sense, too. But when you look at the end result, it's hard to be too upset, since Chirico is 40+ spots ahead of Stewart and since she already knew she had the wild card before the final match - who's to say what would have happened if the stakes of that match had been the wild card.)

But back to Stewart: it's time for her to play with the big girls. No more $10Ks (at which she had compiled a 29-2 record - including qualies - in her last 5 such events). She's now in the Top 100 of the WTA Road to Singapore and is nearly guaranteed to finish the year in the Top 200 even if she doesn't win another match. Nonetheless, it's wise to temper our expectations somewhat. She still has age eligibility restrictions - she can only play a couple more pro tournaments until she turns 18 on July 17. And keep in mind - she's only faced one Top 100 player in her career (Stefanie Voegele, against whom she took the first set at the 2013 New Haven qualies).

All that said, let us enjoy this new burgeoning American star of Hungarian and Argentinian parentage. She's got style. She's got joie de vivre. She's great in interviews - enthusiastic and bright. And as this Twitter sage so aptly put it:

Gold Stars: Mitchell Krueger (men's qualifying wild card to Roland Garros), Nadja Gilchrist (first career title, at the $10K in Sharm El Shiek, Egypt), Alexander Sarkissian (third career title, at Mexico F2), Stefan Kozlov (qualified & reached the final at USA F15  in Orange Park, Florida, coming from a 0-4 deficit in the 3rd set of his first match), Maria Sanchez and Taylor Townsend (title at Indian Harbour Beach), Alexandra Stevenson (doubles final with Angelina Gabueva in Indian Harbour Beach - her first final of any kind since 2009 and her first doubles final since September 2002 (Leipzig WTA with S. Williams)), Eric Quigley (final at Nigeria F2), Serena Williams (Madrid semifinal), John Isner (Madrid quarterfinal).

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