Monday, May 18, 2015

This Week in American Tennis: 3 Takeaways

1. Happy birthday, Tommy Paul. Turning 18 is a major milestone in any person's life. In American legal terms, it's the age of majority, the crystal-clear dividing line between childhood and adulthood.

Very few of us, though, had as memorable a birthday as Tommy Paul did on Sunday. Paul, the North Carolina kid who has pledged his allegiance with the University of Georgia, culminated a fantastic week by winning the Spain F13 singles title in Barcelona. He went three sets in all five of his matches, coming from a set down in three of them - losing middle-set tiebreaks in the other two - and beat three Spaniards in their own house.

In the semifinal, Paul faced perhaps his toughest task - meaningfully, against his pal and fellow 17-year-old American Taylor Fritz - down a set and a break at 2-3 against the big-serving Californian. But Paul would go on to win 4 of the last 5 games of the set. Then down an early break in the third, Paul's resiliency showed and he came right back to win the final set 6-3. All that on his last day of being a minor.

Sunday, Paul woke up, went down a set to 20-year-old Albert Alcaraz Ivorra - who had celebrated his own birthday on Friday with a come-from-behind quarterfinal victory, and who had helpfully taken out #2 seed Christian Garin (CHI) in the first round - and then won the final two sets 6-4 6-4. 

For those who haven't seen Paul play, here's a nice sample from last month in Savannah, when he took out world #101 Ruben Bemelmans in a nail-biter. Lots of good stuff on display - his powerful groundies, his excellent clay movement, his point construction. Perhaps best of all, his confidence.

Paul has been a bit of an afterthought when discussing the American teens, in part because he didn't have the junior success of some of his peers, reaching a high of #42. His two junior majors were at the 2013 US Open, where he drew eventual champion Borna Coric, and the 2014 US Open, where he drew Roman Safiullin, winner of this year's Australian Open Juniors. He'll have a shot this year at the French and, given his success on clay generally and in Europe specifically (he's undefeated there as a pro - in fact ESP F13 was his pro debut overseas) you have to think he'll be a contender.

2. Julia Boserup gets a much-needed good result.  Last April, Julia Boserup made her presence known by successfully qualifying for the Monterrey WTA tournament, and then upsetting Kirsten Flipkens en route to the quarterfinal. The then-22-year-old showed a nice serve and some pop on her groundies, and hopes were high that the experience would help vault her from outside the Top 300 into becoming a regular in the Top 200. 

Her results since then haven't quite backed up that promise - although she did reach the Sacramento $50K final last summer - so her run to the Raleigh $25K title had to be particularly gratifying. Her first three matches saw her win with scores of 6-2 6-0, 6-0 6-2 and 6-2 6-0. Then came her semifinal match with top seed Florencia Molinero - and we are lucky to have had friend-of-this-blog Lang there to cover it. Read her highly entertaining write-up of the match here. TL:DR - Boserup won 6-7(5) 6-4 6-0 in a "bizarre" match.

Then came Samantha Crawford, the 20-year-old American who had a Cinderella run to the 2012 US Open juniors crown as a wildcard but who has also yet to establish herself in the Top 200, with a career high of 218 set nearly two years ago. Crawford went up an early break but then it was all Boserup, per the scoreboard, winning 6-3 6-2. 

This is Boserup's third career title (all at the $25K level) and it just might be enough to get her into the Wimbledon qualies. The rankings that will count for that come out on May 25, so some players could still pass her, and others could use injury-protected rankings. Regardless, given her 3-8 record (including qualifying matches) in 2015 coming into Raleigh, winning five matches this week was huge.

3. A few words about Americans in college tennis. On Saturday, following the conclusion of the NCAA men's quarterfinals, I tweeted this:
Now obviously this is a hugely touchy subject, and my thinking about it is anything but settled. I know that bringing stuff like this up rankles many, including many of the fine coaches and student athletes in college tennis. Even mentioning it runs the risk of accusations of xenophobia.

Look, it's an issue that has been around for decades now - in both men's and women's college tennis.  I'm relatively new to the whole debate, and I willingly admit there are plenty of factors involved that I have limited knowledge of. But it's a discussion with significant repercussions for American tennis generally, which is the primary focus of this blog.

Here are some historical articles about the phenomenon.

BBC 2011: US college tennis: Simmering row over foreign players
New York Times 2006: Foreign pros in college tennis: On top and under scrutiny
USA Today 2003: NCAA tennis: Too many foreigners or not?
Philadelphia Enquirer 1999: Foreign players bringing net gains

I don't know if a longer narrative has been written, but if so I'd love to read it.

Look - I simply don't know enough about player development to say if a large number of high-level foreign players in the NCAA is truly a net-negative in terms of creating high-level US (male) pros. I believe cultural and economic factors (who has access to/interest in tennis) are far more to blame for America's relative fall from its position as the best tennis country in the world. Limiting the number of foreigners in college tennis will hardly produce the next American major winner. No player - American or otherwise - with college experience has won a grand slam singles title since John McEnroe in 1984. And surely at some level, having a better level of competition can only help the Noah Rubins, Mackenzie McDonalds, and Tommy Pauls of the world when it comes time for them to leave college and play professionally.

But there's one thing that absolutely befuddles me. I am not a lawyer, but the whole argument that a limit on scholarships to foreign players would somehow open college tennis up to a constitutional challenge doesn't make sense. These aren't US citizens we're talking about. They aren't US residents. I'm trying, and failing, to think of an analogy that would help me understand what rights they have under the US Constitution. What standing do they have? Perhaps putting quotas on foreign players is wrong in an ethical sense, perhaps not. But is it really unconstitutional? Really?

Whatever the case, I suppose it's fitting that, given the numbers I tweeted above, this year's tournament is in Waco. If host Baylor (with all 6 starters from afar) wins this year's men's championship, I have little doubt that discussions of foreign players will kick back up again, in whispers if nothing else. (Note: in Monday's semifinals, they play the University of Virginia, the lone final four school to have a majority of American players on their squad.)

If that happens, hopefully it won't distract too much from the high level of play and entertainment value that college tennis brings us - thanks in no small part to the great players who come from far and wide to participate. There are two sides, after all, to every coin - wherever that coin is minted.

Gold stars: Christina McHale (Rome quarterfinal), John Isner (Rome 4th round), Tennys Sandgren (USA F16/Tampa final), Nadja Gilchrist (Sharm El Sheikh $10K final), Stefan Kozlov (MEX F3/Mexico City final), Peter Kobelt (ISR F6/Akko final), Jack Sock (Rome doubles semifinal with brand-new partner Nick Kyrgios), Jan Abaza (Raleigh $25K doubles final with Justyna Jegiolka). And all the players, American and otherwise, from TCU, Baylor, University of Oklahoma, University of Virginia and, on the women's side, USC, University of Georgia, Vanderbilt, and UCLA for making the NCAA final fours!

Finally, a huge gold star to previously unknown-to-this-blog Brandon Anandon, who with Sekou Bangoura won his first career title in Tampa! Amazing scenes, as they say.

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