Sunday, May 3, 2015

This Week in American Tennis: 7 Takeaways

1. Frances is going to Paris. It was an inspired week - an inspired three weeks really - by Frances Tiafoe, the 17-year-old who has earned the USTA's wild card to the 2015 French Open. How's this for a statement: In his first career challenger, two weeks ago in Sarasota, Tiafoe reached the quarterfinal. In his second career challenger, last week in Savannah, he reached the semifinal. And this week, in Tallahassee, he reached the final. That last result turned out to be enough to clinch the wild card a couple of hours later, when Jared Donaldson fell quite short in his semi against Facundo Arguello.
Tiafoe has raced up the rankings, from #1143 to start 2015, to #798 on February 2, to #520 on April 6, to the #293 on May 4. He's shown incredible fortitude: prior to the Tallahassee final, he won all 7 tiebreaks in the Har-Tru swing and had gone 21-2 in third sets in 2015, including qualies matches. Even down 0-4 in the third set of Saturday's final, after a hugely disappointing second set in which he was up a break and then could have gone up 4-1 in the tiebreak, but left a high backhand volley that swerved in, Frances fought back to 4-4. Unfortunately, he couldn't close it out. But he showed his flair and sense of the dramatic - along with his fantastic shotmaking and speed - time after time after time over the past three weeks.

I'm thinking the French crowds will like him.

2. Facuuuundooooo! (That's supposed to sound rueful. Imagine an upraised fist.)  I mean. The guy beat four American teens and an American 21-year-old in Tallahassee, coming back from a set down three times to do so. He dispatched 17-year-old Stefan Kozlov in straight sets in the first round. In his second round match against wild card Tommy Paul, he won only five points in the first set and was down a set and two breaks at 0-6 0-3, but came back to win 0-6 6-3 6-2. He similarly came back from a set down against Mitchell Krueger and then trounced an error-prone Donaldson.

The hugely animated Argentinian was erratic but great when it counted in winning his third career challenger final. Which is awesome and congrats and olé and all that jazz. But back to the focus of this blog - America. How neat would it have been if Kozlov or Paul or Krueger or Donaldson had beaten Sr. Arguello, and we'd had four Americans in the semis and the winner of the tournament would have won the wild card on the last day on the last point and DANGIT! Facundo got the best of all of us this week. Too good.

3. Allie's Kiickin' butt. Allie Kiick was having a great rise in the rankings toward the end of 2013 and the start of 2015.  She'd reached a high of #136, going 30-11 after the 2013 US Open and taking a $25K title in Mexico to close out that year. She made direct entry into the French Open qualies in 2014, losing a tough 7-5 7-5 match to Michelle Larcher de Brito in the final round of qualies. She then reached the semis of the $100K in Marseilles ... when it all went to heck. She got a knee injury, and apparently tried to come back too fast. After that healed, she was felled by mono. She fell to where she was this past week, #295.

Last week at the $50K in Dothan she had the misfortune of drawing the eventual champion Louisa Chirico in the first round, losing a tough 6-3 7-6(4) decision. This week, at the $50K in Charlottesville, she stormed to the final, getting better each match to set up a huge match against 17-year-old Katerina Stewart (who beat Chirico the first round this week, after losing to Chirico in the final last week - got that?).

What a match it was. Three hours+ long. Kiick served for the first set at 5-3, got broken, but served it out for 7-5. Kiick served for the match at 5-3 in the second, got broken; set up match point the next game with a massive return winner (saved by a gutsy dropper from Stewart); and then lost the set in a tiebreak. And she served for the match at 5-4 in the 3rd set, got broken; and finally served for the match at 6-5 in the 3rd set, and finally held. Both players were exhausted and both wanted the title so, so badly. The match had huge implications for the women's French Open wild card - if Stewart had won, it would have eliminated Kiick from the race, and made things extremely tough for Louisa Chirico (whom Stewart beat in three sets to start the week). Now, all sorts of permutations involving those three players makes Indian Harbor Beach this coming week a really fun way to end the USTAHTWCC (see #4 below).

If you have a few hours to spare, the replay is worth a watch, if for nothing else, the two tweeners in three points in the first game of the second set (start at 1:05:55). And Kiick's very gracious winner's speech. Seriously, it was a really great match.

4. USTAHTWCC - women. So here's where we sit after two tournaments of the USTA Har-Tru Wild Card Challenge:

1. Katerina Stewart 96
2. Louisa Chirico 81
3. Allie Kiick 81

Chirico only entered the first two tournaments of the wild card challenge, but after her title in Dothan and first round loss in Charlottesville, she decided to enter qualies of Indian Harbor Beach (IHB), where she will need to win two rounds in order to make the main draw (in which she would be the #2 seed). In any case, here are the scenarios for all three women, as I understand them, given the best-two-of-three-results format and best ranking tiebreak:
  • If Chirico wins the IHB title, she wins the wild card with 160 points 
  • If Chirico reaches the final, she would have 128 points, meaning she gets the wild card barring only a Kiick title (160 points). Even if Stewart beats Chirico in the final, Chirico's higher ranking wins out.
  • If Chirico reaches the semis she would have 109 points. In which case she wins the wild card unless:
    • Stewart wins the title (128 points), as she can't add to her points without a title, or
    • Kiick reaches the final (128 points). 
    • If both Stewart and Kiick reach 128 points (i.e. Stewart beats Kiick in the final), Stewart wins the wild card due to higher ranking.
  • If Chirico loses before the semifinals, she's out, in which case:
    • Kiick wins the wild card with a semifinal, as long as Stewart doesn't win the title.
Got it?  Bottom line - if all three lose before the semis, Stewart wins the wild card. If just one player reaches the semis, that player wins the wild card. If two or more players reach the semis (like for the men in Tallahassee), check back with this blog.

Here are my calculations. Note that ties go to Chirico first, then Stewart, then Kiick.

PLAYER   QF       SF       F      W
Stewart       96        96       96    128
Chirico        95      109      128   160
Kiick           95      109      128   160

5. The Futures is Bright ... for a week at least!  Last week I bemoaned the lack of men doing well on the ITF Futures circuit.  This week, they turned that around with an impressive two titles (Andre Dome with his maiden title in Thailand and Wil Spencer in Vero Beach, Florida), two additional finals (Alexander Sarkissian in Mexico and Deiton Baughman in Nigeria), and several semifinals and quarterfinals. All four men will get a boost in the rankings a week from now, with career highs in the offing.

Spencer beat four South Americans in succession to win his title: #1 seed Thales Turini (BRA) in three sets in the second round; #6 seed Eduardo Agustin Torre (ARG) in straight sets in the quarters; #4 seed Maximiliano Estevez (ARG) in three sets in the semis; and #3 seed Facundo (Facuuuuuundooooooo!) Mena (ARG) in straight sets for the title. It's his second career title, both on green clay, in Florida, unseeded. He'll move up to around #600 next week. Two more green clay tournaments this month, in Orange Park and Tampa. No points to defend. Good things ahead? Seeming like it.

Dome, meanwhile, will more than double his points, zooming from #999 this week to near #700 in 8 days. Great to see someone from a less-prominent college (Cal Poly) do so well.

6. Hybrid doubles teams find great success. No all-American doubles teams won titles above the $15,000 level, but four teams with one American won titles:

Scott Lipsky paired with Treat Huey (PHI - although with US citizenship) to win the ATP 250 title in Estoril.
Dennis Novikov teamed with Julio Peralta (CHI) to win the Tallahassee Challenger.
Chase Buchanan re-teamed with college doubles partner Blaz Rola (SLO) to win the Sao Paulo Challenger.
Maria Sanchez coupled with Francoise Abanda (CAN) to win the Charlottesville $50K.

Also, Madison Brengle reached the doubles semis in Prague with Janette Husarova (SVK).

I don't have a specific explanation for this phenomenon but it's pretty neat, in a "we are the world kind of way." Anyhoo, just thought I'd point it out.

7. Mixed early results from Madrid. In a women's tournament that inexplicably starts on Saturday, Americans had a crap draw at the top, with Brengle having to play Serena Williams, Bethanie Mattek-Sands drawing Sloane Stephens, and the two winners (Serena and Sloane) having to play each other in the second round. Meanwhile, Venus Williams drew Vika Azarenka, losing in two tight sets. The winner of Serena/Sloane may have to play Vika in the third round.

But good things happened, too: CoCo Vandeweghe and Varvara Lepchenko each earned first round wins against Europeans, as did qualifier Christina McHale. But Madison Keys and Alison Riske each lost to Europeans. So yeah. Mixed results.

Gold stars (to those not celebrated above): US Junior Davis Cup, Junior Fed Cup, and World Junior Tennis teams for going undefeated in qualifying in Boca Raton, Florida; Tennys Sandgren for reaching the Tallahassee semis (first challenger semi since his return); Raymond Sarmiento (Thailand F2 semis); Michael Mmoh (USA F14 semis); Nadja Gilchrist (Sharm El Sheikh $10K singles & doubles semis); Eric Quigley (NGR F1 doubles title with Baughman, and QF in singles).

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