Monday, June 8, 2015

This Week in American Tennis: Mastering the Art of French Beasting

1. USA has its best Roland Garros in 30 years. Taken has a whole, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better Roland Garros for the United States in decades. Not the most match wins, by a long shot, but this is the first time an American has lifted a trophy (winner or runner up) in four of the five senior categories since 1999, when Andre Agassi won the men's singles, Serena and Venus Williams won women's doubles, Jeff Tarango reached the men's doubles final with Goran Ivanisevic, and Rick Leach paired with Larisa Neiland to earn the mixed doubles finalist trophy. But that year, not one junior reached the finals of any of the four competitions.

This year, USA players lifted winner or runner up trophies 3 of 4 junior categories as well. Now, I'm not saying junior success is anywhere near the cosmic importance of senior success. There's no money at stake; several of the best eligible players skip the tournament entirely; no matter how many junior slams you win, it won't help punch your ticket to the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Junior tennis is almost universally seen, from the inside and outside, as a slippery-at-best stepping stone to the next level. But if you're going to compare otherwise nearly equal years, it could serve as something of a tiebreak.

Perhaps even thinking of comparing this year for USA to something like 1985 - when Chris Evert beat Martina Navratilova in the women's final, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors each reached the semis, and five of the eight women in women's doubles semis (including eventual champions Navratilova and Pam Shriver) were American - is folly. (Navratilova won mixed that year with now-legendary Swiss coach Heinz Gunthardt.) It's a much different tennis landscape in which we live. Which, if you think about it, should be part of our calculus. For the USA to capture as many titles as they did this week, on our least preferred surface and given how international the sport is now, is impressive and takeaway-worthy.

So yay!

2. Serena Williams is a gift. What else can be said about the woman who just won her twentieth grand slam singles title? The number itself is mind-boggling: 20. The fact that she's done it in just 24 finals is astounding. The fact that she's 7 matches away from her second Serena Slam is magnificent, and the fact that she is, for the first time in her career, halfway to a calendar slam is glorious.

What else? That she did won the 2015 French Open while still losing 5 sets (first time in history, I'm led to believe). That she was ravaged by the flu in her semifinal against Timea Bacsinszky. That she hit an awesome lefty forehand at a pivotal moment in the third set in the final.
Hell, that she gave her acceptance speech in French.

She's an historic figure on so many levels. She's challenged the white-upper-class paradigm that has shackled tennis, particularly from an outsider's perspective, for decades. She's challenged trenchant notions of what women are or should be capable of. She's challenged ideas about the age at which a tennis player should be starting to decline.

Her competitive spirit is seemingly unmatched in this sport, and in many sports. Her physical gifts are spectacular as is her tennis IQ. Her defense is possibly the most overlooked part of her game but at her best, she's simply a wall. Her serve is the best ever. She's unarguably one of the greatest doubles players to ever live - it sounds silly to say but that 13-0 record in major finals - all with her sister - is just breathtaking.

She's glamorous. She's funny as hell. She's a diva in the best way (and sometimes in the worst). She can sell the hell out of a snake-print satchel on HSN. She's a lightning rod for love and hate in ways that completely transcend this sport.

Serena isn't everyone's cup of tea.  While for some fans she ignites a passion, to others she has ... other impacts. I personally have always had a rough fan-relationship with her, that's no secret. But you don't have to root for a player to appreciate what she's accomplished and what she's capable of. So here's to you, Serena. A true gift to the sport of tennis generally, to the WTA specifically, and most especially to American tennis. For nearly all of this century, in the words of Robin Thicke, we'd be lost without you.

3. BMS - Brilliant Mistress of Slams. Bethanie Mattek-Sands went from winning one major in her first decade and a half on tour to three in six grand slam events in 2015. Even as she's struggled to return from injury on the singles court - she's still mired below 150 in the WTA rankings - her doubles play has been absolutely on point and a joy to watch. Aggressive whether she's at the net, itching to poach as soon as she sees a weak-ass cross-court shot, or at the baseline, trading booming groundies with the best of them, her hard work and love for her craft is finally paying off in a big way.

From 2007-2011, Mattek-Sands had her best stretch on the doubles courts, reaching eight quarterfinals in the 12 majors she played. And she did it with a bunch of different partners: Sania Mirza, Nadia Petrova, Yan Zi, Liezel Huber (with whom she reached the 2010 Wimbledon semis), and finally Meghann Shaughnessy. She also won 8 WTA titles during that stretch, with some of those partners plus Vladimira Uhlirova, Iveta Benesova, and Raquel Kops-Jones. Girl got around.

This year, she started with Mirza, winning a title in what would be their sole tournament together, in Sydney. But then Martina Hingis broke with Flavia Pennetta and hooked up with Mirza. And so Bethanie found Lucie Safarova and now the two are, like Serena, halfway to the calendar grand slam. You'd think those two would fare well at Wimbledon, where Lucie reached the semis last year in singles. But now, like Jack Sock and Vasek Pospisil, they'll have moved from becoming a feel-good Cinderella story to the hunted by all the other teams. How they react will be great to watch.

Oh and while she was at it, BMS also won the mixed doubles title with Mike Bryan - the second in her career after the 2012 Australia Open with Horia Tecau. No player had won both women's doubles and mixed at Roland Garros since Virginia Ruano Pascual in 2001. The woman is racking up the trophies, and couldn't look happier. Congrats, Bethanie Mattek-Sands!

Or as I call her, Bethanie Matteková-Sandsová.

4. World, meet Tommy. Those who follow junior tennis as shallowly as I did a year or so ago might have been surprised to see two Americans in the Roland Garros boys final for the first time in history - including one seeded 13th with no junior slam wins to his name. But there it was on NBC yesterday: highlights of Tommy Paul defeating Taylor Fritz to take the boys title and ramp up the narrative, started at last year's Wimbledon, that there just might, could, maybe be a light at the end of the tunnel for American men's tennis. Reilly Opelka's win over top seed Orlando Luz and Michael Mmoh's own semifinal helped cement the notion. Every hopeful sentiment, of course, had to be balanced by the counter-narratives: junior success does not always lead to senior success. We've heard this story before, and always been disappointed. The best players didn't even play.

We'll put all of that aside for now and focus on the awesome - Paul, who had been tearing it up on the European clay futures circuit earlier this spring, motoring through the draw without dropping a set until he reached Fritz, the hugely talented Californian who also had yet to drop a set. Ultimately, the more natural clay courter (great mover, fantastic forehand) prevailed in the third set.  The duel will be aired tonight on the Tennis Channel (fortunately, since I was unable to watch it live). I highly recommend taking a look at it to see what all the fuss is about.

Now on to grass, and the summer season, and the USTA Boys 18s, and endless speculation about whether Paul will actually enter the University of Georgia or decide to go pro immediately. I have absolutely no inside knowledge about the situation but I haven't seen any data to show that going to college for a year or two hurts players at all. Noah Rubin seemed to thrive, while it took Bjorn Fratangelo some time to find his pro footing after he decided to forego college. If nothing else, given all the talk about expectations and The Future and all that, it might be nice to take the heat off for a while as he continues to develop his game, particularly on hard courts. Tough to think of a better place to do that than Athens.

5. Bryans come up juuuuuuust short. I was so excited to write about how Mike and Bob Bryan had added to their illustrious careers by winning their 17th major. They were up a set and 4-2 against the #3 seeds Ivan Dodig and Marcelo Melo when, as teams have been known to do against the best team in history, Dodig & Melo stormed back by playing some incredibly good tennis in some incredibly clutch moments. And props to them - a great way to win your first-ever doubles majors!

Sigh, though, how nice would it have been to revel in a third career-grand-slam for the twins? So nice. In any case, they're still playing at an extraordinarily high level, and will no doubt have a few more chances to cash those Roland Garros winners' checks. And now comes Wimbledon, where they have unfinished business from last year!

6. Sarkissian and Smith crash the party. It wasn't the greatest week for Americans at the challenger level, except for two guys playing on hard courts in Korea.  There, Alexander Sarkissian and Connor Smith both took advantage of a relatively weak draw (neither guy played a Top 300 player en route to the final) to set up an all-American Sunday clash, each man's first challenger final.  And what a fun match it was! Sarkissian took the first set in a tiebreak and went up 5-0 in the second, only to see Smith storm back to get on serve.  Smith, the former Ohio State Buckeye, saved at least 9 match points that I counted. The highlight of the match had to be a fantastic 39-stroke rally at 4-5 15-30 in the second set (watch below). But although Smith won that point, it was a short-lived celebration.  After a questionable out call on an unreturned first serve at deuce, Smith hit two unforced errors, and it was Sarkissian's title.

Both guys are now within a few spots of the Top 200. Smith, who started the year at #328, is up to #203, although with 36 points to defend in the next couple of months, he's got his work cut out for him to stay there in the near term.

Then there's Sarkissian. Whereas your Tommy Pauls of the world have to weigh going to a world-class college program or going pro, Alexander Sarkissian was barely even ranked in the ITF juniors. His first stop was to go to Glendale Community College. Then he transferred to Pepperdine, where he surprised a ton of people by reaching the NCAA finals last year. From there he won a Futures title in Canada last July, ending the year ranked #596.  And now here he is, ranked #210 with a serve that can win him tons of free points. He still has something of a rough game compared to some of his peers but he's explosive and clearly improving and now will start having a look at decent pay days.  Let's keep our eyes on him.

7. Andre the Giant. Finally, let's give a shout-out to Andre Dome, the Cal Poly product who in Mexico just won his second futures title (beating folk hero Tigre Hank in the final), two months after winning his first, in Thailand. The Indonesian-born Californian started the year outside the Top 1000 and will next week be around #600, with 6 points to defend the rest of the year. He's got a lot of work to do to get where he wants to be but he'll start having some decent seeds (although he got kind of screwed this coming week, drawing the #2 seed at Mexico F6). He's definitely another intriguing follow.

GOLD STARS: Katerina Stewart (Roland Garros girls' doubles final, RG girls' singles quarters - lost to eventual champion Paula Badosa Gibert), Caroline Dolehide (RG girls' doubles final), CiCi Bellis (RG girls' singles semis), William Blumberg (RG boys' doubles final with Tommy Paul), Maria Sanchez & Jessica Pegula (qualified for s-Hertogenbosch), Tennys Sandgren (USA F16A final), Mico Santiago & Raymond Sarmiento (USA F16A semis), Matt Seeberger (USA F16A doubles title with Julio Peralta), Alexa Graham (Bethany Beach $10K final), Nicole Frenkel & Jacqueline Cako (Bethany Beach semis), Andie Daniell & Sophie Chang (Bethany Beach doubles title), and Nicole Melichar (Marseilles $100K doubles final with Maryna Zanevska). Let me know if I missed anyone!

A look ahead: It's grass season, which generally means good things! Here's what we've got at a few different levels.

WTA - CoCo Vandeweghe began her defense of the Topshelf Open with a first-round win over French Open breakout Romanian Andreea Mitu. Irina Falconi lost in her first round match. Also in that draws are qualifiers Maria Sanchez and Jessica Pegula, who drew Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Belinda Bencic, respectively. Across the North Sea, Lauren Davis had an amazing come-from-behind win against Ajla Tomljanovic, 4-6 7-6(1) 7-5 to reach the second round in Nottingham. Shelby Rogers and Nicole Gibbs fell in their opening matches, while Alison Riske, Christina McHale, Varvara Lepchenko, and qualifier Sachia Vickery are also in the main draw.

ATP - No American men are in the main draws of either Stuttgart or s-Hertogenbosch, which is a bit disconcerting. The expansion of grass season by a week should be met with endless cheers and heavy population of tournaments! But I think it also meant a lot of our guys got a rare chance to get home after an exhausting clay season. Hopefully that proves to be fortuitous.

ATP Challengers - On grass in Surbiton, England, Denis Kudla got a first round win while Jarmere Jenkins' tough stretch continued with a loss to scary-on-grass Freddie Nielsen. Connor Smith got a special exempt direct entry so will be jetting over from Korea. Jared Donaldson, Chase Buchanan, Jason Jung, and Ryan Harrison are all in the draw, as well, and all in the same quarter! Harry drew Liam Broady which will be a great challenge for both.

On clay in Caltanissetta, Italy, #7 seed Fratangelo drew fellow junior Roland Garros champion Christian Garin while Dennis Novikov got dangerous wildcard Salvatore Caruso. If both win, they'd face each other in the second round.

ITF - US women playing $25Ks include Allie Kiick in Italy, Bernarda Pera in Germany, Tori Kinard and Lauren Albanese in Japan, and Kristie Ahn in Korea.

Finally, there are several Americans playing men's Futures events in Charlottesville, Virginia; Maputo, Mozambique; and Manzanillo, Mexico. Deiton Baughman is the 6th seed on the clay in Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina. And in $10K women's action, Charlotte, N.C. is of course chock-full of Americans. Multiple US women are in the draw in Manzanillo and, interestingly, Madagascar.

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