Friday, July 17, 2015

Challenger Doubles: a talk with three specialists

The adage that tennis is an "individual sport" should probably be retired. After all, despite the relative deficit in television coverage, doubles is an integral part of tennis at every level: recreational, junior, college, pro. Doubles is essential to Cups Davis, Fed, and Hopman; to World Team Tennis and IPTL; to wheelchair tennis, legends tennis, Olympic tennis. Doubles is there at the Futures level and at the majors.

And at the challengers.

The doubles competition at last week's Winnetka Challenger (where television is never the biggest factor) were generally well attended, fast-paced, and seemingly enjoyable for all concerned. There was no doubt from the first ball that this was extremely high-level tennis. All the players have all the strokes -- the serves, returns, groundstrokes, defense, and of course volleys. And particularly for the doubles specialists involved, the intensity and desire to win is just as strong as for the singles players. These points will help as they try to build, rebuild, or maintain their rankings to allow them to play ATP tournaments and the majors.

I spoke with three such specialists about their lives and careers: Matt Seeberger (who, with Julio Peralta, lost in the 2nd round to Mackenzie McDonald and Nicolas Meister), and eventual champions Johan Brunström and Nicholas Monroe, who were the top seeds.  An interesting commonality of all three guys is that they all played college tennis (in the US). This isn't unusual: 11 of the Top 50 players played in college, including 5 of the 7 Americans in that range (Jack Sock and Sam Querrey are the only exceptions).

Matt Seeberger at the
Winnetka Challenger
Matt Seeberger (USA)
Age: 30
College: University of California - Santa Barbara
Post-Winnetka ranking: 200 (started the year at #402)
Career-high ranking: 200

Seeberger took an indirect route to where he is now. He's one of the few pros who attended a Division III college (go Banana Slugs!) and didn't think he'd play competitively after college. He coached for 7 years but then got the competitive itch and started up in 2013. He was having more success in doubles and, given his age and the fact that he enjoyed doubles more, decided to give it a "full shot." He finished that year ranked #1272 in doubles. In 2014 he won 4 Futures titles (2 with Peralta) and ended up at #458. This year he's won 5 titles (with 5 different partners) and is at a career high.

This week he and Peralta reached their second Challenger final, in Poznan, Poland. They fell 6-3 3-6  10-6 to top seeds Mikhail Elgin and Mateusz Kowalczyk.

Q: What does 200 in the rankings mean for you in terms of getting into tournaments?
A: I have to get to about 100 to play Wimbledon qualies, 75 to get direct entry into a major, and about 100 to play in some ATP events.  So right now I'm in the middle of the challenger swing. So if I can do well in challengers over the next year, then I'll be able to make the next jump.

Q: Tell me about your match today (a first round 4-6 7-6(5) 10-8 win over Dimitar Kutrovsky and Dean O'Brien). You lost the first set. How did you turn it around?
A: We did lose the first set, but it was incredibly close. We had 4 or 5 deuces that didn't go our way. We knew that if just kept hanging in there, we might be able to get a break, and we got pretty lucky in the second set tiebreaker and the superbreaker was just a coin flip, and we tried to play well and focus.

Q: Lucky how so?
A: Connecting on the right balls. Doubles is just one or two shots at the end, and everybody can make them, and it just depends on the day, who's going to make it.

Q: Talk to me about Julio Peralta. He's got a pretty big fan club on Twitter, at least. What does he do well, and are you going to keep playing with him?
A: Julio is incredibly smooth and technically sound, hits the ball incredible off both sides, reads the court really well. We plan to play at least the rest of this year together. We're good friends, we live close to each other in California, and really enjoy playing with each other.

Q: Anything to say to young players considering Division III colleges?
A: I say, pick a college based on the coach first and foremost, assuming the academics fit. And then if you like the coach and you can start, that's even better. There are plenty of Division I programs that are incredible with wonderful coaches, and there are plenty of terrible Division III programs. So I think it's really: can you connect with the coach and connect with the school, more than anything, besides divisions.

Nicholas Monroe,
Nicholas Monroe (USA)
Age: 33
College: University of North Carolina
Post-Winnetka ranking: 64 (started the year at #65)
Career-high ranking: 51

Born in Oklahoma City, Nick Monroe is an Austin resident who had decent success as a singles player, winning 11 Futures titles and reaching a career-high ranking of #253. Monroe has won 2 ATP doubles titles: 2013 Båstad (with Simon Stadler) and 2014 Båstad (with Johan Brunström). This week he's into the semifinal of Newport with Mate Pavic.  I spoke with him after his and Brunström's first round win over Jason Jung and Connor Smith.

Q: You just got back from Wimbledon. Tell me about that tournament for you.
A: I played with Artem Sitak. We won our first round 10-8 in the fifth set, and then we lost second round on Saturday against Murray/Peers 6-4 in the fifth. They're now in the semifinals [which they won, but lost in the final]. So we had some chances there.

Q: How would you rate your year so far?
A: It's been going okay. The beginning of the year was a bit slow but you keep working hard and hopefully things turn your way.

Q: Do you have any rankings goals for the year?
A: At the end of the year I'd like to be Top 40.

Q: For people who don't get a chance to watch a lot of doubles, what do you think the best things about doubles on the ATP Tour are?
A: It's fun; we enjoy it.  Obviously being on a team is great. As far as doubles is concerned, we travel every week and to be able to travel with a doubles partner and enjoy it out there together is always fun. And you get to play the best guys in the world -- that's what you dream of. And also playing these ATP events and Wimbledon, things like that, you continue to work hard and hopefully the dreams can happen.

Q: What tournaments will you be playing after this?
A: Newport, US Open Series, US Open.

Q: Where are you among Americans in the doubles rankings?
A: Well the Bryans are 1 and 2 obviously, and then Scott Lipsky, Eric Butorac, Rajeev Ram, and then I think myself. So maybe 5 or 6, something like that.

Q: And Jack Sock.
A: Well, Jack, yeah. I forget about Jack. [Note: Sam Querrey is #46. We both forgot about Sam.]

Q: I noticed you play a lot of singles, particularly in qualies. Why is that?
A: I don't play as much as I used to -- I played 8 years on tour in singles and the last couple of years I've been focusing on doubles. Obviously singles is great for the game; in doubles people say you cover half the court but that's not really true. It's an athletic game. You've got to be an athlete. Singles obviously you cover more of the court, and it's good for the game. So I try to play as much singles as I can to help my doubles. It helps the return game as well.

Johan Brunström

Johan Brunström (SWE)
Age: 34
College: Southern Methodist University (Dallas, TX)
Post-Winnetka ranking: 102 (down from #77 after 2014 Båstad points dropped off)
Career-high ranking: 31 (2010)

Despite a heavily wrapped knee -- due to an injury suffered running sprints with (against?) his brother,  Jesper, a 28-year-old who is also a pro -- Johan Brunström played stellar doubles all week. Johan has won 5 ATP titles in his career, starting at the 2010 Gstaad tournament with Jarkko Nieminen. I spoke with Brunström after his and Monroe's semifinal win over McDonald and Meister.

Q: Congratulations, if I'm not mistaken is this your first final of the year?
A: That's right, first final of the year, so it's good to get at least 3 matches in a row, gonna be 4 matches in a row. So that's kind of what I've been looking for here; get a few matches put together and build from that.

Q: And are you going to be playing the summer ATP tournaments or challengers?
A: I'm playing Newport next week [he and Marcelo Demoliner lost 6-3 3-6 10-6 to ... Pavic and Monroe! ... in the quarterfinals] and then I go back to Båstad, to Sweden, to play the Swedish Open. And then I'm going to play Gstaad, the ATP in Switzerland, and then we're having a baby right in that time, our first baby, so I'll be home for a few weeks and then hope to be back for the U.S. Open.

Q: I notice that a lot of Swedes go to Ole Miss, pretty recently & historically. How did you choose SMU?
A: Well we actually had pretty good Swedish connections there. When I came over it was one Swedish guy playing there and was just one Swedish guy who had graduated that I knew from before. So they talked to me and so that's kind of how I found out about it.

Q: You had a tough loss in the first round of Wimbledon qualies.  What's it like playing the qualies of a major, because it really doesn't happen very often, right? Either you're in or you're out.
A: Yeah exactly. That's how I started, basically, was in the qualies of Wimbledon in 2007 maybe. [Note: it was 2008; he and Adam Feeney were lucky losers who advanced to the 2nd round.] And then got into the main draw there, and since then been playing the main draw, and then this year I was right outside the cut, and obviously [Frank Moser and I] had that heartbreaker, 13-11 -- we had match points, and ... yeah. We got broken one time in the match: 11-11 in the 3rd. So it was just comes down ... even moreso on the grass, in the doubles. All the teams are competitive, and you've just got to take your chances when you get them.

Q: What was the deciding factors in your decision to become a doubles guy?
A: Well, I played both.  You know, it was actually my singles that got me into the challengers level. And then in my first 4 challengers I think I won 3 of them in the doubles, so and then got a wildcard into Stockholm Open, won a round, and so the doubles just took off, and I had to make the choice of playing the bigger tournaments in doubles, or keep playing the smaller ones in singles. And so I made the decision to schedule around the doubles, and was hoping to play the qualies of singles still, but it didn't work out that well. I was doing well in doubles, missed the qualies, and you get out of that rhythm, and it didn't take long before the singles dropped.

Q: Big lefty serve; good volleys -- do you feel like your game might have worked better back in the day, in terms of singles? Like back in the 80s?
A: Yeah. I think so. It's not a lot of serve/volley guys out there. Whenever I get the chance to play singles (I don't do much, my body's not what it's been), I serve/volley first and second serve, I chip and charge and come in. It's tough to do on the slower surfaces, but a few tournaments here and there there's some fast conditions where it works out.

Q: Pretty fast here?
A: Yeah, the ball goes through nicely, so it's good for the lefty serve with the slice into the body, slice away from the body and then you can have your partner position around that. So I like it.

Q: Nick was a devil out there in that first set. He was just everywhere, getting every ball, everything was going in. It's nice when your partner is helping you out like that.
A: Yeah absolutely. Yeah, he was very aggressive, he went for the balls. As soon as I got a return in he was all over the show there. We got off to that very aggressive start, and that helps.  They didn't really know what to do with the volleys -- up the line, or cross. We kind of got into their heads and in the end, it felt like they were trying to go for too much, and that's where you want them. You want them to try to take your head off.

Q: Mikael Ymer just made the final of the Wimbledon Boys tounament.  Have you followed his and his brother's careers much? And what are your thoughts about the immediate future of Swedish tennis on the men's side?
A: It's looking more promising now for sure. We've known for a long time that they're very promising, both Elias & Mikael. But it's a big step to go from being promising junior to make it on the senior tour. And Elias is start making that move right now, which is very good to see. He qualified for all 3 of the slams, which is unheard of -- maybe Mike Russell did it once -- and he got some good wins also on the ATP tour.

And Mikael, in the Swedish Futures earlier in the year, getting some good results. I think it's just building confidence from there. And obviously now with the Wimbledon final, he gets a lot of positive recognition, and that's great too. I think he probably grew as a player just by being in that atmosphere and being around the whole big scene. I think it looks good now -- much better than it was been.

Q: Swedish men have been kind of dominating the coaching ranks pretty recently. Is that something you've thought about after you're done playing?
A: Well, not really. Well, I love tennis, obviously, otherwise I wouldn't be playing this late and with the injuries and stuff. But I also have my Bachelor's in marketing, also have my Master's from the University of Phoenix in marketing -- I was done last year. I have a pretty solid ground to stand on, maybe want to combine marketing with tennis or sports. That's at least the plan for now. Maybe later, you never know.  Obviously you still love the sport, and if opportunity comes up and I'm interested ... it could happen.

Q: Speaking of that, there are a lot of people from other countries coming over to play college tennis here. To what extent do the degrees transfer back to Europe?
A: I think it's started getting better than it's been. It hasn't had the same ... standing? ... as Swedish universities. But it's impossible to stay at home and combine college studies and your sport. And I think they've started recognizing that, and there are more merits to go through US colleges now than before. I'm not exactly sure how it translates, but I hope it translates decent [laughs].

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