Monday, July 6, 2015

Chicagoland players abundant at Winnetka qualies

Chicagoland (yes, that's the term used to describe the greater Chicago metropolitan area) isn't always thought of as a mecca of tennis. There are no tour-level events here, and haven't been since 1997*, the year before I moved here. There aren't any legendary academies here (although that could be changing). And the number of top-level pros from the area can be counted on the hand of someone who lost a finger in a factory incident. (Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration.)

But yesterday, just north of Chicago, something of a celebration of local tennis took place in the first and second rounds of qualies at the Nielsen Men's Pro Tennis Championship, an ATP challenger event in the stately suburb of Winnetka.  Featured in among the 32 players were at least 9 guys with local tennis connections, whether as juniors or collegians, and another couple from or connected to towns within 150 miles.

Winnetka was lovely on Sunday, the day after Independence Day, and the crowd was good sized - perhaps thanks in part to all the local players, and in part to the no-charge admission. Play started quite early - 9:00 a.m. - but a lot was to be done.  24 matches were played on four courts and gosh darn it if they didn't get all 24 matches completed in just over 10.5 hours. In addition, there were several practice courts on which main draw guys like Austin KrajicekRyan Harrison, and wild cards Stefan Kozlov and Frances Tiafoe took turns working on their groundies, volleys, serves, and generally adjusting to the courts, balls, and conditions. (Edited to add: Tiafoe was initially given a wild card but after withdrawals, made the main draw on his own ranking.)

Dennis Nevolo/Twitter profile pic
In the end, most of the locals lost and of the eight guys who were set to battle for four qualifying spots on Monday morning, only one of them is what you'd consider a Chicago-area kid - Dennis Nevolo, from the far north suburb of Gurnee, home of the Six Flags amusement park. (Nevolo indeed won his final round qualifying match today, beating Andrew Carter 6-0- 6-4.) Nevolo's feat this week is impressive - it is his first tournament since tearing a ligament in his thumb at the end of his epic 6-7(17!) 7-5 6-3 win over Alexander Sarkissian in the Irvine Futures final last September. Read more about Nevolo's time off in this interview from February that I posted in May.

Overall it was a good start for Americans, who won 12 of the 16 opening-round matches, then 6 of the 8 second rounders. Leading off on Centre Court was one of two big upsets of the day. Wild card Samuel Shropshire, of nearby Evanston's Northwestern University, surprised Australia's Greg Jones, a former Top 200 player, 6-2 3-6 6-3. Jones kept a monologue going throughout the match as his errors piled up while Shropshire showed plenty of the moxie and shotmaking that made him one of the Big Ten's top players. Shropshire had a tougher go of it in the second round against Ernesto Escobedo, as the just-turned-19-year-old won 6-1 6-4.

Another big first round result came from Wilmette's Aron Hiltzik (Wilmette is just two towns south of Winnetka). Hiltzik, the younger brother and University of Illinois teammate of main draw wild card recipient Jared Hiltzik, fought incredibly well to get top seed Ante Pavic to two tiebreaks, and then let Pavic beat himself to win 7-6(4) 7-6(2). Unfortunately for the local, the grueling mid-day battle took too much out of him and he went on to lose the last match of the day to Carter, 6-3 6-4.

An all-south-Chicagoland, all-wild card match saw Hinsdale's Martin Joyce - big serve, aggressive net game - take down Matteson's Julian Childers 6-3 6-1. It was an early introduction to the Big 10 for Joyce, who will be starting at The Ohio State University in the fall, while Childers is a rising senior at the University of Illinois. Joyce went on to lose to Nevolo, yet another Illini, in the second round of qualifying.

In a match without a local connection, 34-year-old Ryan Haviland of South Carolina and Stanford upset #3 seed Matt Reid of Australia, 2-6 6-3 6-3. Haviland took 11 years off the tour and had several surgeries in that time, mostly on his knees. He also founded his own tennis academy in Greenville, S.C.  When he came back earlier this year, he started getting results playing serve and volley tennis, which ultimately wore down the relatively inexperienced Reid. In the second round, Haviland beat big-hitting University of Southern California Trojan Eric Johnson 7-5 6-4. He then took time to talk about his career and comeback with me - I'll have his full interview later this week.

But by far the biggest winner of the qualifying tournament was 2014 NCAA champ Marcos Giron. The former UCLA Bruin had played a Futures semifinal in British Columbia, 2000 miles to the north west, on Saturday afternoon. He was undecided if he should then go home, or fly to Chicago to give the Challenger a chance. The only flights available were Red Eyes, but he decided "what the heck," checked in for qualies by phone, and landed with very limited sleep at 5:00 a.m. at O'Hare International Airport.

Marcos Giron, (c) Jonathan Kelley,
On the Rise (a tennis blog)
Unfortunately, his tennis bag did not arrive with him.

But Giron was prescient enough to wear his tennis shoes instead of the sneakers he had planned to wear, and to carry on his racquets as well (United wouldn't let him carry on the whole tennis bag).  He caught a bit of shut-eye but was on court in time to take on India's Christopher Marquis who, perhaps fortunately for the American, was on a nine-match losing streak in which he had failed to win a set. Giron took that match 6-3 6-3, and then after a rest faced Virginia Tech University's Patrick Daciek. Daciek is a bit of a character on court, passionate to say the least, and he brought it all in the first set against Giron. The few games that I saw of the match, Daciek dictated play a bit more, while Giron bled errors off the ground. Daciek won that set 6-3 but then made the odd choice to take a bathroom break, which allowed Giron to regroup. From there he lost only 2 more games, taking two breadsticks back to his housing where he had what I trust was a solid night's sleep.

Today, in the final round, he faced another University of Illinois guy in Farris Gosea, the wily lefty from Wales who had been impressive in taking out Sekou Bangoura and #7 seed Kaichi Uchida in the first two rounds. Again, Giron went down a set. But this time he went down a late break in the second, after the match had been moved indoors due to rain. However, with Gosea serving for the match, Giron broke back for a tiebreak. There, Giron went down 3-6* with the next two points on Gosea's serve. Gosea, however, couldn't convert (gifting a double fault on one point) and Giron took the last 5 points of the tiebreak, and then all six games of the third set, to qualify for the main draw.

In addition to Giron and Nevolo, Australia's Andrew Whittington qualified today with a 7-6(6) 6-4 win over Haviland and another UCLA Bruin, Nicolas Meister, beat Escobedo 6-4 7-5. Both of those two matches are available online, as will be the rest of the matches this tournament, at http://livestream.com/accounts/5057055/events/4167801 and http://livestream.com/accounts/5057055/Winnetka2015centrecourt. Full qualifying results are available at http://nielsenprotennis.com/qualifying-draw/.

Monday is an off-day for me but I'll be back tomorrow for much more. Follow me on Twitter and Facebook for updates, pics, and commentary.

* That 1997 WTA tournament was won by Lindsay Davenport, who beat 15-year-old wild card Serena Williams in the semis and Lisa Raymond in the quarters. All three women are still alive at this year's Wimbledon - Williams in the singles quarterfinals, Raymond in the doubles quarterfinals, and Davenport as coach of Madison Keys.

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