Friday, July 10, 2015

Daniel Nguyen reaches first Challenger semifinal in Winnetka

They say the serve and volley is a thing of the past, but twice on Thursday in Winnetka, Ill., the maneuver helped make the difference in two big matches on the smaller circuit.

Daniel Nguyen and Mitchell Krueger, (c) Jonathan Kelley,
On the Rise
In a quarterfinal match at the Nielsen Pro Tennis Championship, an ATP Challenger Tour event, 24-year-old Californian Daniel Nguyen took on 21-year-old Texan Mitchell Krueger. Both men had had great results on the ITF Futures tour, but neither had reached a Challenger semifinal. It was a truly massive moment in the young pro careers of both players.

After winning the first set (something he'd failed to do in his first two matches this week), Nguyen secured a break midway through the second set and then held on to serve for the match at 5*-4. After a long 30-15 point, Krueger hit a forehand down the line in to the net to give Nguyen two match points. Nguyen, who (understatement alert) is not the biggest guy in tennis, hit a serve out wide and then rushed the net to hit a crosscourt volley. When Krueger's lob went long, Nguyen found himself in the metaphorical winner's circle, 6-4 6-4. 

It was, in fact, Nguyen's second serve and volley of the game - on his first point, he hit a great pick-up half-volley that helped get him the crucial 15-0 lead. When asked why he decided to go with that tactic, Nguyen said, "I don't know. I enjoy doubles. I know that Mitch is pretty solid off the ground. I tried to mix in something new and it worked - both of them."

The win will bring Nguyen's ranking to just outside the Top 200, and present a big opportunity against lanky Swiss lefty Adrian Bossel, a more frequent practitioner of the serve and volley. Bossel defeated Jared Hiltzik, the rising University of Illinois senior from very-nearby Wilmette, 6-3 5-7 6-4. Both Nguyen and Bossel are unseeded.

Asked if this was the biggest win of his life, Nguyen replied "I think it's up there. I'm playing some great tennis out there. Just feel like - getting more comfortable on the tennis court, really just relaxing out there, and I'm really enjoying the grind."

In the first match of the day, #7 seed Somdev Devvarman out-steadied qualifier Nicolas Meister 7-6(4) 4-6 6-2. While the Challenger tournament doesn't track winners or errors, many of the points ended with the ball landing outside the lines or into the net.  When asked about the unforced errors, Devvarman replied, "I wouldn't say they were unforced at all - they were pretty forced. We were playing long points, physical points the whole match. It was a little bit cat-and-mouse in the first and second sets."

Somdev Devvarman, (c) Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise

Devvarman will face #5 seed Ryan Harrison in his semifinal this evening after Harrison earned his second consecutive brutal, grinding win, this one 7-6(3) 6-7(6) 6-1 over #3 seed Blaz Kavcic in a match that stretched nearly to midnight. There were dozens of highlight-reel points in that match (especially if your idea of highlights involves epically long rallies featuring fantastic defense) but one point in particular stood out.

Ryan Harrison in low-res.
(c) Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise
The point came in the third game of the third set. Harrison had just secured the break to go up 2*-0. It was a bit of a deja-vu moment of the Louisianan, who after winning the first set tiebreak, played an outstanding game to go up 1*-0. Back in that set, Harrison struggled getting first serves in, and went down 15*-30. Then, a 20+ stroke rally led to a backhand error, and his third double fault of the match gave Kavcic the break back and allowed him to stay in the match.

Up a break in the third set, Harrison again was unable to find a first serve, and again went down 15*-30. After missing his first serve, he made a tactical decision that in the end could have won him the match.

He decided to serve and volley.

"You know, a lot of times you get to a big point like that and so much of what my mentality is when I go up 15-30 is that I make sure I make the guy play," said Harrison when asked about that point after the match. "Knowing that, knowing that he's probably just going to smooth it in - that usually leaves you with a waist-high or shoulder-high volley, because he's trying to play it deep. And so I said, 'You know what? The guy's got a really solid backhand return, he hasn't hit any hard lines, so I'm going to come in, I'm going to see if I can get a shoulder-high volley and I did. At that point you just have to trust yourself to execute the volley, which I was able to at that moment."

Harrison, who as mentioned in our interview posted yesterday, has been working hard with a sports psychologist, is clearly improved in his ability to focus in key moments on a tennis court. "That's the sort of situational tennis that you can think about whenever you're thinking clearly," he said. "Now, if I'm not thinking clearly - if I'm just going, you know, I just lost [the second set tiebreaker] …everything that just got away from me? I'm not able to think clearly, not able to think rationally. And when I think rationally, I have great tennis instincts. That's one of my biggest strengths."

Harrison certainly had his mental work cut out for him after that second tiebreak. He went down 2*-4 at the changeover but rallied for 5*-4 after a big forehand winner, followed by a Kavcic double fault and then winning yet another marathon rally. In the middle of that rally, a ball off the back of the baseline that some in the audience thought may have been out. With Harrison ready to possibly serve for the match, the Slovenian spent a good minute arguing with umpire Marc Bell. Whether the wait allowed him to catch his breath and re-focus, or took some of Harrison's focus away - or whether it had no impact on the game - Kavcic won both of Harrison's service points and, eventually, the set.

But Harrison, as noted, regrouped (after a long talk with Tournament Director Mike Loo following a bathroom break). "That's the type of match that you wouldn't have seen me bounce back from after losing the second set tiebreaker like that. My mentality going into the 3rd set after losing such a war of a second set - I'm going, 'You know what? He's feeling it, I'm feeling it. If I can show him that it doesn't matter that he just won an hour-and-20-minute second set or however long it was, and I can bring a high level to start this third set and just him know hey - you did good to win that second set, but your'e going to have to do it again - that's the sort of energy that I've got to try to bring all the time. Just make myself a really, really tough out, make guys feel like they have to play really good tennis."

You can watch the entire match here:

Harrison and Nguyen couldn't have different paths to today's semifinal. Harrison, the highly touted teen who was Top 50 in the ATP just after turning 20 and who represented the USA in the Olympics and Davis Cup, has gotten plenty of wild cards and made ATP World Tour-level semifinals. When he nearly dropped out of the Top 200 last year, it was considered a disaster. Nguyen, just a year older, the somewhat anonymous college kid (he won four NCAA titles at USC along side his friend Steve Johnson) who has played mostly Futures events, doesn't get wild cards, and has never even played an ATP World Tour singles* match. If and when he makes it into the Top 200 this year, it will be considered a massive achievement.

Whatever the results of todays matches, both have a lot to be proud of this week.

*Note: Nguyen did play in the US Open doubles tournament in 2008, having earned a wildcard by virtue of winning the Kalamazoo Boys 18s with J.T. Sundling. He was the first Vietnamese-American to play in the main draw of that event, something he's immensely proud of.

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