Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Mister Meister steals the show in Winnetka

Four on-the-rise American teens were featured in first-round action at the Nielsen Pro Tennis Championship in Winnetka on Tuesday. But the star of the day turned out to be a 26-year-old, former college guy, recently returned from injury.

Nicolas Meister upset #1 seed Tatsuma Ito of Japan 1-6 6-2 6-4 in just over 2 hours.  It was first career Top 100 victory the former UCLA Bruin (and Tae Kwon Do black belt) and an impressive display of the same grinding tennis that took him to a challenger final in Maui earlier this year, and three qualifying matches against increasingly tough competition a couple of days ago.

Nicolas Meister, (c) Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise

Meister didn't hold serve at all in the first set. "I just didn't feel like I was hitting the ball that clean. The wind was getting to me ... his ball was just going a lot more through the court than what I was facing in qualies. But I didn't get down on myself. I just told myself, 'no loose errors, just try to get some kind of rhythm, maybe you can put some pressure on him.'" In the end, his perseverance - along with 12 double faults from Ito - paid off.

Meister was out for a few months earlier this year.  "My hips were kind of bothering me, I wasn't able to go back-to-back days without them feeling pain or just getting really tight. So I spent a couple of months trying to get my mobility back, and I ended up hanging out at Taylor Dent's academy a lot, and I actually learned a lot talking to him and watching kids play points. I had a good time."

After Meister qualified, there were four spots in which he could have been placed  - as it turned out, he got the worst spot, in theory at least. "It's happened like 5 times already, I kind of just knew that was going to happen. Well, I kind of thought it was going to be my doubles partner (Mackenzie McDonald) because you always play your doubles partner first round ... but it is what it is."

Ito's countryman, Yuichi Sugita, didn't make the trip to Winnetka, meaning a lucky loser spot was open. That was taken by Ernesto Escobedo, Meister's victim on Monday. According to Escobedo, there was a coin flip to determine whether he or Farris Gosea would take the 6th seed's spot. "I was so nervous for that. I just got lucky, I guess."
Ernesto Escobedo
(c) Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise

Escobedo took full advatage of his luck by winning an extremely dramatic, bordering on epic match against Tennys Sandgren. Sandgren, a ... shall we say expressive ... player with big groundies and great movement, was in nearly every one of the Californian's service games, compiling 13 break points in the first two sets while facing only two of his own. Unfortunately for the former Tennessee Vol, he converted only 3 of those - but two came at the tail end of the second set to take the match to a third.

In that third set, Sandgren compiled six more break points. But Escobedo used his big serve and absolutely massive forehand to save them time after time. After each unconverted opportunity, Sandgren's head hung a little lower, his pleading to the tennis gods became a little more plaintive, his shirt changes a bit more frequent (he wore five shirts in all).

Finally, the match came to the perhaps inevitable conclusion - a third-set tiebreak. A buster. Escobedo took the early lead as Sandgren started to cramp. Tennys yelled at his leg muscles, but to no avail.  In the end, it was the newly 19-year-old (as of Saturday, July 4) Escobedo who got the victory, and a bit of revenge from his 4-6 4-6 loss to Sandgren at the Charlottesville Futures tournament last month. It was only the second challenger-level win of Escobedo's young career.

"I just stuck with it, I just kept on trying, kept on trying. Never gave up." He hadn't realized quite how many break points he had saved. "He had 19 break points? Woah. Good serving, good forehands, pretty much," which is the basis of his big game. One forehand in particular stuck out - a service return winner down the line toward the end of the final set. "Yeah, that felt amazing." Escobedo hopes to stay healthy this summer; he suffered two bulging discs in his back last November, which limited his play in the first part of 2015.

Escobedo was the only one of the four American teens to garner wins on the day. Two higher ranked - but younger - guys, Stefan Kozlov and Frances Tiafoe, were unable to win a set against Ryan Harrison or Somdev Devvarman, respectively, while in the evening match, local legend Tom Fawcett fell to Marcos Giron in straight sets.

Harrison and Kozlov both displayed impressive all-court games that at times mirrored each other (or perhaps that was the identical shirts). Kozlov went up early breaks in both sets, but wasn't able to close them out. Early in the second set, Harrison tweaked the same ankle in which he'd torn ligaments two months prior, during a swing, in Asia that kept him out of the French Open. A trainer was called to the court.

"It was really scary," said Harrison. "I 've got a lot of tape on it under my sock. So when I twisted it, I felt a little pop. And I was like 'Oh man, that's not good, I probably need to stop.' But then, I knew from the feeling of two months ago, when I tore it, that if I had actually torn something again, I wouldn't have been able to even stand up or walk around, because when I did that in Asia, I literally couldn't even stand up. So when I was able to jog, I was like, 'Oh, maybe the pop I felt was like scar tissue breaking up or something,' so I decided to stay out here a little bit."

Harrison moved gingerly the first couple of games after taking a medical time-out. "I was super scared, because I'd just torn it so bad that I didn't want to take a hard step here in the first round of a tournament, when I have the full summer coming up, and risk tearing something again. And so I almost started at like 50% and just built into it, and by the end I was able to run a little bit because my confidence was getting back." In the final game, Harrison's speed was at full-tilt and he got to enough balls to force Kozlov into errors that ended his tournament well before the younger player would have liked.

The first win of the day went to Mitchell Krueger, who had a straightforward 6-4 6-1 match over Australia's Alex Bolt in windy conditions. Krueger flew in from Wichita, where he reached the final of the Futures. "My goal is to make the US Open [qualies]. I have no points [to defend] the rest of the summer until after the US Open. I try not to think about it too much, but this is definitely a good step in the right direction." Prior to Wichita, Krueger spent time on the red clay of Europe. "Six weeks, six tournaments. I played a lot of close matches. They were really strong tournaments. Results-wise, it wasn't what I wanted it to be. But I'm playing much higher level of competition, and every match I lost was really close - I had chances in all of them." Krueger added that he likes red clay more than green clay.

Another good win came for Daniel Nguyen, who came back to beat Henrique Cunha (Duke) 6-7(4) 6-2 6-2. It was the first win in over a month for the USC Trojan. "In the beginning, I was just really uptight for some reason. Being in the States, I guess I want to do well. Had set point in the first set on his serve, but just didn't pull it out. But I kept staying focused, tried to stay positive, and it was good getting the W."

Nguyen missed the cut-off for Wimbledon qualifying by 2 spots. "That was a little depressing. It was cool, though, just to be around the guys. It was played at Roehampton, so it wasn't at the All-England Club." Prior to making the trip, Nguyen said, "It's so stressful. You're just basically checking the Player Zone website, and seeing the lines going through the names, and seeing the next guy move in. I see my name - I'm like 3, 4 out. And then some people get in, you're like, 'Gosh, I'm so close. All right, I've got to go. I'm already here [in England].' So you get to the site, you're hoping 2 guys pull out, or don't show up, or get injured. And then none of that happened. So you just wait around, and you wait for all the matches to finish. The first day it rained, so they only played half the matches, so I had to wait another day. So it was definitely stressful."

Nguyen referred to the 150-300 ATP rankings as "the War Zone. You're playing against pretty solid players and everyone's trying to get to the Top 100, so it's very competitive."

Toward the end of the day, a slugfest took place on Court 5 that was much closer than the 6-2 6-4 score would suggest. The winner was qualifier Dennis Nevolo, who beat Jason Jung in a battle of former Big 10 stars that featured some terrific hard-court baseline rallies. Nevolo won a 15-minute game, 12-deuce game (if I'm not mistaken) to go up 6-2 4*-1, but Jung battled back to even the second set at 4-4. Immediately, though, Jung was broken, thanks to a double fault and two unforced errors - plus a wicked Nevolo cross-court backhand winner. Nevolo then served for the match - a match I suggest you take the time to watch.

"Every time I play Jason, it's just so intense," said Nevolo. "We've known each other since we were probably 12 years old, and it's an amazing battle every single time we play. It can always go either way. Tonight was the same thing. A lot of momentum swings. I was just fortunate to win some big points down the stretch, hung tough, and got the W. It was just one of those nights when things were clicking. I came out zoning, had a little hiccup there, and then kind of found it at the end."

I asked Nevolo to compare Challenger-level tennis to the big-time tennis people watch on TV. "If anything, it's more exciting. These guys are trying to break through. Everyone out here is putting their blood, sweat, and tears out there and just trying to get to that next level. I think everyone should just check it out once in their life."

The finale of the night was felt like a Pac XII dual match between popular local New Trier High School standout-turned-Stanford Cardinal Tom Fawcett against 2014 NCAA champion, qualifier Marcos Giron.  (Notably, all 4 qualifiers - and the Lucky Loser - won their first round matches.) Giron won the first set 6-1 over a visibly nervous Fawcett, then held on to force a tiebreak in the second, which Giron won 7-1.

Half the players in Wednesday's Round of 16 played college tennis. "It's really cool seeing a bunch of college guys out here competing and playing good tennis," said Giron. "I feel like it's a good stepping stone [to the pros]."

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