Saturday, July 11, 2015

The end of a dream week in Winnetka

The gentleman was asking the tennis player - a complete stranger - over to his house for dinner, and it wasn't weird at all.

It happens more often than you'd think, is what Daniel Nguyen's coach, Anthony Nguyen (no relation), told me. Vietnamese immigrants who have a sense of kinship, who have such immense pride in their generation-removed paisan, watching him be the first of his lineage to succeed at this level of tennis.

That's how it can be at these challengers, I suppose. Easy interaction with fans. World-class-level tennis brought down to a very local level.  Guys who just played a week ago on the Wimbledon courts now three feet in front of you. Passing Jason Jung walking with his "host family" on the sidewalk on my way from the train. It's all something of a dream.

Daniel Nguyen
(c) Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise

Nguyen has had a dream week here, to be sure. He reached his first challenger semifinal on Thursday and then yesterday, on a gorgeous Midwest afternoon, reached his first final by beating Adrien Bossel 6-2 6-4. It was looking like a rout through 12 games, with Nguyen having dropped just a point on his serve in the first set and the Swiss struggling mightily (he gifted three double faults in the first game of the match). But from 2-6 0*-4 down, the player who upset Austin Krajicek in the first round finally showed up. And just like that, Nguyen was serving up 4*-3.

"I got a little nervous, but he took advantage of that," said Nguyen.  "Just hit some great shots - winner after winner - and I couldn't do anything about it. But I just tried to control my composure and the things I could control, and just kept sticking with it, and told myself 'Okay, just gotta keep focusing on myself.'"

And he did. He secured a tough hold, and then with new balls, Bossel held in like 5 seconds. Then the changeover. Then came the biggest game of Nguyen's pro career. And - perhaps aided by his great success in huge moments playing college tennis (he twice clinched the national championship for the University of Southern California) - he said he wasn't really nervous. How did he manage that?

"Sort of just control your thoughts & harness your positive thoughts. Say, 'Okay, I can do this, I can do this.' Those negative thoughts are always going to creep into the match. Just being able to manage them and really just overpower them with positive thoughts."

He managed them. Got to 40-0. And then this happened:

As for his breakthrough success as a Vietnamese-American, "It's pretty cool.  Just try to represent my heritage, it's always nice, and hopefully I can try to [transmit] that to the younger generation - the young Asian, Vietnamese players, motivate them to do well. But it's definitely exciting."

So now it's on the the final against Somdev Devvarman, who played a relentless, smart, quality night match to beat Ryan Harrison 6-0 6-4. Harrison came out admittedly flat, but willed himself to stay in the match even down a set and a break. Despite not reaching break point all match against Devvarman, he just tried to put himself in a position so that, if any window did open even a crack, he'd be able to jump through it.  And it almost happened.

With Devvarman serving at 5*-4, Harrison got it to 15-30. The nice-sized college crowd, who had been somewhat demure from the start, tried to pump Harrison up enough to get the match even. But two successive line-clippers (or were they? Without electronic review, it was left to a couple of lines people and a hesitant-to-overrule chair umpire to decide) got it to 40-30.  A missed Harrison backhand on the next point, and Devvarman is your second 2015 finalist.

"It starts with his ability to hit passing shots really well," said Harrison about what makes Devvarman such a tough opponent, despite not having the biggest weapons on tour. "You feel like you can't just come in on anything. He gives you some balls that are kind of up, in the middle of the court, not quite high enough or short enough for you to hit outright winners off of, but you feel like you can come in behind it. But if you don't come in behind something good, he's got really good speed, good passing shots."

Unfortunately, I'll miss tonight's final - a dream final, for those of us who like college tennis (Devvarman went to the University of Virginia), for those who like American tennis, for those who like their tennis stories to be a bit outside the mainstream.  But I have other, "real life" obligations. So for now, I'm snapped out of my dream world in which it was nothing to chat up some of my favorite players about their lives and careers. Until next year, Winnetka!

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