Monday, July 27, 2015

This Week in American Tennis: Echoes of the Worst. Week. Ever.™

1. Not quite the worst week ever. But eerily similar. Last year I wrote a four-part megapost about how the week of July 14, 2014 - which included, like this past week, an ATP tournament in Bogota; a WTA tournament in Istanbul; ATP Challenger events in Granby, P.Q., and Binghamton, NY.; and ITF events in Evansville, IN (women's $10K) and Vancouver, B.C. (men's $15Ks) - was the Worst. Week. Ever.™as a tennis fan. Much of that was based on the loads of really tough third-set losses which abounded for American players, particularly for the men.

The fact that American players didn't perform quite as well as hoped was surely insignificant in the face of that week's shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in Ukraine and the Israeli invasion of Gaza. Yet there I was, a tennis fan, seemingly more emotionally invested in these strangers playing a game than in tragedies of global impact. All very surreal. But writing about it proved comforting, even cathartic.

This past week, many events were the same, except the $50K women's tournament was in Sacramento, rather than Carson, California; the USA Futures event was in Godfrey, Ill., rather than Tulsa, Okla.; and a few ATP/WTA tournaments not involving Americans were shifted in the calendar. And I'm sorry to report that American players didn't perform much better than last year. To wit:

Istanbul: In 2014, the sole American in the draw, Anna Tatishvili, lost 2&2 to #2 seed Roberta Vinci. In 2015, Venus Williams was the top seed but lost in straight sets to Kateryna Bondarenko. And more devastatingly, Tatishvili was up a set at 5*-2 with match point on her racquet, but lost to Turkish wildcard Ipek Soylu 7-5 5-7 0-2 (ret.). Verdict: 2015 was marginally worse.

Bogota: In 2014, Kevin King qualified but lost his first round match in 3 sets to Thiemo De Bakker (having had match point); while Alex Kuznetsov beat Adrian Mannarino in the first round only to lose in straight sets to Vasek Pospisil. In 2015, Alexander Sarkissian qualified and won his first-ever ATP match, 3&3 over John Millman, but lost to Malek Jaziri in 3 sets; while Rajeev Ram beat Alejandro Falla in 3 sets but lost to Mannarino in straights. Verdict: 2015 was marginally better.

Binghamton: In 2014, USA had 10 players in the 2nd round, but went 1-5 against non-Americans in that round (with 4 third set losses), plus both Denis Kudla and Bradley Klahn had to give walkovers. USA did have one finalist: Wayne Odesnik, who lost in straight sets to Sergiy Stakhovsky. In 2015, USA had 10 players in the 2nd round, but went 1-1 against non-Americans in that round (with 4 all-USA encounters). With 5 Americans in the quarters, only 1 faced a non-American (Mitchell Krueger, who lost to Kyle Edmund). USA did have one finalist: Bjorn Fratangelo, who lost in straight sets to Edmund. In all, Edmund played 5 matches, all against rising Americans, and won all five. Verdict: 2015 was barely better - and the finalists were much more likable.

Granby: In 2014, USA had 4 players in the 2nd round, but went 1-3 against non-Americans in that round. In the quarters, Chase Buchanan lost to a huge Frenchman, eventual finalist Fabrice Martin. Americans went 0-2 in the $25K women's tournament. In 2015, USA had 3 players in the 2nd round, and went 2-1 against non-Americans in that round. In the quarters, Eric Quigley lost to a tiny Frenchman, eventual champion Vincent Millot; Jean-Yves Aubone lost in 3 sets to eventual finalist Philip Bester. In the now-$50K women's tournament, three Americans lost first round but Ellie Halbauer did upset Laura Robson in the 2nd round ... only to cough up a 5*-0 lead in the third set against Jessica Moore and lose 6-7(5) in the BUSTER. Verdict: 2015 was a touch better.

Carson/Sacramento: In 2014 (Carson), USA had 6 of 8 quarterfinalists, and all 4 semifinalists - Sanaz Marand, Melanie Oudin, Louisa Chirico, and champion Nicole Gibbs. In 2015 (Sacramento), USA had 3 of 8 quarterfinalists, and only 1 semifinalist - Brooke Austin, who lost in straight sets to eventual champion Anhelina Kalinina. Verdict: 2015 was much worse.

Futures/$10Ks: In 2014, USA took titles in Evansville (Tornado Alicia Black), Vancouver (Alexa Guarachi and Sarkissian), and Tulsa (Mitchell Frank). In 2015, USA took titles in Evansville (Lauren Herring), Vancouver (Andre Dome), Godfrey (Michael Mmoh), and Sharm El Sheikh (Julia Jones). No women's event took place in Vancouver - and Guarachi no longer represents USA. Verdict: 2015 was barely worse.

In sum: the world geopolitical stage was a bit quieter this year, while the USA tennis stage was just a bit better. Yes, last year USA had 5 titles to 4 this year (keep in mind, several weeks this year there have been zero USA singles titles). But the losses felt less devastating this year, and there was the one additional win at a tour-level event. So no, not the Worst. Week. Ever.™ But surprisingly not too far off.

2. The Wild Card Challenges -- imperfect tools. The USTA's decision to incorporate its challenger-level tournaments into the process of determining wild cards for the Australian, French, and US Opens has worked out very well for the most part.  For the players, they save wear and tear by not asking them to play another mini-tournament on top of their schedules. For the USTA, it makes for a more fair playing ground and removes allegations of favoritism from the process. For the fans, they bring yet another competition-within-a-competotion to track and prognosticate about (us fans like to track and prognosticate); and for the tournaments, they bring increased attention and excitement.

For the most part it's worked out quite well.  But there are a few kinks in the system worth mentioning. I'm not sure what, if anything, can be done to fix any problems the Wild Card Challenges present, but here are what I see as concerns:

1) Non-American players can have an outsized impact on the process. Three Japanese women - Mayo Hibi, Nao Hibino, and Kimiko Date-Krumm - have had a huge impact on this summer's US Open Wild Card race. Add Sacramento champion Anhelina Kalenina and Stockton & Sacramento finalist An-Sophie Mestach, and those five non-American players went 19-0 against competitors for the US Open Wild Card Challenge. Clearly, a lot depended on whether and where an American may have faced any of those players in her draw.

A more striking example was this spring's French Open Wild Card Challenge. Through 2 events and 2 rounds into Tallahassee, 5 players were still alive: Frances Tiafoe, Fratangelo, Tennys Sandgren, Krueger, and Jared Donaldson. Fratangelo fell to Sandgren, who in turn lost to Tiafoe. However, the other 3 players all lost to the tournament champion, Facundo Arguello: Krueger in the quarters, Donaldson in the semis, and Tiafoe in the final. I'm certainly not saying Frances didn't deserve that wild card - he played brilliantly for three weeks in a row. But imagine if he, instead of Krueger, had drawn Arguello in the Tallahassee quarters. Very possibly we would have had a different French Open wild card.

2) No provision is made for wild cards to those who are still in the running. It was disappointing on Saturday to learn that Brooke Austin had drawn Jamie Loeb in the first round of qualies for Lexington, the final leg of the women's US Open Wild Card Challenge. It was particularly frustrating for Austin, as she played her semifinal the night before in Sacramento; meanwhile, Loeb already had effectively guaranteed herself a wild card by winning the NCAA singles championship. Robin Anderson, who also was in the running for the wild card, had to make a similarly quick turn around after losing to Austin in the quarterfinals -- she then lost her first-round qualifying match in Lexington in three sets to #3 seed Chanel Simmonds. (Both Anderson and Austin had terrible luck with their draws, as a number of players in qualies are unknown to nearly all tennis fans.)

For Lexington, the wild cards went to Kristie Ahn, Danielle Lao, and CiCi Bellis - all fine choices. But why not save a wild card for a player, like Austin, who put herself in a position to make the final leg of the Wild Card Challenge that much more interesting, but who didn't even get a chance to see what she could do there? Particularly considering Austin's and Anderson's rankings don't reflect their true level, as both forewent a full WTA schedule in favor of college.

3) No mechanism for excluding bad actors. This is a tough one, and I don't have enough inside knowledge to pass full judgment on it. And I know I'm wading into tricky waters here. But the case of Wayne Odesnik does give one pause. There's little chance that, after his drug-related suspension, the USTA would have given Odesnik a wild card to the US Open last year of their own volition. It's hard to imagine them even inviting him to a separate wild card tournament, like they used to hold. But there he was, thanks to a final in Binghamton and a semifinal in Lexington: into the main draw of the 2014 U.S. Open. A few months later, and Odesnik would get an effective life ban based on a drug test.

Would there have been any fair way for the USTA to exclude someone like Odesnik, who had seemingly paid his debt and from one perspective should have had the same right to compete as anyone else? I don't know. But you have to admit, last year's men's wild card challenge didn't lead to the result anyone, other than Wayne, was hoping for.

3. SEC women continue to kick ass, take names. On the heels of Vanderbilt winning the NCAA team championship, it's been quite the summer for a few players from other SEC schools. This week, Julia Jones (OLE MISS) won the Sharm El Sheikh $10K title; Lauren Herring (UGA) won the singles and doubles crowns at the Evansville $10K (the latter [ed. to add: and reached the doubles final] with fellow Bulldog Kennedy Shaffer); Andie Daniell (ALABAMA incoming) reached the Evansville final; Austin (FLORIDA) reached the Sacramento semis; and Caitlin Whoriskey (TENNESSEE) won the Sacramento doubles title (with Ashley Weinhold).

Interestingly, Herring had to qualify while Jones received a Special Exempt main draw entry due to her final the week before. Which raises a question: should there be some provision made, other than wild cards, to provide college players with tournament entries commensurate with their abilities? I'm sure those involved with college tennis have had this discussion for decades without me, but I still think it's a question worth posing to the ITF, WTA, and ATP. To be honest, it's something that could go beyond just the USA, in order to encourage education generally: why not give players enrolled full time in an undergraduate program of study some special boost to help get them into tournaments during their off-season or after they graduate?

Consider this: Austin's July 27 ranking of #443 is based on just 4 tournaments. Loeb is at #394 based on 7. Herring doesn't even have a ranking, with only 2 tournaments played prior to Evansville in the past 12 months. Anderson is at #531 after 4 tournaments.

Bottom line to me is this: Both tours provide support to injured players. Why not do the same to those whose playing is limited by something we all should champion: education?

4. Dome and Mmoh: nearly among the 500. Just a quick note to honor Andre Dome, who won his third singles title of the year in Vancouver (along with his second doubles title), and Michael Mmoh, who won his first of the year - second career - in Godfrey. Both players are set to make their Top 500 debuts next week, and both won dramatic three-set finals, Mmoh 7-5 in the third over Jared Hiltzik and Dome 6-4 in the third over former Top 200 player Matt Reid.

Mmoh's post-win celebration was particularly dramatic...
... whereas for Dome, this has become old hat

Gold stars: I already mentioned a bunch of players, but among those not mentioned above, congrats to Sekou Bangoura (Binghamton singles & doubles SF), Daniel Nguyen & Dennis Novikov (Binghamton doubles final), Nicholas Monroe (ATP Bastad SF with Artem Sitak), Natalie Suk (Bad Waltersdorf $10K doubles title with Anna Vrbenska), and Dominic Cotrone (USA F22/Godfrey doubles title with Jordi Arconada).

Win of the week: A new feature, we'll see how it goes, but worth giving a shout-out to Nicolas Meister, who beat Dimitar Kutrovsky 7-6(6) 3-6 7-6(3) to advance to the Binghamton quarterfinals. Full match here:

A Look Ahead: Lots of tennis in North America this week.

ATP Atlanta: 5 of the top 6 American men are in the main draw, with Sam Querrey the only exception. Ryan Harrison and Tiafoe received wild cards, as did Georgia Tech's Christopher Eubanks. Mardy Fish is using his protected ranking. Kudla, Donaldson, and Austin Krajicek are all in Monday's final round of qualies.

WTA Florianopolis: Bethanie Mattek-Sands is the #5 seed and Louisa Chirico is #6.

Sobota/Rokietnica, Poland $75K: Katerina Stewart got direct entry and Suk got a wild card.
Noah Rubin, (c) Rustam Tahir

Lexington Challenger: Fratangelo is the only USA seed at #4, and unfortunately will face Bangoura in the first round. Quigley and Krueger received wild cards; Ryan Sweeting is using his protected ranking; and Nguyen, Novikov, and Sarkissian are also in the draw. Kuznetsov and Noah Rubin are in Monday's final round of qualies.

Lexington $50K: Sachia Vickery, Maria Sanchez, and Julia Boserup are among those who could still grab that US Open wild card with a final (or, for Sanchez and Boserup, a semifinal).  Oudin, Jennifer Brady, Lauren Embree, Asia Muhammad, Samantha Crawford and others are also in the draw, and thus still in the wild card race.

Astana Challenger: Connor Smith is the #7 seed.

Astana $25K: Alexandra Riley is in the main draw.

Gatineau $25K: Alexa Glatch is the top seed; Halbauer, Alexandra Mueller, and Lauren Albanese received direct entry; and Malika Rose and Anne-Liz Jeukeng qualified.

Rome $25K: Tina Tehrani is a Lucky Loser.

USA F23/Edwardsville: None of the top 8 seeds are American, and only a few received direct entry (including Clay Thompson, Mico Santiago, and Evan King) while Jared Hiltzik should get an SE, and 6, 7, or all 8 of the qualifiers will be American.

Canada F6/Saskatoon: Dennis Nevolo and Dome are among several American men in the main draw, while several more are in qualies (including Marcos Giron, who should be seeded if he wins his lone qualies match).

France F16/Ajaccio: 31-year-old Gregory Levy is into his first main draw since 2009 and is seeking his first-ever ATP point.

Italy F20/Pontedera: Collin Altamirano is in the main draw.

Hong Kong $15K: Yuki Kristina Chiang qualified.

Austin $10K: At least half of the players are American, including Lauren Herring.

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