Sunday, July 5, 2015

This Week in American Tennis: Quiet, Please edition

1. Venus and Serena. CoCo and Madison. Through three rounds of Wimbledon singles, US women compiled 17 wins - their most since 2008 - and four women made it through to the fourth round - most since 2004. Serena Williams, who has the most at stake this tournament, struggled the most among the four to get to this stage. Following successive 4&1 victories in her first two matches, she found herself down 4-5* in the third set against home crowd favorite Heather Watson. Much has been made about the fact some of the Centre Court fans booed Serena, who came within 2 points of losing. But ultimately the better player found the inner strength, yet again, to win at a major. For the 24th consecutive time. Geez.

Serena next faces her sister, Venus Williams, who opened up her campaign with an utterly dominating double bagel win over blog-favorite Madison Brengle. She then had a thrilling straight-set win over feisty Yulia Putintseva before cruising to another two-set win over talented Serbian Aleksandra Krunic. This sets up an unfortunate sister match (just the third since 2009), one that should have come much later in the tournament. Given how impressively Venus has been playing, and the amount of pressure on Serena, and the fact that Venus won their last encounter ... well, a lot of people think Venus has a slight edge. Which is crazy, when you think about it.

CoCo Vandeweghe/WTA
Then there's CoCo Vandeweghe. I'm something of a CoCo fanatic - she just grips it and rips it. But she had been having a disappointing last 10 months or so, ever since making her mark in 2014 with a title in 's-Hertogenbosch followed by back-to-back three-set wins over Ivanovic and Jankovic at the Canadian Open. So this tournament has been just what she needed: a solid win over Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, then an extremely solid win over #11 seed Karolina Pliskova, followed by an absolute rout of #22 seed Samantha Stosur. Into the 4th round of a major for the first time. And now an intriguing match-up with #6 seed Lucie Safarova, who has already been tested by two Americans (more on that below). And she's into the 3rd round of doubles with Anna-Lena Groenefeld!

Finally, Madison Keys. After a stunning first-round first-set loss to Stefanie Voegele, Keys has made it through her "easy" draw in less-than-dominating fashion, relying on her serve (42 aces) to get her through any rough spots. And now she has been rewarded with a Round of 16 match against qualifier Olga Govortsova. AND defending champion Petra Kvitova is now out of her quarter of the draw. It's absolutely imperative that Keys not get ahead of herself, and that she take Govortsova extremely seriously. If she plays "her game," as the saying goes, she will win in straights. If she gets a bit nervous, it could become a real fight between Keys' best instincts and her worst. So far she's done a good job in the tournament of not letting bad shots linger for too long. She'll want to keep doing that.

(Oh so check this out - how similar is Madison Keys' 2015 season so far to Sloane Stephens' 2013 season? Like Sloane, Madison reached the Australian Open semis at age 19 (beating an American in the quarters, upsetting a Top 4 seed along the way). Both then had a bit of a rough stretch (although Keys reached the Charleston final) before having a nice run at Roland Garros (4th round for Stephens, 3rd round for Keys). Then comes the best Wimbledons of their careers - quarterfinal for Sloane, and a very very plausible quarterfinal for Keys. Kind of crazy!)

Wimbledon conducted a cute interview with Keys. (Just ignore the part where the interviewer says "best of luck against Radwanska" - clearly she was looking forward to the quarterfinals, as many of us are. But we need to stay focused.)

2. Denis Kudla did something pretty legendary. Forget, for a moment, that Kei Nishikori withdrew from Wimbledon, thus helping pave the way for Denis Kudla to reach Week 2, and focus on what Denis did to become, as Ben Rothenberg puts it, this year's Wimbledon LAMP (Last American Man Playing).

a. Beat an established veteran, #28 seed Pablo Cuevas, in the first round. Now it's true that Cuevas is no grass aficionado - he picked up his first career main draw win on the stuff a couple of weeks ago in Nottingham - while Kudla ... is. Fully 2/3 of Kudla's ATP-level wins have come on grass, 12 of 18, which is frankly astounding. And he gained his wild card following his grass challenger title and near-title earlier in June.. But there was Cuevas, with the big serve and confident groundies and a 2 set lead. Kudla stepped it up, his flat groundies found their range, and victorious he emerged.

Kudla and blogger/
2014 Winnetka Challenger
b. Beat a fierce up-and-comer, 18-year-old Alexander Zverev, in the second round. After the players split the first two sets, the Hamburger was serving for the third at 5*-4 and 30-30. But DK beared down, broke, and then took the tiebreak a few games later. In the fourth set, Kudla broke in the ninth game and served out the match at love.

c. Won yet another five-setter, this time against the beneficiary of Nishikori's largesse, Santiago Giraldo. After dominating the first set 6-2, Kudla's normally penetrating groundies took a vacation and he found himself down 2 sets to 1. But instead of changing his game plan, Kudla stuck with it, kept hitting out, and eventual re-established himself as the alpha dog of the contest. It wasn't always the prettiest but he won the last two sets 6-1 and 6-3.

Kudla is likely to be back in the Top 100 when the new rankings are released, having defended his 150 points from last year's Wimbledon + the Winnetka Challenger, and added 30 more. He's got nothing to defend until November, as mono took him out last year. So he'll have direct entry into the US Open and plenty of confidence. For more on Denis' path, check out this compelling interview with Courtney Nguyen.

Now if only John Isner hadn't lost his marathon encounter with Marin Cilic, we'd be reporting on a definite American quarterfinalist.

4. Tough losses for Alison Riske, Christina McHale, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, and Sloane Stephens. Those four women had a combined 5 singles wins at Wimbledon, which is none too shabby considering none was seeeded. But their losses sting for how solid they started their matches.

Alison Riske and Stephens both went up a set on Safarova, Riske in the first round, Sloane in the third. Riske even served for the match in the second, and plenty of folks assumed Safarova would be the first big casualty of Wimbledon 2015. But it wasn't to be. Then against Stephens, Lucie survived an early break scare in the second set when she chased down a fine approach shot and whipped a backhand cross-court winner past a stunned Sloane. From there, Lucie played with confidence and passion, and ended Stephens' tournament a bit earlier than one would have liked.

Christina McHale, for her part, was cruising along up a set and 5-5 in the second round against Sabine Lisicki when it all went south and she won just one game.

Finally, a bit harsh to include Bethanie Mattek-Sands here, as she had to qualify, then had beautiful wins over Alison Van Uytvanck and Ana Ivanovic to set up a third-round match against 18-year-old Belinda Bencic. And then she went up 5-1 in the first before Bencic took control (helped substantially by an 11-minute medical time out to redo some tape on her knee as well as substandard play by Bethanie) to win the set 7-5. Next set, Mattek-Sands was up 5-4* and had deuce on Bencic's serve, but couldn't convert and two games later it was over.

Try not to think too much about those "what could have been" scenarios. It's not going to change things, and you'll just feel bummed. Trust me.

5. A forgettable Fourth. US men had a LOT going on in the Futures this weekend. But of all days, on the Independence Day, disaster struck. (Kind of like in the movie Independence Day. Except this was for real.)

US men went 2-7 on the day, with only one win coming against a non-American (Eric Quigley over Hans Hach in Canada). Otherwise the men in question had losses in Zimbabwe (Evan King), Belgium (Deiton Baughman), Pittsburgh (Alexios Halebian and Nikita Kryvonos), Wichita (Noah Rubin and Jared Hiltzik -- although the latter was to Mitchell Krueger), and Kelowna, B.C. (Marcos Giron). Kryvonos had match point in the second set tiebreak of his match against OSU's Mikael Torpegaard but lost 7-6(2) 6-7(6) 2-6.

And then today, both remaining finalists lost heartbreakers. In Wichita, Krueger lost in two tiebreak sets to Sanam Singh (IND/UVA) while Quigley fell in a 3rd set tiebreak to 2014 US Open Junior champion.

This week is stunningly similar to last week in the lack of titles despite gobs and gobs of quarterfinalists, semifinalists, and finalists - but no titlists. Whether in Africa, Europe, Canada or the 2 USA Futures, the similarities between the weeks is spooky. It's enough to give a guy a complex.

6. Jamie Loeb is queen of El Paso.  But on the plus side, in another similarity to last week, this week there was an all-American final at a $25K women's event in the State.  Even more parallelism - both finalists both weeks were college women. Last week it was Danielle Lao (USC) beating qualifier Brooke Austin (UF) in the Baton Rouge final. This week, qualifier Jamie Loeb (UNC) won her first $25K title, beating Jennifer Brady (UCLA) in the final. She also beat #1 seed Taylor Townsend in the 2nd round and Stanford's Carol Zhao in the semis. Great stuff from the New Yorker.

Loeb has very intriguing talent, and is of course the 2015 NCAA singles champion. I look forward to seeing her progress up through the US Open and beyond.

By the way, Brady beat Robin Anderson in an all-UCLA semifinal, while Loeb beat Mayo Hibi. Their matches merited this fantastic article from the local El Paso paper. Definitely worth a read.

7. Mmoh Success. At the Roehampton Grade 1, Michael Mmoh became the first American boy to win the tournament since Devin Britton in 2009 (the summer after he'd already won the NCAA championship). As the #3 seed, he faced a stern first-round test against Brit Ryan Storrie, winning 2-6 6-2 7-6(4) and then didn't lose another set. In the semis he beat countryman Reilly Opelka 6-3 6-2.

Mmoh is 37-5 in ITF junior events since the US Open. He now has 2 Grade A titles, a Grade B1 and the Grade 1. He also won a Futures title last fall. If it weren't for all the other Americans who have had such great junior success lately, he'd likely have some intense scrutiny around him. As it is, even though a lot of people know his name, he's still able to develop his game without the same glare that some US teens are getting.

Speaking of this current crop of American teen boys, check this out: USA now has 6 of the top 30 teens in the ATP world rankings AND 3 of the top 10 ITF juniors AND the defending Wimbledon champion. Plus you have the guy who just beat the #1 seed at the French Open and the #2 seed at Roehampton. That's 11 pretty damn impressive guys and doesn't even include Collin Altamirano, who helped lead his college team to the national title as a freshman. The talent is there. Figuring out how to help them stay hungry and healthy is the big test for American tennis over the next decade.

Consider that it was a year ago when 7 American boys made the Wimbledon Round of 16 and woke the world (and this blogger) up to what had been brewing for several years. Now consider where we stand:

Gold stars: Pera, Peter Kobelt (ESP F19 semifinal), John McNally (USA F20 QF - first 2 pro wins for the 16yo), Evan King (ZIM F3 singles final & doubles title), Anderson Reed (ZIM F3 doubles title), Hunter & Yates Johnson (BEL F4 doubles title), Baughman (NED F3 semis), Alexios Halebian (USA F20 semis), Nikita Kryvonos (USA F20 semis), Noah Rubin (USA F21 semis), Nicolas Meister (USA F21 semis), Marcos Giron (CAN F4 semis), Jennifer Brady (El Paso $25K final)

A look ahead:

1. Wimbledon's Manic Monday. Serena v. Venus, Take 26. Kudla/Cilic. Keys/Govortsova. Vandeweghe/Safarova. Huge day. So exciting. Hopefully more than just the one quarterfinalist. Big points. Big money. No whammies?

Plenty of doubles still going: Into the 3rd round are Mike and Bob Bryan, Jack Sock (with Vasek Pospisil), Mattek-Sands (with Safarova), Raquel Kops-Jones and Abigail Spears, Vandeweghe (with Groenefeld), and Lisa Raymond (with Cara Black). And in mixed doubles: Mike Bryan and Mattek-Sands, Keys (with Nick Kyrgios), and Kops-Jones (with Raven Klaasen).

2. Junior Wimbledon. US girls went 7-1 in the first round on Saturday, while US boy Nathan Ponwith won a tough match. 7 boys (including #1 seed Taylor Fritz, #4 seed Mmoh, and #7 seed Tommy Paul) will play their first round matches on Monday, as will girls Raveena Kingsley and #9 seed Sofia Kenin.

3. Winnetka Challenger (but none of the other three challengers this week). Lots and lots of Americans in qualies and the main draw. I'll be reporting from this tournament most of the week, so stay tuned!

4. Light schedule for US women. We'll call it an odd coincidence but next week there are zero women's ITF events in the Western Hemisphere. Meanwhile there are 8 events in Europe. So ... go figure. In any case, the big one is the $100K on clay in Contrexeville, France; Grace Min and Anna Tatishvili are on the entry list there. Bernarda Pera is on the list for the $25K in Torino, Italy.

5. A sprinking of Futures for the men. For the men, there are 13 Futures events - 12 in Europe and one in Colombia. (Again, I don't have any clue how this discrepancy flies but hey.) Kevin King is on the list in Colombia. Peter Kobelt is signed up for the grass event in Frinton, UK. Deiton Baughman and Gregory Ouellette are in the Netherlands. Eduardo Nava in Spain.

Finally, check out UVA guys in Sassuolo, Italy: Altamirano, Thai-Son Kwiatkowski and Mac Styslinger all qualified into the main draw on red clay there. Bravissimo!

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