Sunday, July 19, 2015

This Week in American Tennis: Rampras Goes Electric

1. They call him Rampras. Each man possess a sweet one-handed backhand, some of the best volleys going, notably similar service motions, hairy forearms, and one (grass court) tournament at which he reigns supreme. Pete Sampras had Wimbledon; Rajeev Ram has Newport. Today, the man known as Rampras collected his second Newport title by playing basic, old-school, grass tennis and by out-clutching Ivo Karlovic in their two tiebreaks to win 7-6(5) 5-7 7-6(2).

Ram set the tone for the week early, by upsetting top seed John Isner 6-7(5) 6-3 7-6(8), saving a match point along the way. (That first set was the only tiebreak he lost in the 7 he played during the week.) Two rounds later, in the quarterfinals, he saved 2 more match points to beat #5 seed Adrian Mannarino 2-6 7-6(8) 7-6(2).

In the final, he was unable to break Karlovic, while getting broken once in the second set thanks to a netcord passing shot that he couldn't control. But at 4-4* in the first set tiebreak, he had the one Samprasian moment he needed:
Going into the third set tiebreak (his third third-set tiebreak of the week), it looked rough, as he'd only won 2 points off the Croat's serve in the third set. However, a somewhat lucky floating return winner at 1-1* and a tricky bouncing return to the net-rushing Karlovic's feet at 4-1* made the tiebreak a bit anti-climactic. Ram won 7-2.

His ability to remain calm in the pressure situations all tournament had huge Ram-ifications for the 31-year-old's career. The $84,250 winner's check is 65% of what he'd made all year (thanks mostly to his doubles success). And the 250 rankings points will launch him from #161 to #86, giving him direct entry into the US Open (ka-ching) and with only 99 points to defend for the rest of the year, a very good shot at direct entry into the 2016 Australian Open (ka-ching).

It also means, surprisingly, that Ram has matched Sampras in one category:

Tough not to be thrilled for the guy.

P.S. Get this: Ram has made the semifinals of four ATP tournaments: 2009 Newport, 2012 Newport, 2012 Los Angeles, and 2015 Newport. Each time he was ranked outside the Top 100.

2. Bernarda Pera - The Under-known American: Her first tournament in 2013 she played under the Croatian flag. Two months later, in her second tournament of the year, she played as an American. But for the next year and a half, she made only two appearances in tournaments on US soil. She was an unknown - or under-known - American.

But then Bernarda Pera was given a qualifying wildcard to the US Open - her first chance at a major - and then after giving the Quebec City qualies a try, played her last 5 tournaments (all ITF-level) in the States, reaching a $25K semifinal in Florence, S.C.  She opened 2015 with 9 US tournaments, and her best pro-result: a quarterfinal at the $100K Midland, Mich., tournament in which she beat Sanaz Marand and then-#130 Jovana Jaksic before falling 7-5 in the third to Katerina Vankova.

Those 3rd set tight losses have been far too common for Pera: 18 of her 30 losses since the beginning of 2014 have come in 3 sets. 5 of her last 13 tournaments have ended either 7-5 in the third set or in a third-set tiebreaker - with only 1 win by either score in that time. (Her loss in the US Open qualies was to Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, whom she led 4-2 in the third set before losing the last 4 games.)

So when she beat top seed Oceane Dodin (#131) in the quarters of this week's $25K Imola, Italy tournament - and did it 7-6(5) in the third - it was probably the most important win of the 20-year-old's career. She followed it up with straight-set wins over Nadiia Kichenok and Sherezad Reix to claim her first title above the $15K level.

Having spent most of the past 2 seasons hovering in the 300s, she'll now vault (in a week, once the Imola points are added) into the Top 250 and within spitting distance of a direct entry into US Open qualies (although she may not be able to quite make it, as I don't see her in any acceptance lists over the next couple of weeks).

She's got the aggressive, big hitting game. This title should go far toward solidifying the mental strength she'll need as she continues to climb the rankings ladder ... and perhaps help her become a little less under-known among American tennis fans.

3. Marand takes the USOWCC lead in Stockton. With a US Open main draw wild card at stake, the first of three consecutive USTA Pro Circuit $50K tournaments took place in Stockton, California. The player with the most points in two of the three events will get a main draw wild card to the US Open. Getting an early lead on the field was something of a surprise candidate: Sanaz Marand, the Texan and UNC alum who has yet to play even in the qualies of a major. (Speaking of Marand, I just found this nice article about her from April.) Marand reached the semis with wins over fellow college standouts Jennifer Brady and Brooke Austin, and then in the quarters over recently-returned-to-competition Melanie Oudin who, along with Danielle Lao, sits in 2nd place in the wild card challenge.

Marand's good form continued in doubles, where she picked up her 11th (and biggest) doubles title, with help from fellow UNCer Jamie Loeb. This was also Loeb's biggest title, and her 5th in doubles.

The winner of the singles tournament was 5th seed Nao Hibino (JPN), who beat Marand in 2 tiebreaks and then top seed An-Sophie Mestach (BEL) in the final.  The center court matches were streamed and if you haven't seen her before, take a chance to watch some of Marand's lefty, backhand-slice-heavy game. You will likely join me in wishing her the best as she tries to reach her dream of playing in a major.

Gold Stars:  Jack Sock (Newport SF), Anna Tatishvili (WTA Bucharest singles QF and doubles SF), Julia Jones (Sharm El Sheikh $10K final as qualifier), Karyn Guttormsen (Sharm El Sheikh SF as qualifier), Nicholas Monroe (Newport doubles final), Matt Seeberger (Poznan Challenger doubles final), Austin Krajicek (Newport doubles SF with Ram), Kaitlyn Christian (Stockton $50K doubles final with Lao) and Dennis Novikov (bronze medal, men's singles, Pan Am Games). Also the winners of the USTA Clay Court championships - in particular Sam Riffice, who secured a wild card into the US Open junior championships.

A look forward:

Istanbul: Top seed is Venus Williams. Anna Tatishvili beat Grace Min to reach the final round of qualies, where she will face Zhu Lin.

Bad Gastein: Katerina Stewart will look to qualify against Ana Bogdan on Monday.

Bogota: Rajeev Ram will have his work cut out for him against local favorite Alejandro Falla in the first round of this ATP 250 (and would take on Mannarino in the second). Austin Krajicek is also in the main draw, while Kevin King will play Facundo Mena in the final round of qualies of the hard court event.

Binghamton Challenger: 14 or 15 American men will be in the main draw in this, the first leg of the three-tournament men's US Open Wild Card Challenge. Included among them are recent junior slam champions Tommy Paul and Reilly Opelka, both of whom received wild cards.

Granby Challenger: Up in Canada, Adam El Mihdawy and Dennis Nevolo are in the main draw, as are qualifiers Nikita Kryvonos and Raymond Sarmiento. Jean-Yves Aubone will be looking to join them as he completes his rain-delayed match against 14-year-old Canadian Felix Auger Aliassime, who is up a break in the first set.

Recanati Challenger: Connor Smith is in the main draw [edited to add: as is Jesse Witten, who qualified on Monday morning].

Sacramento $50K: Most of the women who played Stockton will be playing this, the second leg of the women's US Open Wild Card Challenge.

Granby $50K: One exception to the Stockton/Sacramento double will be Danielle Lao,  who along with Lauren Albanese and Alexandra Mueller are in the main draw in this Canadian event. Additionally, Keri Wong will play Ellie Halbauer in the final round of qualies.

Futures: In Godfrey, IL, top seed Deiton Baughman (WC) drew Clay Thompson (ARE YOU KIDDING ME??) at the $15K. Also playing are Illinoisians Evan King and the Hiltzik Brothers. Also juniors Michael Mmoh and Alex Rybakov. In Vancouver, B.C., 8 Americans are in the main draw (plus at least one will qualify), led by #2 seed Andre Dome.

In Dublin, Ireland, Peter Kobelt looks to be the #3 seed; in Denia, Spain, Eduardo Nava is in the main draw; and in Ankara, Turkey, Vikram Hundal qualified.

At the Hong Kong $15K, Yuki Kristina Chiang qualified. At the Bad Waltersdorf $10K in Austria, Natalie Suk looks to be last in to the main draw. $10K Maaseik: Tina Tehrani will play the #1 seed. Julia Jones and Karyn Guttormsen should get Special Exempt entry into Sharm El Sheikh $10K in Egypt.  Sabrina Santamaria is into the final round of qualies at the Tampere, Finland $10K. Rasheeda McAdoo qualfied for the $10K in Viserba, Italy.

Finally, in Evansville, Indiana, nearly all the seeds look to be non-American, but at least 10 Americans, plus some guaranteed qualifiers, will be in the main draw led by Alexa Graham.

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