Thursday, August 27, 2015

7 Americans into US Open qualifying final round

Jessica Pegula signing pics. (c) @itvtennis, via Twitter
Qualifying draws at majors are always crap shoots. Each qualifying tournament is a mixture of up & coming youngsters, former high-level players trying to return from a layoff, players who will never be fixtures in the Top 100 but who will fight like anything for their shot at a big paycheck, and players who can challenge anyone on a given day. Seldom are the players ranked above #100 and rarely any lower than #240 or so.

Through two rounds at the 2015 US Open, one American man and six women are still standing among the 32 players in each draw. It's a strong performance for the women, and disappointing for the men -- although based on rankings alone, anything more than 0 American men into the final round of qualies would have been an upset.

In 2014, of the 15 American women in the US Open qualifying draw, only 2 (Melanie Oudin and Maria Sanchez) won their first 2 matches to reach the final round of qualifying.  Neither won her third match. The year before, 16 American women were in qualifying. 7 reached the final round, and 3 qualified. For the men, 4 of 14 made the final round of qualies in 2013, with only Donald Young qualifying; while in 2014 only 2 of 14 men reached the final round of qualies with neither Rajeev Ram nor Ernesto Escobedo winning his third match.

Was American tennis so much better in 2013 than 2014? Certainly not!  So the fact that a mere 1 American man - 18-year-old Tommy Paul - made the final round of qualies this year should not be considered an indictment of the state of American men's tennis. And if by chance he doesn't win his tricky final round match against veteran Marco Chiudinelli it's no sign of continued American decline in the sport.

Today started with six American men in the draw - five faced seeds, and all five lost. Dennis Novikov, Mitchell Krueger, and Daniel Nguyen all lost in third sets, while Noah Rubin seemed headed for a third set but lost a tight second set tiebreaker 8-6 (having led 4-1* and 6-5*) to #3 seed Guido Pella (ARG). Meanwhile, Reilly Opelka fell 4&2 to 2012 French Open champion Kimmer Coppejans (7/BEL), who was the next alternate to reach the main draw.

Paul, for his part, took care of former North Carolina State University of North Carolina player Jose Hernandez-Fernandez (DOM) in straight sets. Paul broke in the second game of the first set and the penultimate game of the second set and that was it. He was not broken in the match and saved the only three break points he faced in a 16-point game to hold for 5-2* in the first. It seems to have been a workman-like performance from a young man with a growing history of such performances.

US women, meanwhile, had a far more solid day on the hard courts, going 6-3.

Leading off in most impressive fashion was Jessica Pegula, who saved all 5 break points she faced in a 6-3 6-3 upset - a massive upset, really - over rising star Margarita Gasparyan (RUS), whom you would have forgiven for saying was as close to a sure thing as any player in the women's qualifying draw. Gasparyan, ranked #71, was 38-7 coming into Thursday's match, and hadn't lost to a player outside the Top 100 since April. Pegula, ranked #257, hadn't beaten a Top 80 player since April 2013, when she won back-to-back matches against Garbine Muguruza (76) and Mona Barthel (29) in the first two rounds of Charleston.

Although the score seemed straight forward, the last three games of the match each went double digit points. Pegula won the last two, saving 3 break points at 4*-3 and 4 game points at 5-3*, winning on her first match point.

Pegula will next face Oudin, guaranteeing at least 1 American qualifier (an improvement on last year's 0). Oudin played possibly the most dramatic match of the day, defeating #24 seed Wang Yafan 6-7(2) 6-3 7-6(5). The match featured 17 breaks of serve, so when Oudin went up 2*-1 in the third set, nobody had any notion that the match was a done deal.  Indeed, Wang broke back the very next game. Twice more in the set, Oudin would go up a break, including for 6*-5, only to lose serve immediately.  In the tiebreak, things didn't look great when Wang went up 2 minibreaks, serving at 5*-2. However, Oudin showed the grit she trademarked at this venue in 2009 and won the last 5 points, and thus the match.

Oudin and Pegula have met twice before, in 2012 and 2013, with Oudin winning both matches in straight sets. But Pegula has to be brimming with confidence, so anything can happen on Friday.

48 minutes was all it took #16 seed Anna Tatishvili to take out Laura Pous-Tio (ESP) in 2 bagel sets. Her final round will be against unseeded Belgian Ysaline Bonaventure, who will turn 21 on Saturday.

Shelby Rogers had a comprehensive 2&3 win over Mandy Minella (LUX) to set up a meeting with Alla Kudryatseva. Alla K. has been particularly tough on talented Americans this week - first she took out Alexa Glatch and then today, she beat Victoria Duval 7-6(5) 4-6 6-0 to the disappointment of literally everyone in attendance.

In addition to Duval, Taylor Townsend fell in two sets today, while Raveena Kingsley nearly shocked the world (well, me and several others) by putting a scare into Tereza Mrdeza. Mrdeza lost just one point on serve in the first set, racing to a 6-1 lead. Kingsley took the second set 6-3 but then went down 2-5* in the third. The end seemed nigh, but the 17-year-old from Maryland broke at love in the next game, then saved 2 match points to hold for 4-5*. Mrdeza then served for the match again, but was broken at 30. Finally, the Croatian broke Kingsley and successfully served out the third set, 7-5.

The two other American winners were both teen phenoms: CiCi Bellis and Claire Liu. Bellis - last year's Cinderella story - upset #22 seed Romina Oprandi (ROM) 7-5 7-5 and will face Jelena Ostapenko in the final round. The 18-year-old Latvian, and 2014 junior Wimbledon winner, is seeded 11th here. As for Liu, she pulled off her second consecutive impressive upset of the week, beating #9 seed Jana Cepelova (SVK) 7-6(4) 6-4, winning the last 4 games of the match. Liu, currently ranked #827, will move into the Top 600 regardless of how she fares against #26 seed Alexandra Panova (RUS) in the final round of qualies.

Somewhere between 1 and 6 Americans will qualify for the US Open tomorrow, and the exultation of those who do will be among the biggest displays of joy they'll have all year. Sadly, none of those moments will be streamed, so only those who are there in person will be able to vicariously experience such thrill.

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