Tuesday, August 11, 2015

This Week in American Tennis: Sloane in the Citi

A huge thanks to Parsa for taking a huge part of the load of this week's This Week in American Tennis while I (Jonathan) was covering the USTA Boys National Hardcourt Championships in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Parsa himself was just returning from an adventurous couple of weeks in Europe, so it was extra great that he took the time to write about the men's Citi Open, give out the gold stars, and look forward to next week which, considering this is being posted on Tuesday, we are already well into. Please follow Parsa on Twitter.

Without further ado.......

1. Sloane Stephens wins her first title. - Jonathan

Expect a full write-up later today, but in short, Sloane Stephens silenced a lot of critics by reaching her first WTA final at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C. and then snatching her first title, beating Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 6-1 6-2. It was a mature performance for Stephens all week. I was too busy at Kalamazoo to watch the full matches, but thankfully @ohitsabel compiled highlights of her wins over Louisa ChiricoSamantha Stosur, and Pavlyuchenkova that are worth just sitting back and enjoying. All three players hit the ball nice and hard for her, and Sloane showed great (free flowing) movement, balance, and offense throughout.

Stephens is the third American woman to win title, and the first who is not part of the incredible Williams clan.

It had been a pretty damn good year for Stephens even before this tournament. Yes, she started out slowly, going 2-3 in Australia with a perfunctory loss to Vika Azarenka in the first round of the Australian. Then she had the worst loss of her 2015 - a 3&2 first-round loss to Johanna Larsson in Acapulco (incidentally, a year after the event at which CoCo Vandeweghe realized she needed to get her rear in gear after losing in the first round of qualies to Riza Ozaki).

But since then, it's been pretty great: wins over Kerber and Kuznetsova in Indian Wells; a run to the Miami quarterfinals (beating Bencic, Larsson, and Madison Keys in straights); semis is Strasbourg and Eastbourne. She's 15-5 in her last 20 matches, with all 5 losses to former grand slam finalists - all but one in 3 sets, including her loss to Serena Williams at the French Open. It's been quite a good run.

Now she's back in the Top 30 and only has to win a couple of matches in Toronto and/or Cincinnati to secure a seed at the U.S. Open (it would be her first seed at a major since last year's Open). After that, she only has 70 points to defend until Indian Wells 2016. So if she can stay healthy, expect a big ranking jump over the next six months. She'll have earned it.

1a. Woah, Louisa Chirico. - Jonathan. A quick note of congratulations to Louisa Chirico for reaching her first WTA quarterfinal with with a surprising 3&0 win over Heather Watson and an apparently incredibly dramatic 7-5 4-6 7-6(4) upset of #5 seed Alize Cornet. And if you watch Abel's highlights, you also see she performed admirably in her 4&4 loss to Stephens. Chirico, who had been given a wild card into the tournament, is the 6th ranked teen in the WTA and has the weapons to rise well inside the Top 100 in the coming year. To do so, she'll need to manage her schedule well and deal with the expectations that will come with the spotlight - and also with the new target on her back.

She didn't get off to a great post-D.C. start, falling in the first round of qualies in Toronto to Lara Arruabarrena. I have to think she'll get a U.S. Open wild card, which could be a great opportunity or she could get Serena in the first round. It's the post-Open period I'll be most interested in watching. Will she go with the WTA to Asia (where her grandparents live) or will she stick with the North American ITFs and get points that eluded her last fall? I don't have an opinion as to what's best for her, just am very curious to track it.

2. The Big Fella. - Parsa. After winning his 10th career ATP title last week in Atlanta, John Isner was headed to Washington with great momentum as he also got to benefit from a first round bye. Isner was absolutely dominant on his serve in his first two matches against Victor Estrella Burgos and twelfth seed Vasek Pospisil, hitting a combined 27 aces and winning an incredible 73 of his 78 first service points without getting broken. Isner was bothered by his left knee a bit in Atlanta, and it was visibly affecting him in his D.C. quarterfinal match against Ricardas Berankis.  However, he battled his way to a three-set victory, setting up a showdown with fellow American Steve Johnson. In an all-American battle with very high stakes, the #1 American saved three match points in the third set tiebreak to squeak past the former USC Trojan in a highly thrilling conclusion.

The following day, it looked like Isner would win his first ATP title above the 250 level, however Kei Nishikori fought back to win 4-6 6-4 6-4, snapping Isner’s nine-match win streak.

Many tennis fans find John Isner’s style of play boring and contest that he only has a serve. While Isner does not display the most entertaining brand of tennis, it is hard to argue that he does not leave everything out on the court. Furthermore, there is a great amount of strategy in Isner’s game and anything less than perfection on his serves results in losses since his return game is not strong. Isner would still be a lethal server if he was not as tall, as his height does not give him more firepower on his serve, but rather his height helps him to go for more while still serving at a high percentage. In his career, Isner’s ace-to-double-fault ratio is about 7.3 to 1 and he gets his first serve in 68 percent of the time while the great Roger Federer has a 4-to-1 ratio and gets his first serve in 62 percent of the time. Isner is known for playing many long matches which generally include some tiebreaks, and this would not be possible without his great mental toughness as he is able to go the distance if need be and earn a tight victory as he demonstrated against Johnson.  The win, by the way, helped him move to number twelve in the new rankings.

2a. Stevie J rises to the occasion. - Parsa. Steve Johnson’s summer on American soil started out rough. He lost as a seed in the 2nd round at both Newport and Atlanta to players ranked outside the Top 75. However, Johnson turned things around big time this week in Washington as he returned to the tournament in which he upset Isner and Ivo Karlovic the previous year en route to reaching the quarterfinals.

Johnson opened his Citi Open campaign against Lukas Lacko in the first round for the third time in his last four tournaments. But whereas as he needed deciding sets to beat Lacko at both Wimbledon and Atlanta, Johnson decisively beat Lacko in straight sets in D.C.  Johnson dominated on his serve, hitting 19 aces vs. only 1 double fault while winning 91 percent of his first serve points. Johnson then faced #11 seed Bernard Tomic, who was coming off a title in Bogota, in an intriguing matchup in which Johnson lead the head-to-head 1-0. After blowing three set points in the first set tie-break, Johnson rebounded back to defeat the Australian in three sets as the Southern California native once again dominated on his serve hitting 20 aces and only 2 double faults.  Johnson then earned his fifth career top-20 victory by taking out the struggling sixth seed Grigor Dimitrov in three sets to reach the quarterfinals.

Johnson faced fellow American Jack Sock in the quarterfinal in a showdown between two of the top Americans. The first set lived up to the hype as neither player made any impact on their returns before Johnson won the tight set in a tie-breaker. The second set was a different story as Johnson demolished Sock and broke his serve three times to advance to his first career ATP 500 semifinal. Johnson served superb against Sock hitting 12 aces and only one double fault, while amazingly winning 79% of his second serve points. 

Johnson would next face one of his good friends, former University of Georgia standout Isner in what would be a battle of the Pac 12 against the SEC. As documented above, Johnson succumbed to Isner in a third set tiebreak in which he had three match points, including one on his serve. After the match, Johnson said he tips his hat to John and that he was very happy with his week in which he will look at the many positives rather than to dwell on his tough loss.

He'll also try not to dwell on this:

As illustrated in this Tennis Channel graphic, there is a big difference between Johnson’s low backhand slice which he hits most of the time compared to his topspin backhand which jumps up at a player. As Jim Courier pointed out, there is also a huge contrast in Johnson’s heavy topspin forehand and his low backhand slice as opponents have to constantly be on their heels since they are receiving two completely different balls when playing Johnson.

Johnson does not think too much about what he is going to do on the court since he only has one gear to execute and that is to dictate play with the big serve and forehand and try to win a few points on the opponent’s return games. Even though players such as Ernests Gulbis and Grigor Dimitrov are very talented, they struggle at times to play a consistent brand of tennis since they do not have a clear gameplan of how they will win at times when on court. Players like Isner and Johnson however know their games well and it is easier for them to execute their gameplans.

3. The Bros continue their excellence. - Parsa. The top seeded Bryan Brothers won their fifth title of the year and second title in as many weeks as they avenged their loss in the French Open final beating Dodig/Melo in straight sets to win their 108th career ATP title, which is beyond incredible. For the fourteenth year in a row, the all-American duo have won at least five ATP titles in a year and it looks like they will add at least a few more this year with the way they are currently playing.

At thirty-seven years of age, this duo still continues to remain at the top of the doubles game (with the title, they're in first place in the Race to London for the first time this year) and it is awesome to see not only as a fan of American tennis, but for the sport of tennis since these two are great role models both on and off the court inspiring players of all ages to look foolish as they try to emulate the legendary flying Bryan chest bump. Fans were treated to actually seeing the Bryan Brothers play this week as Tennis Channel did a great job of showing matches all week including doubles on both the men and women’s side.

(A note from Jonathan: the Citi Open received a ton of criticism on Twitter for their decision to move the Bryans onto center court instead of the women's semifinal featuring Pavlyuchenkova and #1 seed Ekaterina Makarova. Unfortunately, almost none of the criticism I read pointed out that it wasn't just any men's doubles team they put on center: it was the greatest ambassadors American tennis has. The Bryans have transcended "doubles" and earned every recognition and honor they get. That at least has to be part of the conversation when discussing the move.)

4. Tiafoe and Kozlov and Kenin and Black. Oh my. - Jonathan. Two amazing finals took place in the USTA 18s National Hardcourt Championships on Sunday. Frances Tiafoe and Stefan Kozlov of course had their five-set incredible historic epic - please read both Colette Lewis' and Joey Hanf's takes on the match if you haven't - while Sofia Kenin won a back-and-forth three-set thriller of her own against Tornado Black. The San Diego Union-Tribune has great coverage of that one.

With their wins, Tiafoe and Kenin will receive main draw wild cards to the U.S. Open, while Kozlov and Black will get qualifying wild cards. Additional main draw wild cards to go 18s doubles winners Taylor Fritz and Reilly Opelka and Black and Ingrid Neel; while U.S. Open Juniors main draw wild cards will go to 16s winners Patrick Kypson and Abigail Desiatnikov.

Oh and please read my 2015 Zoo Awards ... if you dare!

Gold stars: Jack Sock (Washington QF, coming back from set & break down to beat Richard Gasquet), Christina McHale (Washington QF), Irina Falconi (Washington doubles SF with Monica Niculescu), Varvara Lepchenko (beat world #5 Caroline Wozniacki en route to Stanford SF), Alison Riske (beat world #10 Carla Suarez Navarro en route to Stanford QF), Kevin King (USA F24 singles final, doubles title), Evan King (USA F24 doubles title), Dominic Cotrone (qualified and reached USA F24 QF), Josie Kuhlman (qualified & reached 10K Fort Worth QF, doubles title), Maegan Manasse (10K Forth Worth doubles title), Frances Altick (qualified & reached 10K Fort Worth final), Collin Altamirano (ITA F21 SF), Winston Lin (qualified + reached CHN F12 QF), Raquel Pedraza (Grade 3 title in Mexico), USA girls (silver medal at ITF 14U World Junior Tennis finals), USA boys (bronze medal at ITF 14U World Junior Tennis finals)
. Edited to add: And of course, Connor Smith, making a huge run at the Segovia Challenger, with wins over #2 seed Dustin Brown and #5 seed Mirza Basic en route to the semis.

A look ahead:

Montreal ATP: Top American men are in Montreal this week for the Rogers Cup, the first of two Masters 1000 of the American hard court summer swing. Isner, should he win his first two matches, would likely face #3 seed Stan Wawrinka or young Aussie Nick Kyrgios. Should he reach the quarters, Isner would most likely run into Milos Raonic at his home tournament. Sock faces Frenchman Adrian Mannarino (whom he faced last year on hard courts three times, winning two of their matchups) in the first round. Should Sock advance, he would have a tricky match against either Grigor Dimitrov or Alexandr Dolgopolov. After that would likely be world #1 Novak Djokovic in the round of 16. Coming off his semifinal showing in Washington, Johnson faces #13 seed David Goffin and should he advance, he would face fellow American Sam Querrey who already dispatched Martin Klizan in the first round. Denis Kudla and Donald Young both did well in qualifying to reach the main-draw but they ran into each other in the first round; Young advanced in straight sets. Young will take on #5 seed Tomas Berdych for the first time as he will look to win consecutive main-draw matches for the first time since earlier this year in Indian Wells.

The Bryan brothers, looking to carry the momentum from their titles in Atlanta and Washington, are the top seeds in the doubles draw and have a bye in the first round. As they have been almost every week in the past decade, the duo are the favorites to win this week’s tournament. Sock partnered with Tomas Berdych this week in doubles and not with his usual partner Vasek Pospisil since Pospisil has to play qualifying in Cincinnati, and would be unable to play qualifying if he had made a deep run in doubles with Sock in Montreal. Sock probably missed playing with his usual partner since he and Berdych lost in the first round to the Spanish team of Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco. Rajeev Ram is partnered with Raven Klassen this week as they look to win their second title this year after finding great success in Halle.

Toronto WTA: The American women are competing in the Rogers Cup as well, however they are in Toronto since the tournament switches locations from Toronto to Montreal for the men and women every year. Serena Williams pulled out of Stanford with a right elbow injury, but she should be ready to go in Toronto as she is benefited with a first round bye. Serena is an amazing 40-1 this year and she will look to win her fifth title of the year at the big premier event in Toronto.

Irina Falconi qualified and faces fellow qualifier Heather Watson in the first round, and should she advance she would most likely face sixteenth seed Andrea Petkovic.

As of the posting of this blog, Lepchenko lost in the first round to Barbora Strycova; defending champion Venus Williams fell to Sabine Lisicki; qualifier Anna Tatishvili missed a good opportunity against fourteenth seed Ekaterina Makarova (the Russian retired in her semifinal match this past week in Washington with a calf injury), losing in 2 sets. 

Vandeweghe today is completing a rain-delayed match against qualifier Carina Witthoeft in the first round (they're just entering a third set as I type this) and may face fellow American Riske in the second round as Riske takes on twelth seed Timea Bacsinszky in the first round. Madison Brengle takes on a wildcard in the first round with a possible matchup in the second round against fifteenth seed Sara Errani. Coming off her first WTA title, Stephens faces Dominika Cibulkova in the first round with a possible matchup with tenth seed Carla Suarez Navarro.

Aptos Challenger: The US Open wild card challenge for the men is coming to an end this week in Aptos, California. Bjorn Fratangelo is seeded fourth in Aptos, and he currently has a big lead in the wildcard standings. Mitchell Krueger was in second place, but fell in the first round to eighth seed Yoshihito Nishioka who will face 18-year-old American Jared Donaldson in the second round. Qualifier Tennys Sandgren faces Farrukh Dustov in the first round two years after the pair faced each other in the quarterfinals at Aptos. Qualifier Daniel Nguyen faces Jurgen Zopp in the first round and could face big hitting third seed Kyle Edmund in the second round. 17-year-old Taylor Fritz received a wildcard into the main-draw as he will play his first career challenger match against qualifier Mischa Zverev. Should Fritz advance, he would face Austin Krajicek in the second round as Krajicek beat fellow American Dennis Novikov in a third-set tiebreak. 2014 NCAA singles finalist Alexander Sarkissian faces top seed John Millman in the first round.

USA F25/Champaign: There are many Americans competing this week at the Champaign, Ill. 15K futures including some high-profile young guns as well as former and current college players. Some intriguing all-American first round matches are 18-year-old Alex Rybakov against Jared Hiltzik (Illinois rising senior), 17-year-old Reilly Opelka against Quentin Monaghan (Notre Dame rising senior), and 17-year-old Tommy Paul against Ryan Shane (NCAA champion) (Paul won that in straight sets). 18 of the 32 players in the singles draw are American so hopefully #merica can find some great success this week in Champaign, Illinois. Draws can be found here.

Last - but the opposite of least: The Return of Vicky. 19-year-old Victoria Duval returns to the court for the first time in over a year as she has continually inspired people in her fight against Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Duval will be in action this week at the 25K Koser Jewelers Tennis Challenge in Landisville, Pennsylvania. For more on her comeback and fight in the past year, check out New York Times reporter Ben Rothenberg’s recent piece on her.

Edited to add: And welcome back to Vania King, also making her return to tour in Landisville, after nearly a year out due to injury. She'll play #5 seed Julie Coin in the first round on Wednesday afternoon.

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