Sunday, September 20, 2015

Pals Reix and El Tabakh into Redding final

Heidi El Tabakh (left) and Sherazad Reix. (c) Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise

As they lounged and laughed together in the cool water of the Sun Oaks Tennis & Fitness pool, Heidi El Tabakh and Sherezad Reix were a merry picture of relaxed friends out for a dip under the blazing Redding, California sun. But on Sunday, each will no doubt fight tooth and nail for a win at a tournament that has seen them play some excellent, contrasting tennis. It's a match with potentially significant implications for at least one of them.

El Tabakh is a big-serving, flat-hitting two-handed Canadian righty based in Miami. An offensive force. Reix is a flashy, crafty, one-handed Parisian lefty who is happy to beat you by tossing up lobs or throwing down drop shots. At her best, a defensive wall. In their upcoming final, the Northern California crowd will get to see what happens when one meets the other in only their second-ever meeting.

The two became friends after their first match against each other, 7 years ago in Portugal. El Tabakh won that 7-6(6) 3-6 7-5. Interestingly, both players have North African roots: El Tabakh was born in Egypt while Reix has grandparents from Algeria. Each player (respectfully) cheered for the other during the other's quarterfinals and semifinals.

In Saturday's first semifinal Reix, who claims to like the heat, faced Brazilian Paula Cristina Goncalves, who also claims to like the heat. Things started slowly for both players, as they struggled with errors and perhaps some early nerves. Reix went down an early break at 1-2* and again at 3-4* in the first set. But she showed her moxie by immediately breaking back in each case, slowly ramping up the aggression while bearing down on defense.

As I noted yesterday, Goncalves loves her forehand, and Reix picked up on that when she scouted her on Friday. "I saw that she had a really good forehand. I saw 3 or 4 games yesterday and I didn't see her hit any backhands. So I said, 'Okay, I think I need to touch her backhand.' And it was worth it for me because I'm lefty, and with my forehand I can go straight to her backhand, and it was nice. I think she didn't like my game because I was going a lot to her backhand and then I was finishing on her forehand. She was all the time late on her forehand." 

(In the end, the backhand proved to be the better side for Goncalves on Saturday; she hit several winners and far fewer errors on that wing.)

Between the end of the first set and the beginning of the second, Reix ran off a string of six straight games -- a "virtual bagel" -- and seemed in control up 6-4 3-0*.  El Tabakh, rooting for Reix from the shaded grass behind the court, left to get ready for her own semifinal. But, said Reix, "at 3-0 I knew it wasn't over." Indeed it wasn't. 

Goncalves' forehand, MIA for much of the match, seemingly descended from nearby Mount Shasta and she started controlling rallies with confidence. She held and broke to get back on serve, and then got even more aggressive and held for 3-3. The momentum was all hers going into the legendarily pivotal 7th game of the set. What a game it turned out to be.

Reix went up 40-15 but Goncalves roared back to set up break point -- a chance to take the lead in the second set. But then her forehand went back up the mountain. A weak error into the net on a second serve return got Reix back to deuce, and she went on to hold six points later.

(Oh and it was getting hotter.)

Goncalves then saved two break points of her own (one on a rare ace) to hold for 4-4, but then couldn't keep the ball in the court and Reix held at 15.

Goncalves struggled mightily at the net, thanks in no small part to the massive underspin Reix put on her passing shots. Several times at the end of the second set, she used her forehand to put herself in an ideal position to win the point, only to duff the volley.  "Today I was just trying to make her crazy, because she has a good game, she can run really good. I was just trying to mix things up a lot and make her crazy."

It worked. Reix goaded Goncalves into more errors and in the final game broke the Brazilian for a 6-4 6-4 win. Onwards the final.

If the crowd enjoyed the variety and all-court play of the first match, many were a taken aback by the out-and-out pace and pure aggression of the second match. Both players came out blasting winners, going for lines and early on hitting them more often than not.

The story of the King/El Tabakh match was one of break points. King converted only 3 of her 17 break opportunities -- 2 of those in the second set, which she won comfortably 6-2 -- while El Tabakh won 3 of her 5 chances. 

In the first set, El Tabakh saved four early break points to keep things even until the -- wait for it -- "legendarily pivotal seventh game," in which she grabbed control by breaking King for 4*-3. The players traded holds and soon El Tabakh served for the set at 5*-4. Nerves clearly set in a bit for the Canadian, as her first serve went to go join Goncalves' forehand in the mountains. King took advantage of the lapse and bore down on her return, taking the ball early and getting to another break point. El Tabakh saved one, but then her second serve joined her first AWOL and she double faulted to set up yet another break point. This she saved with a big serve/forehand winner combination (the one-two punch was her savior all day), but an unforced error set up YET ANOTHER break point - her 7th of the set - and on this one she again double faulted. 5-5.

Eight points later and the competitors were in a tiebreak. El Tabakh went up a minibreak but double faulted again for 3-3. However, a couple of King errors gave the minibreak back, and in the next point, El Tabakh hit her biggest shot of the day, a running backhand down the line winner to get to set point at 6-3. She may have still had some nerves (she accidentally lined up on the deuce side of the court, leading King to ask, "What side are we supposed to be on?") but a big first serve sealed the set, 7-6(3).

Oh and it was getting hotter still.

97F in the sun. (c) Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise
King took the second set 6-2, playing clean tennis while El Tabakh was less solid. 
"I feel like I semi-gave away the second set after that 4-2 game," El Tabakh remarked after the match. "I lost my focus and just wanted to go to the bathroom and regroup a little, and I told myself I might as well enjoy it and fight since I'm already out here. And that's what I did."

The third set was odd. All four of El Tabakh's games went to at least 3 deuces and she faced at least one break point each time. But each time she held firm, often with a big serve/groundie winner combo. All three of King's games were relatively short, with the loser getting just 2 points each time. In all, El Tabakh had 62 service points in the set to King's 18.

The key game was at 2-0, with El Tabakh looking to consolidate her early break. It was a 22-point game that proved to be the camel's straw for King. Three break points, eight deuces. A mix of brilliant shotmaking and unfortunate errors. Finally, El Tabakh held with a backhand down the line winner. 3-0.

Vania King takes a medical time-out.
(c) Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise
After El Tabakh held for 4-1, King received an off-court medical timeout for an adductor issue (fortunately different from the disc injury that held her out of competition for nearly a year). After that, she was broken again to allow El Tabakh to serve for the match at 5-1.

The seventh game of the final set was pivotal only in that it was the final game of the match. King did get another break point, but more fine serving helped El Tabakh set up match points. King saved two, but not the third.  Winner: El Tabakh 7-6(3) 2-6 6-1.

"I lost a little bit of focus in the third set, but she played great," said King. "She really went for her shots. The hot conditions today were good for her. She likes to play fast."

El Tabakh agreed that she liked the conditions. She noted the courts were also a "little bit fast. Only yesterday I learned there was a little bit of altitude here. I was wondering why my balls were flying long all week!" she said with a laugh.

Asked about her success on saving break points, she said, "I guess I would focus more when I was break point down as opposed to when I was had game point. She is a player who likes to take the ball super early, so I felt a little pressure on my second serve, but she also gave me free points."

So next is the final among friends. This tournament has come at a big moment in Reix's career, who is at a career high ranking, but is considering retiring if she doesn't make the rankings jump she needs to start getting entry into the qualifying tournaments of the grand slams. 

"I'm 26 and I never played a grand slam," she said. "I just played the French Open in doubles this year, but I never played in singles. So I was thinking, 'It's my last year of tennis. I would love to play the qualies of a grand slam. I don't want ... after 27 ... I'm married, I want kids so if i'm not able to be in the qualies of a grand slam, what's the point of tennis for me?' I want to be able to see and do all the things in my life. We don't make a lot of money on the second level. I'm enjoying right now because I'm playing well. If I can make the qualies of the slams, great, I will continue playing. But if not, fine, I will have a baby. So I'm playing without pressure, fighting, trying to make my game better."

In the looking-glass world of professional tennis, El Tabakh is incentivized to push her friend away from professional tennis tennis. A win for Reix would mean an additional 20 points, enough to keep her ranking in the mid-200s despite having 2 Futures titles and 3 finals to defend this fall. A win for El Tabakh, who needs all the points she can get as she fights to continue her comeback and make the best out of a rough year, and she might be one step closer to sending her friend into the tennis sunset. 

But not before they fly together to Albuquerque for the $75,000 challenger this coming week.

Edited to add: El Tabakh won the final, 6-1 6-3. As fate would have it, the two played each other in the first round of Albuquerque, with Reix winning 6-3 3-1 (retired).

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