Saturday, September 19, 2015

Tennis' diversity on display in Redding quarterfinals

Vania King practicing before her quartefinal match.
(c) Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise
A Canadian born in Egypt. An American of Taiwanese heritage. A Frenchwoman with Algerian ancestry. A Brazilian of .... well, I think Brazilian heritage. The remarkable diversity that is the tennis world will be on display in Saturday's semifinals of the Ascension Project Women's $25,000 Challenger in Redding, California.

Also on display was the new fact of life in women's tennis: maturity is in. It is surely no coincidence that 7 of 8 quarterfinalists are in their mid-20s. Five years ago, the average age of the quarterfinalists at this tournament was 21 1/4. This year, the average was exactly 4 years older. At the highest level, women are reaching their first major finals well into the latter stages of their careers (see: Vinci, Roberta; Safarova, Lucie). They're perfecting their games through hard work and training. No longer is it the case that if you haven't "broken through" by 21, you might as well hang it up. Perseverance is paying off.

Vania King, who has been on the tour for a decade, is still only 26. "The game has changed, it has become more physical. It's a lot about consistency, injury prevention, and you just don't see that rise of 14-year-old superstars like you did before. It's good in a way - it allows girls to do other things."

There was also plenty of game-style diversity for the fans gathered for Friday's matches.  In doubles, Ashley Weinhold served and volleyed with authority. Her opponents, the Facey sisters, hit with two hands on each side. King, of courts, hits it flat and hard while Sherazad Reix won't show you the same ball twice. One-handers, slicers, drop-shot demons, servebots ... Friday's action had it all.

Facey/Facey. (c) Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise

By far the most engaging match of the day was between Paula Cristina Goncalves, a solid Brazilian with a grinder's mentality, and Anna Zaja, a big-hitting German who's "sigh" game was at its peak. Goncalves raced to a 4-0 first set lead, thanks in large part to a plethora of errors on Zaja's part. But then Zaja started turning things around, making the first set interesting before dropping it 3-6, and then dominating the second set 6-1, using her big serve to dictate, while Goncalves found her forehands landing into the net far too often.

It was time for Goncalves to adjust. Cut down on her errors, "Not to miss so much balls, you know? Try to create opportunities to go to the net."

Paula Cristina Goncalves. (c) Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise
Goncalves likes to dictate points with her forehand, but has plenty of defensive moxie as well and a lot of variety in her backhand. She broke Zaja to open the third set and kept having looks at additional breaks, but again Zaja employed her powerful serve time after time to get out of various jambs. Serving at 3*-5 in the third, Zaja found herself down match point after an insufficient smash was replied to with a fantastic lob winner from Goncalves. However, a weak forehand into the net got the score back to deuce, and two points later, Goncalves was forced to serve for the match.

Again, Goncalves found herself up match point at 40-15, but two errors later and it was again deuce. A forehand winner set up match point #4, which she converted for the 6-3 1-6 6-4 victory.

Despite being out there in the California sun for 2.5 hours, Goncalves looked as fresh as she started after the match. "I like this weather. This is kind of Brazilian weather," she said, although she acknowledged being tired following her two Thursday matches. When this reporter informed Goncalves that her semifinal would be played in 90+ degree weather, she gave a blank stare.

That's when this reporter finally realized he needed to learn the centigrade system, like the rest of the world.

Sherezad Reix (c) Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise
On the adjacent court, Goncalves' next opponent, Shehera Reix, beat Varatchaya Wongteanchai, who suffered from a foot injury, taking a medical timeout after losing the first five games of the match. Reix, a 26-year-old lefty from France with a one-handed backhand, has a great deal of variety in her game. As always, sometimes having too many shot choices can lead to trouble, and despite her first set bagel, she found herself down 2-4 in the second set. "I wanted her to give me the match. And she didn't."

She told herself "go for it" and won the last 4 games of the match. The grunts came out, none too soon, and despite her nerves she powered through the rest of the match, winning 6-0 6-4. She's into the semifinals of her first outdoor hard court tournament of 2015. "I was getting tired of clay.

Reix, whose grandparents are from Algeria, was named after the protagonist of the 1001 Arabian Nights. "I think my mother wanted to give me a princess name." She said she really likes being in California. "The people are so nice. I have really nice housing. I really love to play in the U.S. I don't know why. I think maybe I was born in the wrong country."

Next on court was Reix's good friend El Tabakh (they rooted for each other during their matches), who had something of an ATP-type match, winning 7-5 7-5 over 20-year-old Belgian Klaartje Liebens, the only player under 24 in the quarterfinals. The match featured only two breaks of serve - each at 5-5 in the set - and El Tabakh didn't face any break points. In fact, she lost only 15 points in her 12 service games. "I had a pretty high percentage first serve and my second serve picked up pretty good." As for her own break opportunities, "Both games at 5-5, I stood a little closer and put a little pressure on her, which caused her to give me a look at a second serve. Otherwise, she served well the entire time. I don't think I had any break points other than those two games."

This has been a good week for El Tabakh, who missed the first four months of the season with a back injury and has struggled to get wins since, going 2-8 in main draw matches on the year. Her ranking has fallen from inside the Top 200 at the end of the year to outside the Top 400 now. She chose to play Redding instead of the WTA tournament in Quebec City in the hopes of getting match play. That has proven to be a solid choice so far.

Next up for El Tabakh is King, who won her third match in a row against a former college player. On Thursday, she played her first and second round singles matches, due to a washout on Wednesday. First up was top seed and defending champion Jennifer Brady, in what both players described as a good match. Brady served for the second set but ultimately King won 6-3 7-6(2). Then King had to turn around and play red-hot Julia Jones in a grueling match that King finally won 7-5 in the third. King, who is still working to get her match fitness back after the long layoff, said she suffered from cramping at the end and had to withdraw from doubles. Today, she pounced on fellow American Caitlin Whoriskey early, using her flat, powerful groundies to win 6-2 6-1. The only two Americans left in the draw produced some entertaining rallies, but too many Whoriskey errors helped make the match a one-sided affair.

Ashley Weinhold. (c) Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise
In the only doubles semifinal, Whoriskey teamed with Ashley Weinhold to beat the Facey twins, Alexandra and Kat, 6-0 6-1. This is Weinhold's third doubles final of the summer. She and Whoriskey won the Sacramento $50K in July, and also teamed to reach the semis of the Midland $100K in February, where they held match point before falling 12-10 in the supertiebreak.

The top seeds won all of the deciding points, often on Facey errors when attempting poaches. Fittingly, the match ended on such a shot. "We played those two in Sacramento, so we had an idea of how they play. And Caitlin and I are just very comfortable together, so we stick to our plan and then adjust if we need to."

The second doubles match went unplayed as Ema Burgic Bucko and Lauren Embree gave a walkover to Wongteanchai and Michelle Sammons.  Saturday's final should be a good one, between the top two seeds. The singles semis will

Impressively, admission for all the matches is free, so everyone in the greater Redding area should definitely brave the expected heat and enjoy some top-flight tennis.

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