Saturday, November 21, 2015

A Tale of Two Titles

It was the best of times (for Henri Laaksonen), it was the worst of times (for Taylor Fritz).

In his first career final at this level, 23-year-old Henri Laaksonen upset 18-year-old Taylor Fritz 4-6 6-2 6-2 today to take the 20th Champaign Challenger. Laaksonen was solid in nearly every aspect of the game, serving well, pressuring Fritz with his returning, saving break points in key moments in the second set, and putting Fritz on the defense far more than the big hitting Californian wanted.

Henri Laaksonen, in red, receives his winner's check. © Jonathan Kelley
"I had an amazing week here," said Laaksonen. "Especially in the early rounds I was struggling, I always lost the first set, and somehow I started to play always better and better the longer the match went and today I played an unbelievable match." Today's final marked the fourth consecutive match Laaksonen won after losing the first set.

As for Fritz, he acknowledged being "pissed" in the wake of the match. "I feel like I wasn't playing well the whole match, even when I won the first set," he said. "I got pretty lucky in the first set to win it, because I saved a lot of break points and then was able to convert on the only break point I had. And then the second set, I had my chances early [in the form of three break points in Laaksonen's first service game] and then after that -- after I blew those chances -- my serve was horrendous, everything fell apart, I was just playing awful."

Fritz, who was going for his third career Challenger title (all in the past two months) was quick to acknowledge his opponent's high level of play. "He was putting a lot of pressure on me, hitting a lot of big shots, so I didn't get a lot of breathing room to get my feel." 

Laaksonen noted that he was standing on the baseline on Fritz's second serve, which increased the pressure on his opponent. He had several winners or unplayable shots on return. "Every second serve I tried to step in and go for it. It's difficult to serve also if a guy is feeling the return, and I really felt it today."

Laaksonen has played Davis Cup for Finland and for Switzerland, but his best professional results have come during this post-US Open swing on American soil. Will we see him playing Davis Cup for the USA in the future? "I don't know if that works," he laughed. "But I really have enjoyed my time. I was here for 8 tournaments, I've had really great results already and then this week was really the crown for that."

It was the age of wisdom (for Paul Goebel), it was the age of foolishness (for coaches who overlooked his recruits), it was the epoch of belief (for David O'Hare and Joe Salisbury), it was the epoch of incredulity (for Austin Krajicek and Nicholas Monroe).

In another first, Joe Salisbury and David O'Hare won their initial Challenger title, 6-1 6-4 over #1 seeds Austin Krajicek and Nicholas Monroe. The final match completed a trifecta for the British/Irish duo, who beat the #2 seeds in the semifinals and the #3 seeds in the quarterfinals.

"It just means that we deserved it," said O'Hare. "I think we played the best tennis all week. We came up good at the right times. It feels great to beat all top three seeds en route to your first Challenger title. So obviously we're just ecstatic."

From left: Brad Dancer, Nicholas Monroe, Joe Salisbury, David O'Hare,
and Jim Tressler. © Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise

O'Hare and Salisbury first played together as freshmen at the University of Memphis, where coach Paul Goebel helped mold them into one of the best teams in college tennis. Goebel was in Champaign all week, and was with them in their warm-up on Saturday that was going until nearly the last minute before their match.

"They started much better than they did yesterday," said Goebel. "I think they were expecting a little better environment yesterday; there wasn't much energy, and they didn't do a very good job of creating the energy themselves, so they got a little bit of a slow start. So we talked last night about trying to come out with better energy from the start and they really did that."

Goebel also had them work on their serves immediately following their win yesterday, which seemed to help. "We definitely served a lot better today than we have in the last few matches," said Salisbury. "I think the other few matches -- quarters, semis -- we played well in those as well, but we didn't serve quite as well, so we had a bit of pressure on our service games. But today we served really well so we were holding pretty easily." In fact, they didn't face a break point or deciding point on their serves all match.

O'Hare summed up his team's week perfectly: "It was a fairy tale, to be honest."

It was the spring of hope (for Noah Rubin), it was the winter of despair (again for Taylor Fritz).

Maybe it was the first snowfall of the season that sunk the Americans, all of whom are from considerably warmer climates (California, Florida, and Oklahoma). Certainly the biggest beneficiaries of the day's action hail originally from colder areas: Helsinki, London, Dublin ... and New York.

Since no American was able to match his 80 points from the Charlottesville title in either Knoxville or Champaign, Empire Stater Noah Rubin was the winner of the USTA Pro Circuit Australian Open Wild Card. January will mark Rubin's second career grand slam main draw -- he was also in the 2014 US Open after winning that year's USTA Boys National Championship in Kalamazoo.

Fritz was sanguine about missing out on the wild card. His success this fall, after all, means he'll get into the qualifying draw in Melbourne come January. "I definitely don't see any problem with playing qualifying," he said. "Obviously you want to play main draw but it could even be better for you as far as development goes and earning it, so it could be a blessing in disguise."

As for this coming off-season, the loss seemed to provide immediate motivation for the world's #1-ranked junior. He said he'll be working on "a lot of fitness and movement. I want to get my legs and body a lot stronger, and then just tune up some things. I can't allow ... someone like me who's so dependent on my serve and forehand, I just can't let it go off like it did today, so I have to make sure stuff is always there. I'd say a lot of repetition on certain things, just adding maybe a couple of shots to my game, transition, backhand slice."

Based on how far he's come in the last year, an improved Taylor Fritz could mean trouble for the rest of the ATP come 2016.

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