Saturday, November 21, 2015

Champaign Punch: Fritz to play for Australian Open wild card

Fifteen times Mackenzie McDonald had break point against Taylor Fritz.

Fifteen times, Taylor Fritz saved break point.

In large part because of that statistic, Fritz beat McDonald 6-7(4) 6-2 6-2 and now finds himself in the final of the 2015 JSM Challenger of Champaign-Urbana, the final ATP challenger of the year, and the last leg of the USTA Pro Circuit Australian Open Wild Card Challenge. If he wins on Saturday against Henri Laaksonen, he will secure the USTA's reciprocal wild card to the Australian Open. If Laaksonen wins, it will go to Noah Rubin. Big stakes.

Fritz also saved all 5 break points he faced in his quarterfinal against Malek Jaziri, and all 3 in the final set of his second round match against Daniel Evans, bringing his streak to 23 straight. What's the deal?

"I just tell myself on break points, especially when it's even -- if I'm up a break sometimes it's not as easy to do this -- but I just tell myself, 'I can't lose this. Losing the point is just not a possibility,'" said Fritz. "I need to make him play but at the same time just apply a lot of pressure. I think it's just the sense of urgency that makes me that one step quicker, my shots a little bit steadier, my focus a little bit better. You'll notice my serve is probably the highest percentage on break points."

Fritz started the match playing a little more passively than fans have become accustomed, in the hope that McDonald would give him some free points. Instead, McDonald played at a high level, going toe-to-toe with Fritz on offense and defense, and finishing well at the net.

In the first set tiebreak, "I was really frustrated because I had told myself to be aggressive, and I just gave it to him," lamented Fritz. "But it helped me get my targets and feel with going for those big shots; so I came out in the beginning of the second set ready to be more aggressive and unload on the shots. Instead of moving the ball or placing it, I went for the winner, which you have to do against him because he's so fast."

Fritz served at just 45% for the match, but didn't sound too concerned about that statistic. "Mackie did a really good job attacking my second serve. Not a lot of people can do that. I think I can get by [with a relatively low first serve percentage] if the first serves I'm making are very strong first serves that are winning me the point 80-90% of the time."

In the 18-point final game, Fritz saved his final three break points and finally won with a perfect forehand lob that landed on the baseline. He let out a big yell. The win was his.
It's the third challenger final for Fritz, all on US hard courts, and all since the 2015 US Open. Next up is Laaksonen, the talented Swiss who reached the semis in Charlottesville before losing to Rubin, and who now is in his first career challenger final (and first singles final at any level since 2012).

Fritz and Laaksonen played earlier this fall in the first round of the Fairfield Challenger. Fritz won that match 6-2 6-3, the first of five straight-set wins to secure the then-17-year-old American his second consecutive Challenger final. Fritz says he is aware that the Swiss is "a lot better indoors, so I'm not going to try to assume too many things from that match."

Clay Thompson. © Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise
Laaksonen beat McDonald's former UCLA teammate Clay Thompson 5-7 6-3 7-6(2), the third straight match in which he's come back from a set down to win. Like McDonald, Laaksonen had trouble converting break points, going 14/15 until 5-5 in the 3rd set, when he finally was able to break and serve for the match. However, at 6-5 he played an admittedly nervous game, double faulted on break point, and into a third-set tiebreaker they went.

The first point of the tiebreaker, Thompson said, was the "tell" of the match. "I put pretty much everything I had into that point, ripped a couple of forehands, he stuck with me and won it." Laaksonen followed up with two strong serves and secured another minibreak to go up 4-0, and the rest was pretty much a foregone conclusion.

Like McDonald, Thompson was a qualifier, meaning he was playing his 7th match in 7 days. He said he woke up feeling like he could have used a day off. But he gave all credit to Laaksonen. "I think really he deserved to win the match. From the ground he was winning pretty much every point. I was really just relying on my serve to bail me out. He's a great player. I think he matches up well against me."

As for going down a set in three straight matches, Laaksonen said, "At least I get the practice if I play always three sets, I start to play always better and better" as the match progresses.

Laaksonen came to the US in September with the goal of getting direct entry into Australian Open qualifying. With his win Friday, he's provisionally up to #232 in the rankings. Mission accomplished. But he's still got plenty to play for -- including Rubin's wild card (although Laaksonen made it clear that he always only plays for himself).

Krajicek/Monroe vs. Salisbury/O'Hare for doubles title

The two doubles matches were entertaining affairs. In the evening session, top seeded Americans Austin Krajicek and Nicholas Monroe beat JP Smith and Joshua Milton 7-6(3) 6-2.

Monroe was broken early in the first set, but the team broke Milton in the next game and didn't face another break point in the match. In the second set, they lost only two points on serve and broke Milton twice more (thanks in part to several double faults), cruising to their second career final as a team. Monroe said he and Krajicek are planning to play together at the 2016 Australian Open.

Monroe and Krajicek. © Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise
In the afternoon session, Joe Salisbury and David O'Hare, from Great Britain and Ireland respectively, upset #2 seeds Frederik Nielsen and Johan Brunstrom 4-6 7-6(2) [10-8] to reach their first challenger final. I sat down with O'Hare for a Q&A after their quarterfinal win, and today I had a quick chat with Salisbury.

On the Rise: Is this the biggest result of your pro career?

Joe Salisbury: Biggest doubles win, definitely. I think yesterday in the quarterfinal was as well. It was the biggest team we'd beaten and today was even higher.

OTR: What was your mentality going into the second set tiebreak, after O'Hare was broken serving for the set at 5-3? 

JS: Try to forget about that game. We knew we still had a good chance; we were still playing pretty well.

OTR: You had two return winners in that tiebreak. Is that a part of your game you pride yourself on?

JS: Not usually, that's probably one of the weakest part of my game, and usually my serve is my strongest. But today I didn't serve that well, but I returned well. In the tiebreak, I came out with some good ones which helped us win.

OTR: When you went down a late minibreak in the third set, was there ever a point at which you said "this is probably it, we had a good run"?

JS: Not really. You never know in the match tiebreak, the momentum can change so much. We were 3-6 down, I think, but in a match tiebreak that's nothing, it's only one minibreak of serve. So we knew if we just hung in there, we could easily come back from it.

OTR: What did Paul Goebel [their coach at the University of Memphis, who was in attendance] talk about with you after the match?

Joe Salisbury dropped his balls. Paul Goebel and David
O'Hare look on. © Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise
JS: We were just talking about a few of the things we did well -- we did quite a lot of things well -- just went out there and hit a few serves, because our first serve percentage wasn't that high and they had a lot of chances ... had looks on our second serves and put a lot of pressure on our service games. So I think that's one thing we can improve tomorrow, is if we can serve a bit better, we can hold serve a little bit easier.

OTR: Did you think as a freshman that you'd be getting to challenger finals with O'Hare six or seven years later?

JS: I don't think we thought that would happen our freshman year when we started playing together. But definitely when we were playing our senior year we had some great stuff, and we knew we wanted to keep playing after. So I think we knew we definitely had this level in us, and I think we can keep getting better and improve a lot of things, so I think this is just the start for us.

OTR: Should [Britain's Davis Cup captain] Leon Smith call you in case he needs an emergency back-up for next week's tie? 

JS: [Laughs.] I would obviously love to be in consideration for that but there are so many great doubles players for Great Britain that I think I'd have to improve a lot and get my ranking a lot higher to get close for contention for Davis Cup.

OTR: O'Hare is lucky. There aren't a lot of others he has to compete with.

JS: Yeah, I mean, there's not a huge amount of Irish tennis players but it's great for him to have that experience to play Davis Cup. I mean, it's amazing, he's played 3 or 4 ties, so obviously that's something I'd love to do in the future if I can get good enough.

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