Thursday, November 19, 2015

Champaign Supernova: Clay Thompson's makes his first Challenger semifinal

Clay Thompson is playing with house money.

He's also playing with discarded racquets.

The former #1-ranked college player and 2014 All-American had a bit of a rough go of it coming out of UCLA. He started last summer with a wild card to the Newport ATP tournament, but got trounced by former USC star Steve Johnson. He then failed to qualify for any of the seven Challengers he entered, and won only 3 main draw Futures matches. Thompson finished 2014 ranked #1612.

This year was going a little better for him, at least at the Futures level. He reached a quarterfinal in March, then in his next tournament, in June, he won a Futures in Mexico. This summer, he reached a semifinal and final at Futures in Illinois, but he still struggled at the Challenger level, falling in the first or second round of qualifying in all five tournaments he played.

After losing 4&2 to Stefan Kozlov in Charlottesville qualies, Thompson's coach, Scott Bailey, decided his charge needed a change. So when they got to Knoxville last week, they rummaged through a pile of donation racquets and found three that they decided could work. Although he lost a tight match in the second round of qualies to Henri Laaksonen, he's playing the tennis of his life at the Champaign Challenger. He qualified, won two rounds to reach the quarterfinals, and today upset #2 seed Austin Krajicek 4-6 7-5 6-3 to reach the semifinals where he'll face Laaksonen again.

"To beat two players back-to-back [Krajicek and Blaz Rola] who I really consider to be solid ATP-level players is a real boost to my confidence," said Thompson. "The whole consensus with me and my team, pretty much my entire career was that I had the talent, I had the physical attributes to do it, it's just a matter of getting my head in the right place, making sure my habits were good.

"I'm so thankful to everyone who supported me, even when I was 2000 in the world this time last year and everyone was like 'yeah, he's got a good game but there are a lot of other problems with him.'"

When asked what he was thinking after the first set, Thompson said he was surprisingly in a good place. "I felt that I was not playing particularly well, and I was still in the match. On his service games, I was like, 'I can play with this guy. I can break this guy.'" From then on, Thompson, combined his massive serve with a more solid backhand, excellent put-away volleys, and sometimes deadly forehand to take control of the match. And he definitely kept the crowd entertained with his on-court presence.

"I would prefer to come off the court and have 100 people come up to me and say, 'That I paid good money for.' I would take that over being Top 100 in the world," Thompson said. "I just want to come out and give everyone a good show. That's fun for me. Just the thrill of competing is what I go for." Asked whether he had left everything out on the court all week, Thompson said, "Definitely. And that's something that I can't say I've always done in the past. So that's a real stepping stone for me."

The Thompson/Krajicek match was the lone quarterfinal contest that had no impact on the USTA Pro Circuit Australian Open Wild Card Challenge (USTAPCAOWCC). Krajicek is likely already safe for the main draw, and a title would have left no doubt. Thompson, should he win the title, would be tied in the standings with Noah Rubin but the New Yorker would win the tiebreak based on a higher ranking -- Thompson would be a measly 3 ATP points behind. While perhaps disappointing for him, it means he has less pressure than the two other Americans left in the draw.

In the top half of the draw, Thompson's former UCLA teammate, junior Mackenzie McDonald had a relatively straightforward 7-5 6-1 win over Mitchell Krueger, who was also in the USTAPCAOWCC running.

"I think this place owes it to the Bruins after we lost our NCAA final here" in 2013, the #461-ranked McDonald said with a smile. McDonald said he was following the score in Thompson's match while he was on court against Krueger. "I knew when match point came, [Thompson] was going to do something crazy. So I had to be ready to stay focused on my match and make sure I wasn't in the middle of a point when that was happening."

Taylor Fritz signs an autograph after his win.
(c) Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise
In the night match, Taylor Fritz saved 5 break points in the first game of the match, and from there lost only 3 games in a 6-1 6-2 dismantling of top seed Malek Jaziri, who seemed to struggle with some sort of illness, stopping play at one point to splash water on his face from the bucket of drinks on the sideline. But Jaziri struggled far more with Fritz's blistering power and hustling defense.

What was going through Fritz's mind during that 10+ minute first game? "Man, if I keep having games like this, I'm going to miss Thursday Night Football."

So on Friday evening, Fritz and McDonald will be playing for a lot in their semifinal. Whichever one wins the battle of the Californians will play in Saturday's final. A win on Saturday and that young man will be in his first Grand Slam main draw in January. A loss on Saturday, and Rubin will have the wild card.

(The two players have played once before, in January at the USA F2 Futures on the USC campus. Fritz won 6-3 6-4.)

In the first match of the day, Eric Quigley came into Wednesday still alive in the USTAPCAOWCC, and was looking good up a set against Laaksonen. But the 23-year-old Finland-born Swiss came back with a vengeance, winning the last two sets 6-0 6-1 to reach his second semifinal of this three-tournament indoor swing.

Laaksonen started out sluggish, while Quigley continued the fine play that got him into the quarterfinals. Then everything changed, and fast. The second set was a blur: Laaksonen's error count dwindled as he won 100% of his first serve points and 100% of Quigley's 2nd serve points. In fact, Quigley won only 8 points the whole set.

The third set read 6-1 but it was much more competitive early on. Quigley got to deuce in Laaksonen's first service game and reached break point on Laaksonen's second service game, but a steely inside-in forehand from Laaksonen landed plum on the line and two points later he held for 2-1. Laaksonen broke Quigley in the next game and from there used his excellent movement to frustrate an increasingly aggressive Quigley, whose errors continued to mount.

Laaksonen has gone 20-7, including qualifying matches, since coming to the US in September to play Challengers. He has improved his ranking from #355 to a provisional #257, within shot of the Australian Open qualies. "That was the goal in September when I came here," said Laaksonen, prior to scouting the Thompson/Krajicek match. "I knew it was going to be difficult. I'm getting closer but I still have to win matches to be sure." A win against Thompson would get him to ~#231.

And after Champaign, to help seal the deal, Laaksonen will be traveling to Waco, Texas to play the USA F34 Futures there. Other Champaign contestants heading there include Daniel Nguyen and Sekou Bangoura.

Oh, and Clarence "Clay" Thompson. As Thompson put it, "I'm going to ride this wave for as long as possible."

Surf's up.

No comments:

Post a Comment