Monday, November 16, 2015

Samantha Crawford: the Ultimate Wild Card

"Everyone has their own path, and it's not a straight shot forward. Sometimes you take a few steps forward, sometimes you've got to take a step back to take another step forward. That's the game of tennis." - Kathy Rinaldi on Samantha Crawford, April 2011

Wild card (n): A person ... whose influence is unpredictable or whose qualities are uncertain.

The term "wild card" comes from games such as poker that combine skill and chance. A wild card introduces additional levels of strategy and unpredictability to an already complex situation.

In tennis, it's hard to imagine anyone who better defines the term "wild card" than Samantha Crawford. The term has defined her opportunities, and achievements, for her entire career.

Today in Scottsdale, Arizona, Crawford secured the USTA's wild card for the 2016 Australian Open. Much like with her previous big career milestones, she came from seemingly nowhere to capture a highly sought-after prize. 

Samantha Crawford is the ultimate wild card.

This phenomenon started back in the juniors. In 2010 Crawford, a 15-year-old from Atlanta, won her first big junior tournament, the Eddie Herr 16s. She got into the main draw as a wild card.

It continued the following spring, when Crawford, upset Grace Min to reach the final of the 2011 USTA International Spring Championships, a Grade 1 tournament in Carson. It was the first time she had contested anything above a Grade 4. She faced Madison Keys in the final, and she won in straight sets. And yes, she was a wild card.

Samantha Crawford at 2014 Quebec City. © Jonathan Kelley
The next year and a half was up and down for Crawford -- some decent junior results but nothing earth-shattering, but also a random run to the final of the $50K ITF event in Yakima, Washington, where she lost in three sets to Shelby Rogers. That summer, she was #2 seed at the 2012 USTA Girls' National Championships, making her a decent bet to win the US Open women's singles main draw wild card, but fell in the quarterfinals to Brooke Austin, 7-5 in the third. 

As a consolation, Crawford received a wild card into the 2012 US Open women's qualifying tournament. And she qualified -- the only wild card to do so that year. (In the main draw, she lost 6-3 7-6(6) to Laura Robson, who subsequently beat Kim Clijsters in the latter's last career singles match.)

The next week, in the girls' draw, Crawford beat #11 seed Belinda Bencic in the second round (7-5 in the third) then beat Sachia Vickery 6-3 in the third, a match in which she was served a bagel in the first set and in which she had to be wheeled off court following her victory due to extremely tough conditions. She got a reprieve in the quarterfinals as Yulia Putintseva, who had beaten her in the previous year's junior Open, wasn't given medical clearance to play. And then she beat Antonia Lottner (4) and Anett Kontaveit (12) and was the 2012 US Open Girls' Singles Champion.

As a wild card.

Let's pause a moment to talk about Samantha Crawford, the player. Crawford is tall (6'2" they say), and she has a big serve, and she hits big, flat shots. She's not the best mover out there and she's prone to unforced errors (it comes with the game style). She's exactly the type of player who can catch lightning in a bottle. Ride her big serve to some big wins and ride those big wins to a comfortable living inside the Top 100. But Crawford seems to have lacked two things: a killer instinct, and consistency. She can finish points like nobody's business, but not necessarily matches. And she can do great at a tournament, but can't seem to put two great tournaments in near-proximity together.

Her first full year on the pro circuit was disappointing. She finished 2013 at #310 in the world. Only twice was she able to string together back-to-back match wins, once in a WTA qualifying event and once at a $25K. She also had some injury issues in the middle of the year, keeping her out of US Open qualies. 

2014 was far better: she reached 3 ITF semifinals in the first half of the year and was getting drubbed far less frequently; her losses were more likely to come in three sets last year, compared to straight sets in 2013. But her year-end ranking was only #293, a mere 17 spots higher than the year before.

Then came 2015. Crawford started out the year great, reaching the final of her first tournament, a $25K in Plantation, Florida -- only her second pro final. A few months later, her third career final: another $25K, in Raleigh, N.C.

A couple of months later and it was time for the USTA's US Open Wild Card Challenge: three $50Ks, whoever compiled the most points in two of them gets the coveted golden ticket. Crawford lost in the first round of Stockton. She then lost in the first round of Sacramento. When all was said and done, Crawford needed a final at the last event, in Lexington. She advanced to the quarters, where she went down a set to Jennifer Brady. She won that match, but in the semis went down a set to Julie Coin. In the second set, with tens of thousands of dollars of first-round US Open prize money on the line, she got it to a tiebreak, won that 7-5, and went on to win the third set 6-2.

Hello, wild card.

Things have gone pretty well for Crawford since then. Her first WTA quarterfinal in Quebec (in which she held a set-and-a-break lead against defending champion Mirjana Lucic-Baroni before falling in three sets) helped to counterbalance five first- and second-round ITF losses. 

But when the final stretch of the season rolled around, and the USTA's Australian Open Wild Card Challenge was upon us, things weren't looking so hot. Instead of playing the first leg in Macon, Georgia, she was up in Toronto playing indoors (she lost second round to eventual champion Jovana Jaksic). She played the second leg in Waco, Texas, but won only 3 games against Julia Boserup. Meanwhile, Nicole Gibbs and Anna Tatishvili had each reached a final and a quarterfinal, meaning only a title in Scottsdale would secure the wild card for Crawford.

Unseeded in Scottsdale, she would need to win her first pro singles title to capture that wild card and participate in the main draw of an overseas Grand Slam for the first time.

In the first round, she went down a set and 0-4 to Kristie Ahn. She got it back to 4-4 but was broken again and faced two match points at 4-5*. She won 4-6 7-6(6) 6-3.

In the semis, she went down a set to Macon champion Rebecca Peterson. At 4*-5 30-40 in the second set she again faced match point. She won 4-6 7-6(5) 7-6(2).

Finally, the final. The match started Sunday but was interrupted until today by rain (really?! In Scottsdale?!). Crawford won the first set, but dropped the middle set to Waco champion Viktorija Golubic. Crawford went up two breaks (3*-0) early in the third, but then started to falter, got broken, and suddenly it was 3*-2 0-30 and uh oh.

But really, uh oh for Golubic, who wouldn't win another game, actually tried a surprise underhand serve toward the end (Crawford hit a return winner), and fell 6-2. 

And there it was. Samantha Crawford won her first pro singles title, and secured her place in the Australian Open.

As a wild card.

Of course.

Thanks to Colette Lewis of Tennis Kalamazoo and her great archives, without which this article would not have been possible.


  1. I remember seeing her get through qualifying at the Open that year. I think she was down and out to Pelletier and made a big comeback if im not mistaken

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