Sunday, January 24, 2016

15 best all-American matches of 2015 (2nd half)

15 All-American matches that were both exhilarating wins and heartbreaking losses

Here is the fourth and final installment of the 2015 On the Rise (a tennis blog) awards series. Read Parts 1 (MVPs), 2 (Exhilarating Wins), and 3 (Heartbreaking Losses). Each match represented both a triumphant victory for Team USA, and a crushing defeat for selfsame team.

Did we miss any? Let us know in comments!

Frances Tiafoe, Boys 18s champion. (c) Jonathan Kelley
1. USTA Boys 18s National Championships F: Frances Tiafoe d. Stefan Kozlov 6-2 6-4 4-6 4-6 6-4: This was a peach. One of the most memorable matches I've seen in person. Two friends who had already made the transition to the bigs, coming back for one last shot at juniors glory. Born 12 days apart, one in Macedonia to Russian parents, one in Maryland to Sierra Leonean parents; having been tagged for a half-decade as great hopes of American men's tennis, the two seemed destined to meet on that lovely Sunday in August. They marched through one of the best fields in tournament history to get to the final, with of course the payoff being a ticket to the main draw of the US Open.

And they put on a four-hour, five-set masterpiece, full of turns, twists, and tension galore, plus plenty of great shotmaking. You can watch the whole thing here, and if you haven't done so yet, go check out The Tennis Nerds' recap.

2. US Open QF: Serena Williams d. Venus Williams 6-2 1-6 6-3. Serena had already gotten a run for her money by an American: Bethanie Mattek-Sands in the third round, against whom the world #1 survived 3-6 7-5 6-0. Then she beat then-#2 American Madison Keys 6-3 6-3 to set up her third consecutive all-American match ... but this time it wasn't just any American opponent. It was her best friend and sister, the woman with whom she had shared everything the world had to throw at her. Was it possible that the younger sister's momentous quest for the calendar slam would be derailed by the older sister? After Venus took the second set with a breadstick, many wondered. But Serena raced out to a 3-0 lead and hung on (you can read the game-by-game Guardian coverage here). Who knows, maybe the occasion took something out of Serena, who inexplicably lost to Roberta Vinci in the semis.

3. Charlottesville Challenger F: Noah Rubin d. Tommy Paul 3-6 7-6(7) 6-3. This was a big deal for both players, and yet it seemed like it would be a blowout. The younger Paul raced out to a 6-3 5-1* lead and had match point on Rubin's serve. The New Yorker's fantastic run through qualifying into the final had seemingly come to an end at the hand of a ruthless, almost robotic foe. But then the import of the match may have gotten into Paul's head a bit (the winner would have a big lead in the race to the Australian Open wild card), and that was all Rubin needed. The result would prove crucial, as neither player was able to pick up another win during the indoor challenger swing, and Noah ended up with the wild card, which he used to upset Benoit Paire at the Australian Open in straight sets.

4 & 5 (tie). Stockton $50K QR2: Jacqueline Cako d. Tori Kinard 6-7(17) 6-3 6-4 and Macon $50K R1: Jacqueline Cako d. Michaela Gordon 4-6 7-5 7-6(4). Two great wins for the former Arizona State University Sun Devil. The first took place in the California summer, lasting over 3.5 hours and one of the more incredible tiebreak scores you'll see. The second took place in the Georgia autumn, lasting 4 hours and 18 minutes, and saw the teenaged Gordon serve for the match twice (and hold two match points). Unfortunately for Cako, she lost the next match she played in each case.

6. Columbus Challenger F: Chase Buchanan & Blaz Rola d. Eric Quigley & Mitchell Krueger 6-4 4-6 [19-17]. (The one match on this list featuring a non-American in Rola the Slovenian.) On home soil for the victors (they became a champion-level duo on those courts in college), in a rowdy atmosphere (for an American challenger), and featuring a truly epic tiebreak that was nearly all first serves until the very end ... what a way to win a title. Particularly impressive given that Buchanan played hurt for much of the second half of last year. Enjoy!

7. Atlanta SF: John Isner d. Denis Kudla 4-6 6-2 7-5. It was a match that showed the world that Kudla could compete at a high level on a surface other than grass. After his remarkable 12-2 grass court swing, Kudla qualified for his next event on the hard courts of Atlanta, then beat his fellow 1992ers Ryan Harrison and Jack Sock to reach his first ATP semifinal. The match was seemingly close until the end, but Kudla was serving second, and Isner dropped only 6 points on serve in the third. On ad-out at 5*-6, Kudla hit a forehand error and that was it. Good match with high stakes: not much more you can ask for. (Isner would go on to win the final against Marcos Baghdatis.)

8. Washington DC SF: John Isner d. Steve Johnson 6-3 3-6 7-6(9). The following week, another good match with high stakes. Johnson, like Kudla before him, was seeking his first ATP final. And like Kudla, he lost a tough one -- but in this case he had multiple match points, including one on his serve at 6*-4 in the BUSTER. That point featured a 15-stroke rally and a big Isner cross-court forehand that Johnson tried to steer down the line for a winner but missed. (Isner would go on to lose the final against Kei Nishikori.)

9. Eddie Herr 3R: Kylie McKenzie d. Hanna Chang 4-6 7-5 7-5.  Colette Lewis called this her #1 all-American junior girls match of the second half, so we're including it. McKenzie came back from a break in the second set and was down match point at 1*-5 30-40 in the decider, but roared back to win the last 6 games. Interestingly, this happened the same day as Canada's Felix Auger-Aliassime saved 2 match points in his third-round match. He also would go on to win the title. Here's Colette's coverage of that magical day.

10. Tiburon Challenger F: Tim Smyczek d. Denis Kudla 1-6 6-1 7-6(7). The first two sets weren't much to write home about, but the third set was wonderful, and the tiebreaker was FANTASTIC. Smyczek saved 4 match points and then set up his own second match point with a screaming forehand that just clipped the line. Well worth a watch. (In a you-can't-make-this-stuff-up encore, Smee would go on to win his next match, at the Sacramento Challenger over Frances Tiafoe, in a third set tiebreaker that was also 9-7, saving 2 more match points.)

11. Tiburon Challenger 2R: Mackenzie McDonald d. Sekou Bangoura 6-3 3-6 7-6(3). While we're in California, let's include this rip-roarer, in which McDonald won 6 games in a row, then Bangoura won 8 in a row, then Bangoura had match point but McDonald came up with a highlight-reel forehand pass into the corner, then the UCLAer reached his second challenger quarterfinal. Watch at 1:59:30.

12. Quebec City R1: Jessica Pegula d. Nicole Gibbs 1-6 7-6(2) 7-6(4). The New Yorker was down 1-6 2-5 0-40 and Gibbs served for the match again in the 3rd set. Very tough one for the Stanfordian (Stanfordite?), but great for Pegula, who had a nearly two-year layoff due to knee injury. Crazily, she would go on to lose her 2nd round match, to Jelena Ostapenko, in yet another BUSTER -- and this time she twice attempted to serve for the match. Tennis giveth ...

13. Scottsdale $50K 1R: Samantha Crawford d. Kristie Ahn 4-6 7-6(6) 6-3. The "Ultimate Wild Card" used this victory to carry herself to her first career pro title and the Australian Open wild card.  She saved 2 match points in this match and would save 2 more in the semis. Brava!

14. USA F22/Godfrey, Ill. F: Michael Mmoh d. Jared Hiltzik 6-3 3-6 7-5. For the reaction on match point.

Bobby Knight of College Tennis Today had a thorough recap of the match with lots more video.

15 USTA Girls 18s National Championships F: Sofia Kenin d. Tornado Alicia Black 6-2 5-7 7-5. We opened with a USTA junior national championship, so let's close with one. J. Fred Sidhu had the story on this one, which unfortunately wasn't streamed. But it took 3 hours, had the same carrot in a US Open wild card that the boys championships had, and apparently was a terrific contest. Here's to at least getting a stream for future Girls Nationals!

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