Wednesday, February 3, 2016

BUSTERS carry the day at Midland

💥💥BUSTER💥💥 (n.): A third-set tiebreak.

One of them had to travel halfway around the world to get here, another had to travel about half that far, but for both Raveena Kingsley and Madison Brengle, the journey proved well worth it as they won their first round matches at the $100,000 2016 Dow Corning Tennis Classic in Midland, Michigan.

Both players brought some serious drama along with them, as they won their first round matches against fellow Americans in third-set tiebreaks.

Kingsley, who received a Special Exempt entry into the tournament after reaching the final of the $50K in Maui, upset #4 seed Anna Tatishvili 7-5 1-6 7-6(4) in over 2.5 hours. In the third set, Kingsley struggled to hold serve, fending off break points at 1-1 and 3-3 and getting pushed to deuce twice at 2-2. But time after time she would come up with a big serve in the big moment, or finish the point with a winner. Tatishvili, meanwhile, motored through her first three service games, dropping just a point in each game. But at 3-4, she hit a couple of double faults and found herself down break point. Then another. And another. Six in total, in fact. For the first five, Kingsley struggled to impose her game, but eventually she converted to serve for the match. That didn't go so well, however, and a few games later, the BUSTER.
Raveena Kingsley. © Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise

"I played some tough three-setters" in Maui, said Kinglsey. "I was feeling a little tired but just wanted to push myself." She said she felt calm the entire match, and that was clearly the case on match point, when she calmly hit a return winner.

Kingsley is done playing juniors, choosing instead to focus on building her WTA ranking. She has committed to LSU "as a back-up" but says she really wants to go pro.

A player who several years ago faced a similar dilemma was the big winner in Wednesday's night match. Madison Brengle, now 25, had considered the University of Florida but after some stunning junior success (she reached the Australian Open and Wimbledon girls' finals in 2007) went the pro route. It's been a bit of a circuitous path since then but she says she's happy with the path she took. 

Circuitous would be an apt word for her Midland match against Asia Muhammad. Several times Brengle looked headed for the exit, down a set and a break in the second, then an early break in the third, then twice having Muhammad serve for the match at 5-4 and 6-5 in the third. But in the tight moments, Muhammad's line-clippers were going long or finding the net, while Brengle stopped giving anything away. In their BUSTER, Muhammad went up an early break, but then after having hit several great overheads throughout the match, duffed one in the net and never recovered. Brengle won 4-6 6-4 7-6(4).

Madison Brengle. © Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise
"She's an incredibly good player," said Brengle of Muhammad. "She moves well, she covers so much court; I felt like to put the way I had to hit more than one winner. She's so fast, she was hitting the ball big and painting some lines. She serves well, she volleys well ... so I feel like she was doing everything extremely well tonight, so I had to just gut out a couple of really close games in the second set. And then the tiebreaker, I stopped putting the ball quite so short in the court and tried to get as much depth as I could, and that's how I got the minibreak back."

Brengle noted that like many women, Muhammad's ranking of #220 does not reflect her level. "You saw how she was playing from 1-4 down in the first set. She could beat any Top 100 player playing like that. She's an incredibly good tennis player. Playing these [ITF] tournaments, you have to make it so far every week to break through," a fact of life with which Brengle is all too familiar.

January was a big test for Brengle, as she was faced with the prospect of her 2015 Hobart final points and 2015 Australian Open 4th round points coming off. By reaching the third round last month in Melbourne, she went a long way toward keeping her ranking from catering, and kept herself well inside the Top 100. "Relieved," is how she said she felt about her trip to Australia.

Brengle noted she is now being coached on the road (although not in Midland) by Julie Coin, the Frenchwoman and former Top 60 player who went to college at Clemson. Asked whether she ever wished she had gone to college, Brengle said that ship had not sailed: "I do plan on going to college. I'll do it after I finish playing, because I want to be able to fully commit when I go to college and really focus on it. I'm glad I turned pro -- it's amazing what we get to do -- but I will be going to college."

Qualifiers continuing their success

Maybe it's the fact that they had three extra days to get the feel of the courts. Maybe it's a testament to the depth of (American) women's tennis. Maybe it was the confidence that comes with winning. Maybe it was just good match-ups.

Whatever the reason, 3 of the 4 Midland qualifiers won their first-round matches today: Alexandra Sanford, Jamie Loeb, and Lauren Albanese. Each player is at a different stage of her career, but all three showed a willingness to go for shots in close moments and (this is a big part) the shots went in.

17-year-old Sanford, from adjoining Ohio, is the youngest of the three and is playing her first-ever
professional singles main draw. She upset Jennifer Brady 3-6 6-2 6-1 in just over 2 hard-hitting hours. The second set featured several multiple-deuce games, and the confidence Sanford earned in staying with Brady helped carry her to the win. "I just kind of went for it," she said. "I wanted to try to have no regrets."

Against a powerful hitter like Brady, she also had to play strong defense. "I have been working on my defense and my movement a lot, and I felt I was able to get back into the point, neutralize it, and get the ball deep." But given her impressive weaponry, Sanford will always be a strike-first player. Sanford says she is "for sure" still committed to the University of North Carolina this fall.

Jamie Loeb. © Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise
UNC, of course, is where Jamie Loeb played for two years before finishing her career with an individual title at the NCAAs in June. The New Yorker was understandably very happy with her 6-3 6-2 win over Julia Boserup: it was her first win in the main draw of a tournament since beating Kelly Chen at the $50K in Sacramento in July. Part of that was due to an injury that took her out of action for a few months after the US Open. She also struggled on the Florida green clay in the first month of 2016, so a change of scenery has definitely benefited her. "I think the indoor hard is really suiting my game right now," she said.

20-year-old Loeb trained alongside Noah Rubin at the McEnroe Academy in New York. Both went to college in North Carolina (Loeb for two years at UNC; Rubin for one at Wake Forest) and both reached the NCAA individual final this past June (Loeb won her match, Rubin fell just short in his). She said they push each other, and is pleased that both of their games are coming along (Rubin of course notched a win over Top 20 player Benoit Paire at the Australian Open), even though they're very different types of games.

26-year-old Lauren Albanese squeezed past Bernarda Pera 7-5 7-6(3). To say Albanese is having a dream tournament is a massive understatement: she hadn't won a match at a tournament above a $50K since 2010. I'll have a fuller profile of Albanese's journey in the coming days.

The one qualifier and teen who didn't record a victory on Wednesday was Michaela Gordon, who never found her groove in falling 6-1 6-3 to Robin Anderson. Gordon sailed through qualifying with two double bagels, but Anderson, the former UCLA star from New Jersey, presented a much sterner foe. Anderson served great, struck her backhand solidly, and came to net effectively, and survived a short hiccup when she gave up her second set break. Gordon never really got her teeth into the match.

Like Loeb, Anderson had struggled on the Florida green clay last month, failing to win a match in January. "This is great for me," a smiling Anderson said of the move indoors. When asked if she wished there were more indoor events, she said, "I personally think there should be more indoor tournaments because I like it, but I know most of the world doesn't play indoor tennis, so it is what it is."

Robin Anderson (L) and Michaela Gordon. © Jonathan Kelley
In other action...

In the first two matches on Stadium Court, #3 seed Irina Falconi beat Lucky Loser Nadja Gilchrist 6-4 6-1. 5th seed Lauren Davis beat Sachia Vickery 6-2 2-0 when an achilles injury forced Vickery to retire. Alexa Glatch upset #7 seed Samantha Crawford 6-3 6-2.

Shelby Rogers came from behind to beat Maria Sanchez 4-6 6-1 6-3. The first key game in the match came at 0-0 in the second set, when Rogers held from 0-40 and then rolled the rest of the set. "I just tried to be more physical. Use my legs a little more. She was pushing me back, so just trying to hurt her with some of my groundstrokes."  The second key game came at 3-3 in the third. After several tough holds from each player, Sanchez hit three double faults to open the game and never recovered. She only won two more points the rest of the match.

In the sole match featuring a non-American, Naomi Broady struck 18 aces to beat #6 seed Nicole
Gibbs 6-5 7-6(4). Gibbs faced only one break point in the match, but unfortunately it came set point down. The tiebreaker also featured an overrule on an out call at 2-2 that would have given Gibbs a minibreak. You can see the replay at, at 1:21:40 and make the call for yourself.

Line calling has been a recurring complaint from some players this week. Brengle had a running dialogue going with her chair umpire, and with courts this quick it's made things tough. Fortunately, the quality of play, tournament hospitality, and exceptional community support have, for the most part, made up for any shortcomings.

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