Thursday, February 4, 2016

College tennis: a pathway to the Midland quarters

In a tournament featuring 19 of the top 30 American women in the Women's Tennis Association rankings, college players were the story of Thursday's second round action at the 2016 Dow Corning Tennis Classic in Midland, Michigan.

It's the largest tournament of its kind in the USA, and today it was a showcase for a few former college stars -- and one hopeful future college star. Irina Falconi, Robin Anderson, Jamie Loeb, and Alexandra Sanford all won their matches to ensure that one of them will appear in Sunday's final.

Two of last year's biggest college stars were big winners today: Robin Anderson (who was #1 seed in the NCAA singles tournament and helped UCLA to the team final) beat last year's #1 junior player CiCi Bellis 7-5 6-3 while Jamie Loeb (who won the 2015 NCAA singles title) upset the #5 seed, world #98 Lauren Davis 6-2 2-6 6-3.
Robin Anderson. © Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise

Bellis got out to a quick start, winning 13 of 14 points early in the match to go up 3-1. But Anderson got a quick hold, then converted her 5th break point of the 6th game to draw even. Another long game came with Bellis serving at 5-6 -- she went down 0-40 but served her way to deuce. But she never got to game point, and eventually Anderson broke for the set. The second set was even more of a grind, with some lung-busting rallies and impassioned play on both sides. Each woman tried to impose her game on the other, moving her opponent around before going in for the kill shot. Finally with Bellis serving at 3-4 40-15, the Californian started missing a bit more and Anderson broke and then served it out. "Maybe she felt like she had to go for more because I was making her play a lot of balls," said Anderson, who was thrilled with her win.

Loeb got out to a quick start in her match. "I was a little steadier in the first set. She was double faulting quite a bit, and I capitalized on that," said Loeb. "And then she came out strong in the second set," playing like the same player who gave Maria Sharapova problems in Melbourne last month. However, in the third set, Davis' level dipped again while Loeb kept the ball deep and cleaned up her errors.

The win was Loeb's first over a Top 100 opponent, a fact her coach informed her of after her match.

Jamie Loeb. © Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise

"I'm really happy and proud of myself for that. I definitely think this tournament has given me a lot of confidence and belief that I can play at this level, capable of beating these girls. I think overall, it's really help me mentally. I had a few bad tournaments in January, so being able to get these great wins is a great turnaround for me."

(Loeb's college team, the University of North Carolina, will be playing Friday morning at the ITA Team Indoor Championships in Madison, Wisconsin. UNC is playing at 10 a.m., and Loeb speculated that if she was first on, she'd treat it as if she was playing a dual match alongside them. However, she and Falconi will be playing the evening match in Midland.)

In the first match on Court 5, Alexandra Sanford (who will be joining UNC in the fall) took the first set from Alexa Glatch 6-4, and that was all she needed, as Glatch was forced to retire.

"Very excited. It's definitely one of my best results so far," said Sanford a bit understatedly. Having come through qualifying, she now has 5 wins on the week -- impressive for a player without a WTA ranking.

"I had no nerves. No pressure on myself. I served pretty well, was returning pretty well." Sanford and Glatch exchanged a couple of long holds early in the set before Sanford broke for 4*-2. In the next game, she had two game points, but double faulted on one and soon found the match back on serve. "It was obvious her knee was really bugging her. I wasn't staying in the moment so at that changeover I just really tried to get myself back together, regroup, and close it out after that."

Glatch has gone through a longer litany of injuries issues than perhaps any other Top 200 player. "I had arthroscopic surgery on it mid-December, and I had a lot of issues with it before that," she said. "It had gotten better, and I trained pretty hard last week and then the day before my first round it started getting more sore again, and it got worse during the match yesterday. Today I didn't really know if I'd be able to come out and play. It's really disappointing and frustrating.

"Maybe I tried to come back too soon. I wanted to play qualies at the Australian Open. I don't know ... some times it goes well and some times it doesn't. You can't really predict these things."

Next up for Sanford is Anderson.

Falconi made quick work of her match with Lauren Albanese, the 26-year-old qualifier who had been on a Cinderella run. Falconi staved off all 5 break points she faced en route to a 6-1 first set, then lost only 1 point on serve en route to a 6-1 second set.

"I was just really stingy," said Falconi. "Even at 6-1 5-1, if I lost I point I was like, 'C'mon, you've gotta make that.' The mentality and focus was there today. It didn't matter what she brought, I just stuck with the game plan, stuck with executing what I had to do. And it worked."

"Today I was inconsistent," said Albanese. "Going up against a player like her, you need to be playing quite well. I started off tight, tried to take the ball early and be aggressive, but the accumulation of the hours I spent on court the past few days caught up to me a bit. I was slow reacting to shots, not moving as well to play the game style I want to play. She's a great player and she senses that, which allows her to dictate more, and she did a great job of capitalizing on that."

Madison Brengle lost her 2nd set lead, but still pulled it out.
© Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise
In the top half of the draw, Madison Brengle (who plans to attend college after tennis) fought her way to a 6-4 6-4 win over Veronica Cepede Royg. Brengle was up 4-1* 30-0 in the second set and looked to be running away with the match. But out of nowhere, the Paraguayan won 8 straight points --mostly on missed Brengle forehands -- and got the set even at 4-4. It was reminiscent of her first round match against Taylor Townsend, when she came back from a break down in the third set to prevail.

Brengle said the for errors weren't due to suddenly losing her forehand form. "She changed up what she was doing. She started taking the pace off, and I had gotten in such a good rhythm with my hitting and I felt so good that when she took the pace off, I stopped moving as much as I needed to to be able to go after it. It wasn't that one shot went off -- it was that my feet went off, and that's kind of the basis of my game -- getting to the ball, getting behind the ball, and loading up. But then I changed what I was doing. I said to myself, 'Oh, well I can just roll some balls back in.'" And she did just that. After holding for 5-4, Brengle won a pair of 27-stroke rallies to get to 30-30 and two points later, was into the quarterfinals.

Brengle will play her good friend Naomi Broady in Friday's quarterfinal. Broady overcame 7 first set double faults and her opponent serving for the set, roaring back to beat Jovana Jaksic 7-6(5) 6-3. Brengle noted that the two hit together frequently, and stay at each other's houses when playing in their respective countries. "I've always known how good she was, and now it's starting to reflect in her rankings."

The other quarterfinal will feature Shelby Rogers against the Mayo Hibi, who played brilliant defensive and clutch tennis to beat Louisa Chirico 1-6 6-4 6-4. In at least 9 games in the final two sets, Chirico had game or break point but was unable to convert. Three times in the third set alone she had 15-40 on Hibi's serve but Hibi stayed mentally strong and used her slice (forehand and backhand) and movement to stay in rallies and often force the error from an impatient Chirico. She also showed the ability to hit some winners at the end: on match point, she finished with a cross-court forehand that completely wrong-footed Chirico.

Like on Tuesday, Rogers went down a set to her determined opponent, and this time she had the added obstacle of going down a break in the second set (yesterday she held from 0-40 in that first game of the second set). But she turned up her defense, found her movement, and overcame 17-year-old Raveena Kingsley 2-6 6-4 6-3.

"She came out playing really hot. She was overpowering me, to be honest," said Rogers. "So it just took me a little time to adjust. I started using my legs a little bit more, being a little more physical, and just trying to make one more ball, one more ball. I had to dig out a lot of really tough points, but it paid off in the end."

Shelby Rogers with the victory fist pump. © Jonathan Kelley
Both Broady and Rogers may have suffered a bit from the quick turnaround after their late-night doubles win on Wednesday (this blogger overheard them in the cool-down room commiserating, but smiling, about their slow starts). According to Rogers, "I was a little bit tired in the beginning for sure, but there are no excuses. Every player deals with things like that, and that's part of being a professional, we have to adjust to any circumstance. It's more about the fans, anyway, and I think they had a great night last night and that's awesome."

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