Monday, April 4, 2016

The Schneids of March

"Who says March is supposed to come in like a lion and go out like a lamb? That's a lot of bull. All it's done this March is rain. I'm sick of it." - Then Again, Maybe I Won't, Judy Blume

March 2016 was ... not a great month for American tennis. In fact, it stunk. It was a real poo-burger. A depressing amalgam of increasingly gut-wrenching losses in winnable matches for some of our best players.

It was a month that tried fans' patience.

March started out okay, truth be told. In Monterrey, qualifier Nicole Gibbs reached her first WTA quarterfinal (thanks in part to a retirement win over countrywoman Christina McHale) and that weekend John Isner and the Bryan Brothers powered the USA Davis Cup to a first-round win against host Australia. Super!

Then the tours moved to the USA. Home turf. A chance for Team America to shine at two of the biggest tournaments on the tennis calendar. And we did ... not so well.

American women went 16-16 in the Indian Wells main draw and 14-14 in Miami. That's 30 match wins, down from 36 in 2015. American men, meanwhile, went 10-16 in the desert and 7-14 on the beach -- 17 match wins compared to 21 last year.

The word "schneid" is short for "Schneider," a term that I just learned is used in gin, referring to losing all the hands. By no means did American pros lose all their matches in March -- hell, 47 match wins beats the 34 they got just 3 years ago at the same events -- but at times it felt like we were definitely on that darn schneid.

For the women, most disturbing was the number of upsets suffered by top women:

  •  Serena losing to Azarenka in Indian Wells and to Kuznetsova in Miami. 
  • Venus losing to Nara in Indian Wells and to Vesnina in Miami.  
  • Sloane losing to Bouchard in Indian Wells and to Watson in Miami. 
  • And while Madison Keys (who lost to Gibbs in Indian Wells) got a nice win in Miami against Roberta Vinci, she then really kind of flopped against Kerber. (Keys also began and ended a coaching relationship with Mats Wilander during March.)

This isn't from 2016 but is exactly how I felt most of March.
On the men's side, few of the losses were upsets. Outside of Sam Querrey giving up against Adrian Mannarino in Miami, there's no match you can look at and say a clear American favorite lost to a non-American underdog. Hard court losses to Berdych, Nishikori, Djokovic and Raonic are nothing to be too upset about. And while Isner's loss to Smyczek in a third set tiebreaker was remarkable, and likely led to his parting ways with his coach Justin Gimelstob, it had the flip effect of being a great win for Smee! But given that it was our courts, having only 1 man reach the 4th round at either event is dispiriting.

And for those who pay attention to such things, there were some disappointing performances in the Challengers and ITFs, with only a couple of bright spots: Michael Mmoh and Peter Kobelt each grabbed Futures titles, a couple of guys made Challenger semifinals, and Madison Brengle made a top-seeded run to win the Osprey $50K, a tournament that finished in April.

The one saving grace was that wonderful world of doubles. The best performance by far was from Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who became just the third player in history, after Natasha Zverev and Martina Hingis, to win Indian Wells and Miami back-to-back with different partners. One of those partners was CoCo Vandeweghe, who moved into the Top 20 this week. Vania King also had a great run, teaming with Alla Kudryavtseva to upset world #1s Hingis/Mirza in California and reach the quarters in both tournaments. And Maria Sanchez teamed with Petra Martic to reach her second career WTA final, in Monterrey.

On the men's side, Jack Sock got to the Indian Wells doubles final with Vasek Pospisil, and Rajeev Ram did the same in Miami with Raven Klaasen. (Both teams lost to Mahut/Herbert.) So that was nice.

Now comes April, and the notoriously difficult clay. Great. Already this past weekend, 6 of the 7 American women playing Charleston qualifying lost to Europeans in third sets, while the seventh, Samantha Crawford, had to withdraw with a broken hand. Ugh. Today, Christina McHale had a rough loss to Dominguez Lino to start the Charleston main draw, as did Irina Falconi (to 2009 champion Lisicki) and Shelby Rogers (to Laura Arruabarrena).

Further west, all four American men in the final round of Houston qualies lost, including Jared Donaldson in a third-set tiebreaker. Tough to get more depressing than that.

It's important to take the big picture with such stretches. American tennis is manifestly better than it was even two years ago. USA is still overall the best tennis nation. Wins will come - there's enough talent and I'm pretty sure the hunger is there. As I was finishing this article, Denis Kudla notched a rare third-set tiebreaker win for USA (and, you know, for himself) in the first round of Houston. That sets up a match against Isner and guarantees an American quarterfinalist.

A light shines.

Still ... the number of times I've thrown my phone in frustration with a final score over the past several weeks has been startlingly high. That's the problem when you dare invest anything emotionally in things that are completely outside your control. And I know this! I can't really be mad at the players -- their job is to play tennis, not make me feel better about my life choices. While a repeat of last year's three-finalist week between Charleston and Houston would be nice, I will cope even if the week turns out to be a disaster for America on both sites. I'm a survivor.

Maybe it's time for me to get a new hobby, something less intense, guaranteed to make me smile at the end. I heard there's an election this year....

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