Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Top Team USA Headlines from the First Half of 2016

Top ten USA storylines, First Half

1. Serena Can't Catch-22 (Yet)

After winning the first three major titles in 2015, completing her second Serena Slam and setting up the
incredible drama of attempting a calendar slam, the question of when Serena Williams would match Steffi Graf's Open Era record of 22 majors seemed almost academic. And yet ... and yet the World #1 since February 8, 2013 has now found herself on the losing side of a slam semifinal and, this year, two finals. The finals losses were something she'd only experienced 4 times in her prior 25 major finals and never in her prior 6 Australian Open or 3 French Open finals.

In Australia, it seemed that nerves may have been as big a factor as Angelique Kerber's impressive play in a 6-4 in the third loss. In Paris, Serena was clearly hamstrung by an injury, but even so, GarbiƱe Muguruza was playing at a high level worthy of a major champion (and having been in a final before, she wasn't overwhelmed by the moment).

Despite these stumbles, Williams will be a strong favorite at Wimbledon and, likely, the US Open. 22 still feels like a given, just a tiny bit less of a given than it did 11 months ago.

Serena did get one title in the first half, in Rome, where she beat Madison Keys 7-6(5) 6-3 in the final. The title keeps alive her 10-year WTA title streak.

2. Sloane, in the Zone, Thrice Claims Throne

It was once said, in the olden days of tennis, that Sloane Stephens was the best player not to reach a WTA final. Now she can't lose one.

Last summer, she won Washington, DC last summer, and then this year she beat all comers -- including Caroline Wozniacki in the Auckland semifinals, Dominika Cibulkova in a thrilling Acapulco final, and Angelique Kerber via retirement in the Charleston semifinal -- to win three more titles.

Sloane is now back in the Top 20, for the first time since her Wimbledon 2013 quarterfinal points came off in July 2014.

Weirdly, it's been nearly a year since Stephens has won more than 2 matches in any tournament she hasn't won: At 2015 Eastbourne she beat 3 players and got a walkover from Daria Gavrilova before falling to Aga Radwasnska in three sets in the semis. It's really been an odd pattern, and something to pay attention to in the second half.

3. Fritz Pits Don't Schvitz

Taylor Fritz is a very good player. He has an excellent serve befitting his 6'4" frame, can pound the forehand and is very comfortable as well on the backhand side. Most impressively, he rarely seems to sweat in big moments.

Last fall, after winning the Junior US Open, he broke through on the pro tour in a big way, winning back-to-back challengers. Then at the Australian Open, he overcame a 0-4 in the third deficit against Mischa Zverev to qualify and, once there, pushed Jack Sock to a fifth set.

But the thing is: he's still only 18. It remains very difficult to succeed at the ATP level as a teenager, no matter your skill set. To wit: only 3 teens are currently in the ATP Top 140. Fritz is one of them, thanks to his prior work in the challengers, and then a fantastic run to the Memphis final as a wild card.

It's important not to get too carried away just yet. (As I write this, Fritz just lost a tough match to a qualifier on grass in Halle.) But he seems to have a good head on his shoulders, strong competitive drive, and those big, big weapons. Good things await the kid ... including matrimony.

4. Falconi Crests 

The same weekend that an earthquake was devastating her birth city of Portoviejo, Ecuador, Irina Falconi won two three-setters over Spanish women to reach her first WTA final, then win her first WTA title in Bogota, Colombia. In winning the tournament, Falconi, who attended Georgia Tech for 2 years, became the first WTA titlist who was also a former college player since Lisa Raymond (Florida) won the 2003 Memphis tournament.

Falconi and her boyfriend, Travis Hartman, have raised over $25,000 for UNICEF to help with earthquake relief.

5. Shelby Comin' Round the Mountain

Shelby Rogers has a big game that has proven itself to shine brightest on clay. She knows how to move on the surface, she's good at constructing points, and has shown a willingness to gut out longer points with defense, hustle, and variety when necessary. Back in 2014, she made her first WTA final seemingly out of nowhere on the clay in Bad Gastein, Austria as a qualifier, beating Carla Suarez Navarro, Camila Giorgi, and Sara Errani before losing to Andrea Petkovic. This year she got to the Rio final, also on clay, falling to Francesca Schiavone in three sets.

But very few people could have expected her outstanding run last month at Roland Garros, during which she beat three seeds to reach the French Open quarterfinals. She lost 7-5 6-3 to eventual champion Muguruza -- a match in which she held set point on her serve. Considering she was the last person to make the cut when the entry list came out, it was all in all a huge effort and, in this blog's humble opinion, a sign of even better things to come.

6. Chirico, Que Rico!

In the center of Madrid, in Puerta del Sol square, is a statue called El Oso y El MadroƱo. It replicates the city's coat of arms, which shows a bear attempting to get fruit from a strawberry tree. Earlier this spring at the Mutua Madrid Open, Louisa Chirico was that bear. And her opponents were those strawberries. And she picked off a bunch of them, en route to a huge semifinal berth.

First she qualified against Falconi and Mariana Duque-Marino, dropping just eight games in four sets. Then she upset Monica Niculescu and Ana Ivanovic, got a walkover from Vika Azarenka, and toppled Gavrilova in the quarterfinals. She got double breadsticked by Cibulkova in the semis, but the streak helped vault her inside the Top 100 for the first time -- up to #76 in fact! Magnifico!

7. Querrey Quietly Quells Questioners 

The only American man to win a title this year? The one who leads the USA charge in the Race to London? The one who notched a win over a slam winner (del Potro) and another against a top 10er (Nishikori)?

Sam Austin Querrey.

Look, you never know with Sam. He's had a very nice career for himself, and at 28 he's younger than half the ATP Top 100. There will be plenty more opportunities for wins for him and his fans. We'll all just have remember to be patient when things don't pan out in a particular match.

It's just the Way of the Sam.

8. Top Lads Flop Bad. Stop! Sad!

John Isner, Steve Johnson, Donald Young came into 2016 with high hopes. Isner was a win away from having finished 2015 in the Top 10, Johnson was coming off his first career final, and Young was solidly inside the Top 50. But between them, the first half of 2016 was something of a horror show. Isner suffered through 5 losses in 5 third-set tiebreaks. Johnson went 6-13. Young dropped down to the Challenger circuit to gain some confidence, and ended up losing in the semis and quarters of the two events he played -- both to teenage Americans.

Isner at least had a relatively rosy end to the half, reaching the French Open 4th round before losing to good ol' Andy Murray. And all three guys are hoping grass fixes what's ailed them. They're all playing Queens this week, and Johnson got a nice win over Gasquet while Young qualified and won his first round match.

9. Bethanie Makes Her (Olympic) Squad Goals come true

She had to sweat it out a bit at the end there, but Bethanie Mattek-Sands will be able to call herself an Olympian come this summer. Despite being unable to come close to defending her 2015 Australian Open and French Open titles, Mattek-Sands won just enough doubles matches this spring to clinch a spot in the post-French Open WTA Top 10, which gives her automatic entry into the Rio Games. She and CoCo Vandeweghe teamed up to win Indian Wells, giving us CoCo fans hopes that that team will join the Williams Sisters in repping the Stars & Stripes in Brazil.

... as long as she can get that left thumb healed.

10. He's on the Right Track, Baby, He Was Bjorn This Way

Finally, a big shout out to the only American to make his ATP Top 100 debut so far this spring: Bjorn Fratangelo. The Pittsburgher took a set off Novak Djokovic at Indian Wells (worth no money or points but plenty of cred), won the Savannah Challenger (and with it the USTA's French Open wild card), reached the Bordeaux Challenger final, and grabbed his first match win at a major over Sam Querrey in Paris.

Bjorn is defending a good number of points this summer, so there could still be fluctuations, but it looks to this blogger like he's got the game, focus, and motivation to continue charging up the rankings.


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