Friday, August 12, 2016

Champaign Super Thursday

It was a steamy morning on the blue courts of the University of Illinois' Atkins Tennis Center. At 9:00 a.m. on Thursday, eight players gathered to play the four quarterfinal matches of the Car-X Futures of Champaign, the final stop in a four-week series of $25,000 events in southern and central Illinois. The first two legs of the series were won by former University of Tennessee player Tennys Sandgren. Last week's Decatur tournament was won by past University of Southern California star Roberto Quiroz. And 3 of 4 semifinalists on this day were similarly former college standouts.

It was tough to keep track of all the matches, as they were played simultaneously and three of them ended within minutes of each other. It was a bit of a three-ring circuit atmosphere. But with four rings. And about as many spectators as performers.

The tennis was played at a pretty high level, despite the conditions and lack of atmosphere. “The level is high out here," said Rhyne Williams. "Nobody out here is a plumber, I can guarantee that." I assume that’s good thing.
Rhyne Williams. (c) Jonathan Kelley,
On the Rise

Williams, on the nearest court to the tennis center, played Tulane University star Dominik Koepfer of Germany, one of just two non-American singles players left in the draw. Koepfer is coached in part, and uncomfortably in this situation, by Rhyne’s cousin and former coach, Christopher Williams, who was one of three spectators for the match (the others being the father of a young ball kid and, for the better part of a set, me). 

The match itself was a good test for the recently-back-from-injury Williams, with left-handed Koepfer (who was for a time the top-ranked collegiate in the country) showing off his variety and speed. The rallies were long, thanks partially to the balls fluffing up, according to Williams. Both players also had to contend with a weird acoustic effect that caused the chair umpire to call lets on very-much-non-let Koepfer serves. In the end, Williams saved all four break points he faced, and converted on three of the four he forced, and that was very much that.

At one point in the second set, I noticed Williams stretching at the back of the court. He said afterward his back felt fine, but that he was a little concerned he was starting to cramp. Fortunately for him, he didn't have to go to a third set, winning 6-2 6-4.

On the next court, the home favorite Jared Hiltzik — who just ended his storied career at the University of Illinois — did have to go to a third set. That's because his opponent was a juggernaut in the first set. Like Koepfer, Hiltzik is traveling with Christopher Williams, who is part of Billy Heiser’s team at Saddlebrook in Tampa, Florida, that also includes Tim Smyczek and Denis Kudla. Hiltzik will be moving there next week as he continues the early stages of his post-college professional tennis career.

On this day, Hiltzik found himself struggling early against Stanford's rising sophomore Sameer Kumar, who was particularly brilliant at the net. Kumar got the only break of the first set on his only break point opportunity to go up 5-3, then won a tough game to take the first set 6-3. The second set started out much like the first one, with no break points on offer ... until the sixth game, when Kumar double faulted to give Hiltzik his first break point of the match. Point taken. Sets split.

In the final set, Hiltzik waltzed to a 5-1 lead and had two match points on Kumar's serve, but the Cardinal had one more fight left in him, and won the next 7 points to hold, then break, and give himself a fighting chance. But serving at 3-5, he couldn't keep up his level and he lost, 6-3 in the third.

“Sameer — he’s a great player," said Hiltzik of his fellow Midwest native.  "I’ve always known how good of a player he is. Great coaches, he was trained by Brian Smith growing up and now Paul Goldstein at Stanford. I made some mid-match adjustments, and I'm kind of lucky I got away with that one."

As to the specific adjustments he made, Hiltzik said, "He’s a good serve and volleyer, so I had to make adjustments on my return, my return position. He's not going to miss too much, so you just have to create more opportunities. It's a good moving-forward point for me in becoming more aggressive."

Like his opponent on the day, Hiltzik has a Big 10-playing brother. Kumar’s brother, Mihir, just graduated from Northwestern University. Hiltzik’s brother, Aron will be returning the the Illini in the fall.

And yesterday, the two brothers faced each other for the very first time in singles in a professional tournament. “It was brutal. Brutal,” said Jared, who won 6-3 0-6 7-6(3). “Never want to do it again. I think if it ever happens again, we would do some things different," like talk ahead of time to make sure that both players are secure in the other competing as hard as possible.

Hiltzik remembered playing only once in a Boys 12s tournament. "I think my mom was crying, I was crying, Aron was crying. She made us split sets so we could go three sets." When asked if there were tears this week, Hiltzik replied, “Oh yeah. Yep. Mom was crying. After the match I got pretty emotional just because it was really stressful. I think he was a little emotional, too."

Speaking of brothers, on the next court over was yet another brother of a player, although not a college one. Christian Harrison, brother of Ryan, was steady as Simone Biles on a balance beam against big-hitting but inconsistent Takanyi Garanganga of Zimbabwe.

Harrison won 6-3 6-1 to make his first semifinal since May 2013, not long before he was sidelined for over two years with hip and other issues. Harrison was extremely solid on his service games — he hit 7 aces, lost only 2 points on his first serve, and faced zero break points — and took advantage of some loose errors from Garanganga on the forehand side. Garanganga also double faulted 12 times.

Harrison said, "It was a match where you really have to focus on and take what he gives you sometimes."

I asked Harrison -- who is smaller of stature than his older brother -- how he would describe his game, and what he prides himself on. "Not really having a weaker side that's really glaring, that guys can pick on," he said. "Being able to hustle using anticipation and speed; having good court awareness; and then just trying to do all the fundamentals, the basics of the game right. And just recognizing the opponent's court positioning and trying to take care of that. It's not like if you watch Ryan, you immediately know he's going to get a bunch of free points on his serve."

Also, he had an explanation for this:




Something about not wanting to have to dig through his bag for a new sweatband during short changeovers.

Finally, way out on court 6, the last match to finish was between Wil Spencer and Northwestern University’s Strong Kirchheimer. It was great to be able to see Spencer in person — he was one of the first players I ever interviewed for this blog — and as is his wont he gave us an exciting match, holding off the big-hitting Wildcat 3-6 7-6(3) 6-0.

Wil Spencer. (c) Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise
It was doubly great to see Spencer compete as it was just a few months ago that I read about Spencer's retirement from professional tennis. But he's decided to give it yet another shot, and he's making the best of it, with a quarterfinal in his first ITF tournament back (including a win over Harrison) and now a semifinal in his second.

Spencer noted that Kirchheimer clearly didn’t have his legs under him in the final set, thinks in large part to having to play three consecutive three-setters, including his previous round in which he upset top seed Sandgren 7-5 0-6 6-4. Given Spencer’s grinding style, fatigue is not something you want to feel when facing him. Kirchheimer agreed that he was "pretty dead" toward the end but was pleased with where his game was relative to when he started the Illinois swing.

Kirchheimer played #3 singles at Northwestern last year, where he had one of the best seasons in school history. "I love Northwestern, I love everything about it," he said. "Our coaches are great, the program is great, we have a bunch of guys on the team who want the same thing. Last year was really fun; I did a lot of good things and so did the team. It was really important just to try to stay level through that. It meant a lot but I'm trying to build off that and have a little bit better senior year."

I'll have more on Spencer's path, along with Harrison's and Williams', in a future post.

The semifinals will feature Spencer vs. Harrison and Williams vs. Hiltzik. One of those four men will get a sizable 27 points for winning the tournament, while the losing finalist will get 15 and the other two will get 8 points. At the Futures level, winning tournaments is just about the only thing that can help get you to that next level, the ATP Challenger Tour.

In doubles, Hiltzik and Koepfer took out #2 seeds Gonzalo Escobar and Alejandro Gomez to reach the final, where they’ll face Hiltzik’s former teammate Tim Kopinski, who teamed with Alex Lawson to beat another Illini, Dennis Nevolo, and Chad “The Flavor Doctor” Rhoden, who I believe by making the semifinals will make his ATP ranking debut at the age of 40!

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