Sunday, January 24, 2016

15 best all-American matches of 2015 (2nd half)

15 All-American matches that were both exhilarating wins and heartbreaking losses

Here is the fourth and final installment of the 2015 On the Rise (a tennis blog) awards series. Read Parts 1 (MVPs), 2 (Exhilarating Wins), and 3 (Heartbreaking Losses). Each match represented both a triumphant victory for Team USA, and a crushing defeat for selfsame team.

Did we miss any? Let us know in comments!

Frances Tiafoe, Boys 18s champion. (c) Jonathan Kelley
1. USTA Boys 18s National Championships F: Frances Tiafoe d. Stefan Kozlov 6-2 6-4 4-6 4-6 6-4: This was a peach. One of the most memorable matches I've seen in person. Two friends who had already made the transition to the bigs, coming back for one last shot at juniors glory. Born 12 days apart, one in Macedonia to Russian parents, one in Maryland to Sierra Leonean parents; having been tagged for a half-decade as great hopes of American men's tennis, the two seemed destined to meet on that lovely Sunday in August. They marched through one of the best fields in tournament history to get to the final, with of course the payoff being a ticket to the main draw of the US Open.

And they put on a four-hour, five-set masterpiece, full of turns, twists, and tension galore, plus plenty of great shotmaking. You can watch the whole thing here, and if you haven't done so yet, go check out The Tennis Nerds' recap.

2. US Open QF: Serena Williams d. Venus Williams 6-2 1-6 6-3. Serena had already gotten a run for her money by an American: Bethanie Mattek-Sands in the third round, against whom the world #1 survived 3-6 7-5 6-0. Then she beat then-#2 American Madison Keys 6-3 6-3 to set up her third consecutive all-American match ... but this time it wasn't just any American opponent. It was her best friend and sister, the woman with whom she had shared everything the world had to throw at her. Was it possible that the younger sister's momentous quest for the calendar slam would be derailed by the older sister? After Venus took the second set with a breadstick, many wondered. But Serena raced out to a 3-0 lead and hung on (you can read the game-by-game Guardian coverage here). Who knows, maybe the occasion took something out of Serena, who inexplicably lost to Roberta Vinci in the semis.

3. Charlottesville Challenger F: Noah Rubin d. Tommy Paul 3-6 7-6(7) 6-3. This was a big deal for both players, and yet it seemed like it would be a blowout. The younger Paul raced out to a 6-3 5-1* lead and had match point on Rubin's serve. The New Yorker's fantastic run through qualifying into the final had seemingly come to an end at the hand of a ruthless, almost robotic foe. But then the import of the match may have gotten into Paul's head a bit (the winner would have a big lead in the race to the Australian Open wild card), and that was all Rubin needed. The result would prove crucial, as neither player was able to pick up another win during the indoor challenger swing, and Noah ended up with the wild card, which he used to upset Benoit Paire at the Australian Open in straight sets.

4 & 5 (tie). Stockton $50K QR2: Jacqueline Cako d. Tori Kinard 6-7(17) 6-3 6-4 and Macon $50K R1: Jacqueline Cako d. Michaela Gordon 4-6 7-5 7-6(4). Two great wins for the former Arizona State University Sun Devil. The first took place in the California summer, lasting over 3.5 hours and one of the more incredible tiebreak scores you'll see. The second took place in the Georgia autumn, lasting 4 hours and 18 minutes, and saw the teenaged Gordon serve for the match twice (and hold two match points). Unfortunately for Cako, she lost the next match she played in each case.

6. Columbus Challenger F: Chase Buchanan & Blaz Rola d. Eric Quigley & Mitchell Krueger 6-4 4-6 [19-17]. (The one match on this list featuring a non-American in Rola the Slovenian.) On home soil for the victors (they became a champion-level duo on those courts in college), in a rowdy atmosphere (for an American challenger), and featuring a truly epic tiebreak that was nearly all first serves until the very end ... what a way to win a title. Particularly impressive given that Buchanan played hurt for much of the second half of last year. Enjoy!

7. Atlanta SF: John Isner d. Denis Kudla 4-6 6-2 7-5. It was a match that showed the world that Kudla could compete at a high level on a surface other than grass. After his remarkable 12-2 grass court swing, Kudla qualified for his next event on the hard courts of Atlanta, then beat his fellow 1992ers Ryan Harrison and Jack Sock to reach his first ATP semifinal. The match was seemingly close until the end, but Kudla was serving second, and Isner dropped only 6 points on serve in the third. On ad-out at 5*-6, Kudla hit a forehand error and that was it. Good match with high stakes: not much more you can ask for. (Isner would go on to win the final against Marcos Baghdatis.)

8. Washington DC SF: John Isner d. Steve Johnson 6-3 3-6 7-6(9). The following week, another good match with high stakes. Johnson, like Kudla before him, was seeking his first ATP final. And like Kudla, he lost a tough one -- but in this case he had multiple match points, including one on his serve at 6*-4 in the BUSTER. That point featured a 15-stroke rally and a big Isner cross-court forehand that Johnson tried to steer down the line for a winner but missed. (Isner would go on to lose the final against Kei Nishikori.)

9. Eddie Herr 3R: Kylie McKenzie d. Hanna Chang 4-6 7-5 7-5.  Colette Lewis called this her #1 all-American junior girls match of the second half, so we're including it. McKenzie came back from a break in the second set and was down match point at 1*-5 30-40 in the decider, but roared back to win the last 6 games. Interestingly, this happened the same day as Canada's Felix Auger-Aliassime saved 2 match points in his third-round match. He also would go on to win the title. Here's Colette's coverage of that magical day.

10. Tiburon Challenger F: Tim Smyczek d. Denis Kudla 1-6 6-1 7-6(7). The first two sets weren't much to write home about, but the third set was wonderful, and the tiebreaker was FANTASTIC. Smyczek saved 4 match points and then set up his own second match point with a screaming forehand that just clipped the line. Well worth a watch. (In a you-can't-make-this-stuff-up encore, Smee would go on to win his next match, at the Sacramento Challenger over Frances Tiafoe, in a third set tiebreaker that was also 9-7, saving 2 more match points.)

11. Tiburon Challenger 2R: Mackenzie McDonald d. Sekou Bangoura 6-3 3-6 7-6(3). While we're in California, let's include this rip-roarer, in which McDonald won 6 games in a row, then Bangoura won 8 in a row, then Bangoura had match point but McDonald came up with a highlight-reel forehand pass into the corner, then the UCLAer reached his second challenger quarterfinal. Watch at 1:59:30.

12. Quebec City R1: Jessica Pegula d. Nicole Gibbs 1-6 7-6(2) 7-6(4). The New Yorker was down 1-6 2-5 0-40 and Gibbs served for the match again in the 3rd set. Very tough one for the Stanfordian (Stanfordite?), but great for Pegula, who had a nearly two-year layoff due to knee injury. Crazily, she would go on to lose her 2nd round match, to Jelena Ostapenko, in yet another BUSTER -- and this time she twice attempted to serve for the match. Tennis giveth ...

13. Scottsdale $50K 1R: Samantha Crawford d. Kristie Ahn 4-6 7-6(6) 6-3. The "Ultimate Wild Card" used this victory to carry herself to her first career pro title and the Australian Open wild card.  She saved 2 match points in this match and would save 2 more in the semis. Brava!

14. USA F22/Godfrey, Ill. F: Michael Mmoh d. Jared Hiltzik 6-3 3-6 7-5. For the reaction on match point.

Bobby Knight of College Tennis Today had a thorough recap of the match with lots more video.

15 USTA Girls 18s National Championships F: Sofia Kenin d. Tornado Alicia Black 6-2 5-7 7-5. We opened with a USTA junior national championship, so let's close with one. J. Fred Sidhu had the story on this one, which unfortunately wasn't streamed. But it took 3 hours, had the same carrot in a US Open wild card that the boys championships had, and apparently was a terrific contest. Here's to at least getting a stream for future Girls Nationals!

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

By the Letters: 2016 Australian Open Day 2

A is for Ace. John Isner hit 37 of them to take down Jerzy Janowicz in three sets. The middle set was the big deal: it went to a tiebreaker and Isner (who didn't face a break point all match) was down a minibreak at 3-5*. But the American came back to win 9-7.

B is for @BBakestennis. Nobody knew what to expect from Brian Baker in his latest comeback from injury. Against a swashbuckler like Simone Bolelli, the most anyone hoped for out loud was that Baker could finish the match. Instead, he hung in there until the bitter end, losing 7-6(6) 7-6(3) 6-7(2) 7-6(5). His serve let him down a bit in the end, as he was unable to maintain minibreak leads he held in the first and final sets. But overall he showed his incredible instincts for the game and great shotmaking. Watch his thoughts on the match and his comebacks.

C is for CoCo. Not a great start of the year for CoCo Vandeweghe, who has yet to win a match in her first three tournaments. Against Madison Brengle she just hit her way out of the singles tournament, losing 6-3 6-4 and converting on only 1 of 10 break points.

D is for Draaaaamaaaaaa. In a head-scratcher of a late-night encounter between Jack Sock and Taylor Fritz, the older American won 6-4 3-6 0-6 6-3 6-4. First, it was moved because of the interminable Robredo/Jaziri match (won by Robredo, naturally) meaning the beginning wasn't available for watching. Then, Sock was at his flashy best in taking the first set. Then, Sock let his foot off the gas and Taylor pounced. Then that third set happened (see G, below). Then Sock gets a break in the 4th Then he rolled his ankle and was on the ground for some time and got it taped. Then he didn't face a break point the rest of the way, and secured the one break he needed in the fifth. Now he's into the second round.

E is for Eight. That's the number of American men into the Australian Open 2nd round, most since 2008, when there were 9.

F is for Four. That's the number of points won by Sock in the third set. As Fritz said post-match, Sock didn't even try to win points.

G is for Gamesmanship? So the question becomes, to what extent did Sock's performance involve that undefinable phenomenon "gamesmanship"? On the one hand, he mentioned that he has strep throat, and of course retired during his final in Auckland. And we all saw him roll his ankle and get taped ... you don't make that up. But by the end he looked absolutely fine -- fantastic, even -- and was as amped as I've ever seen him. So who knows? As Patrick McEnroe said, sometimes Sock needs a bit of drama (see D, above), even if he needs to manufacture it himself.

As for the youngster, Fritz was left shaking his head, ruing the missed opportunity. He came absolutely ready to compete but said it was tough to focus out there given all that was going on. If nothing else it's a great sign for how good he already is if indeed an opponent feels the need to resort to anything but straight-forward tennis to win. I for one am looking forward to the rematch.

H is for Harry: A disappointing main draw experience for Ryan Harrison, who fell 7-5 6-4 6-4 to Andrey Kuznetsov. The Russian was the aggressor for the match. But Harrison still qualified, a big improvement from last year when he lost to Wayne Odesnik in the first round of qualies.

I is for Inconsistent: Bethanie Mattek-Sands lost a see-saw match to Denisa Allertova 6-4 6-7(5) 6-3. Allertova served for the match in the second set but Bethanie roared back and even took an early 2*-1 break lead in the third. But ultimately, she couldn't find the court often enough and the Czech overcame.

J is for Japan: i.e. the country Naomi Osaka is representing, rather than USA. She's one of the brightest up and comers out there, and showed it by coming through qualifying and dismantling Donna Vekic 6-3 6-2. A second-round match vs fellow Haitian-heritage big hitter Victoria Duval would have been amazing, but alas that will have to wait for another day (see X, below).

K is for King the Queen: Vania King (@queen_v21) started her comeback from injury last fall but hadn't gotten any big (singles) wins. Against Mona Barthel, she went down an early break and lost the first set getting broken again. It wasn't looking good. But King capitalized on the German's less than 100% physical health and used her movement and flat strokes to take the second set 7-5. In the third, it was Barthel swinging for the fences and King trying to stay poised. King made an early break hold up, saving 2 break points to hold for 4-2* and then 3 match points in the final game to successfully serve out the match 3-6 7-5 6-4.

L is for LL: Lucky Loser Bjorn Fratangelo had no luck against 35-year-old French qualifier Stephane Robert, who handled the American 6-2 6-2 6-2.

M is for Madisons: The two Madisons, Keys and Brengle, both had their breakthrough majors last year in Melbourne. This year got off to a strong start for both, as they secured straight-set first round wins -- Brengle over the aforementioned Vandeweghe, and Keys over Zarina Diyas 7-6 6-1. The latter match featured a sketchy start from Keys, as Diyas took advantage of endless errors and served for the first set at 5*-3 40-0. But Keys fought back, and played well within herself to capture the second set and the victory.

N is for Nine. That's the number of US women who lost in the first round, compared to 8 wins. Not the best showing considering the Aussie was the best American slam in 2015: a total of 29 wins. Still better than the 2011 Australian Open, in which US women had only 3 match wins.

O is for outside courts: By far my favorite thing about the first two days of majors is the fact that you get matches like Sock/Fritz, Lepchenko/Tsurenko, Mattek-Sands/Allertova and so many more on courts that are extremely accessible to passers by.

P is for Pronunciation: Tennis names can be tough but hearing an American pronounce CoCo's last name "Vanderweigh" was a little cringeworthy.

Q is for Queen Vee: Venus Williams crashed out of the Australian Open in the first round, losing 6-4 6-2 to Johanna Konta. Just when you think she's primed to make another possible major final run, it doesn't happen. Yet still she strives, which is all you can ask.

R is for Rampras: In a great display of old-school tennis, Rajeev Ram took the first set from Kevin Anderson in a tiebreak. He lost the next set in a tiebreak but then went up a break in the third and his injured opponent couldn't keep up. Final score: 7-6(4) 6-7(4) 6-3 3-0 (ret).
S is for SMEEEEEEE!: Newly married Tim Smyczek rolled over his Spanish opponent 6-1 3-6 6-3 6-2 to reach the second round for the second straight year.

T is for thirtysomething: Ram is playing the best tennis of his career at 31. Same with Isner at 30. Spain's 9 men into the second round average over 30 years of age. As men's tennis continues to see high-level performances for players well into their mid-30s, the question for American fans is how many of its best players will have the physical wherewithal and unstinting drive to keep their careers going past where many of its past stars left the game. The answer to that question may well determine the general success of American men's tennis over the next decade.

U is for USC: Trojan Nation will be pleased with their greatest tennis star's win over British #2 Aljaz Bedene, 6-3 6-4 7-6(3), in his first slam as a seed. Next up will be the dangerous Brazilian Thomaz Bellucci, who has never advanced to the third round in Oz.

V is for Varvara: It was a death match. A back-and-forth brawl in which neither player could seemingly get the upper hand. Long rallies, struggles with heat, tough holds. In the end, Varvara Lepchenko d. Lesia Tsurenko 6-7(5) 6-2 6-3 to set up a very winnable second round match against Lara Arruabarrenna.

W is for Wild Card: Stop me if you've heard this before, but she's the ultimate wild card and she lived up to the billing. A wild Samantha Crawford fell to the far more consistent Danka Kovinic 6-2 6-4, although Crawford made it interesting in the end, coming back from 1*-5 15-30 to 4-5* 30-30. But it wasn't to be. Not a huge deal as next up is Vika Azarenka, who looks like a real threat for the title.

X is for XOXO: Just great seeing Victoria Duval out there again, even if she only managed 5 games against #18 seed Elina Svitolina.

Y is for #YIMLife: I thought Donald Young would beat Santiago Giraldo, and after he took the second set 6-1 to even the match, it looked good. But Young just couldn't get his service game under control, getting broken 4 times in the last 2 sets to lose 6-4 1-6 6-3 6-2. Young has a final coming off next month in Delray Beach, so he will want to right the ship soon.

Z is for Zhang: Her grand slam futility had become legendary. 0-14, now well out of the Top 100, very close to retirement she says. Facing the world #2. Winning 6-4 6-3.

Tennis is amazing.

Monday, January 18, 2016

By the numbers: 2016 Australian Open Day 1

Day 1 of the 2016 Australian Open is in the books, and it will be remembered primarily for the BBC/Buzzfeed fixing story heard 'round the world. it was a pretty strong effort for Americans, who went 7-5 on the day. Americans notched two significant upsets while falling victim to one. Below is our by-the-numbers rundown of the good, the bad, and the beautiful.

1: Number of racquets obliterated by Benoit Paire in his 7-6 (4) 7-6 (6) 7-6 (5) loss to Noah Rubin.

(Paire was less than complimentary in his post-match comments, which Rubin will undoubtedly only use for fuel.)

2: Grand slam main draw wins for Austin Krajicek, following his 6-4 6-1 6-3 dismantling of qualifier Wu Di. His first came last year over Santiago Giraldo at the US Open. Krajicek was the first man to advance the second round on Monday.

3: Consecutive games won by Lauren Davis to close out her 1-6 6-3 6-4 upset of Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova [26]. Davis' resilience was impressive considering she went down a break at 3-4* in the 3rd after a might-have-been game winner was belatedly called wide by the line judge at. Davis was already in her chair when Pavlyuchenkova called the umpire's attention to the out call; the umpire then queried the line judge who confirmed the call, and Davis had to go back out and serve at deuce, only to be broken four points later. Their court did not have Hawk-eye, which begs the question of whether the umpire (who has the final say on all line calls) actually saw the ball one way or the other, or just wasn't sure.

Davis didn't argue, and after the changeover composed herself and broke back, then held and broke again to win the match. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the win is that the break point she faced (and lost) after thinking she had won the 3-3 game was the only break point she faced in the last two sets. Davis is 5'2".

4: Nicole Gibbs' Melbourne winning streak after her 6-2 2-6 6-1 win over Klara Koukalova. The former Stanford star qualified for the Australian Open without dropping a set, and then took advantage of a nice draw to beat a player who is finding any win hard to come by. Next up is French power hitter Kiki Mladenovic [28].

5: Number of games won by Christina McHale in her 2&3 loss to Agnieszka Radwanska. Not great but a small sign of progress: in their first three matches, McHale won 1, then 2, then 4 games. Perhaps a set win is next?

6: Australian Opens won by Serena Williams. That's a lot, people. This year, she drew the #1 non-seed, Camila Giorgi, in the first round! And she's got questions about her health. But hey, she won 6-4 7-5. Looking good for #7, at least early.

7: Breaks for each player in the Irina Falconi/Anna Tatishvili match, an extremely competitive all-American affair that came down to Falconi serving it out on the second asking. The 4-6 3-6 8-6 match featured a total of 36 break points. The New Yorker's next match will be against Roberta Vinci, which should feature plenty of fun rallies given both players' love of variety and surprise.

8: Number of first and second sets won by American men on Day 1. Also the number of first and second sets played by American men on Day 1. In fact, the male Americans were close to getting through the day a perfect 12-0 in sets, but Denis Kudla's opponent retired down 6-2 6-1, and then Sam Querrey (who served up 2 sets and at 4*-5 40-15) frittered away that game (and thus the third set), then lost the fourth set handily and retired. Still: 3-1 is as just about as good a start as one can ask for, particularly on a day when no seeds played.

9: Number of consecutive games lost by Sloane Stephens in the course of her 6-3 6-3 upset at the (quick) hands of qualifier Wang Qiang. Things were looking great for Sloane, up 3-1* and with 2 break points to go up 4*-1. And then very little went right. The forehand that won her Auckland to start the year went awry and many of the good shots she was making were coming back at her. Her movement in particular was lethargic. Finally it seemed she had righted the ship, winning 3 games and 3 points to get to 3-4* 40-0 in the 2nd, but she couldn't get the break, and that was all she wrote. Frustrating, to say the least.

10: Number of American men on tap for Day 2. Yes, this is supposed to be a post about Day 1 but THAT IS A LARGE NUMBER. Last year, only 7 American men total participated in the main draw. This year, there are 10 in the bottom half alone, including 3 seeded players, and a total of 14.

8 players got in via direct entry, one via a wild card, one via protected ranking (Brian Baker), three qualified, and one was a Lucky Loser. So the question is: Is this a blip on the radar or the sign of real improvement from The Dark Days? We can't know for sure, but thinking the latter. As well as Americans did in qualifying (with 3 of 11 participants winning 3 matches), they should have even more players in the French Open and Wimbledon qualifying draws, with guys like Rubin, Tommy Paul, and Sekou Bangoura making big rankings jumps in the next few months. By this time next year, most if not all of the Top 100 Americans should still be there and signs look good for at least 2-3 more players to join them. If I'm right, last year's Wimbledon (featuring only 7 American men) may well have seen the last single-digit cadre of US men at a grand slam for the next several years.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

2015 second half awards, Part 3: Top 20 Heartbreaking Losses

As promised, here are the On the Rise (a tennis blog) awards for Most Heartbreaking Losses of the 2nd Half of 2015. An odd award category, to be sure, but one we feel compelled to honor. If you haven't done so yet, maybe save Part 2 (Top 20 Exhilarating Wins) for after you read this ... you'll feel better.

Also check out Part 1 (MVPs)!

Top 20 Heartbreaking Losses of 2015, 2nd Half

1. US Open SF: Roberta Vinci d. Serena Williams 2-6 6-4 6-4. I mean, obvs.

2. US Open 2R: Feliciano Lopez d. Mardy Fish 2-6 6-3 1-6 7-5 6-3. It was bad enough that it was the last match of his career, and he limped to the finish line and so we knew for a few games that this was going to be the rather depressing end. But the fact that Mardy Fish served for the match in the 4th set, and just about everyone had these dreams of one last wonderful, conquering moment.... and then .... sigh. Thankfully Mardy, a true sportsman, was sanguine about the whole thing.

3. Wimbledon 3R: Marin Cilic d. John Isner 7-6(4) 6-7(6) 6-4 6-7(4) 12-10. Yes, the scoreline hurts. But what hurt far more was that the winner would play Denis Kudla next, meaning USA men would have been guaranteed their first grand slam quarterfinalist since Isner at the 2011 US Open. But Cilic prevailed -- as he's wont to do against Americans (29 straight wins dating back to 2008!) -- over two days, with the fatal blow being of all things an Isner double fault. Brutal.

4. Montreal QF: Jeremy Chardy d. John Isner 6-7(9) 7-6(13) 7-6(4). Isner had 7 match points against a guy who absolutely owns him (Chardy is now 4-0 in the head-to-head). He was even up 3-1 in the second set before the rain came and allowed the Frenchman to regroup. I guess some things are just not meant to be.

5. Valencia SF: Roberto Bautista Agut d. Steve Johnson 4-6 6-3 7-6(8). Just the week prior, Steve Johnson reached his first final (Vienna) before falling to a Spaniard in a close third set. But that was Ferrer, and this was RBA, a talented player but not quite at the level of Daveed. And then when Johnson got his first match point, you thought "oooh, this looks good!" The second match point, same. Third? Sure! Fourth? Gotta happen now! Fifth? PLEASE STEVIE PLEASE! Sixth? Ugh another forehand error. And that was that.

At least Roberto was pleased.

6. Winston-Salem SF: Pierre-Hugues Herber d. Steve Johnson 3-6 7-6(5) 6-2.  This one felt a bit like watching a slow-motion wreck. Johnson was the heavy favorite to make his first ATP final, and in fact was up a set and 2-0, against an exhausted opponent who had to win 7 matches just to reach this stage. Johnson had 3 break points in the next game but couldn't convert. Then at 3*-2, the flashy Frenchman hit three flashy returns, got the break back, and in the tiebreaker came back from an early deficit to take it (flashily). From there, it was a lot of poor tennis from Stevie, who would have to wait another two months to finally reach that final (in Valencia).

7. CAN F3 2R: Philip Bester d. Eric Johnson 6-4 3-6 7-6(4)
. I didn't watch or even follow the livescore on this one. Alls I know is that the USC grad was up 5*-1 40-0 (that's 3 match points) in the 3rd set. At least Beaster (sic) made good on the win, going on to win the final in another BESTER BUSTER against countryman Brayden Schnur.

8. US Open SF: Jamie Murray & John Peers d. Steve Johnson & Sam Querrey 6-4 6-7(2) 6-7(7). At this point I'm just picking on USC alums named Johnson. Anyway, read about the carnage here, from a Murray point of view.

9. USOpen F: Leander Paes & Martina Hingis d. Bethanie Mattek-Sands & Sam Querrey 6-4 3-6 [10-7]. At this point I'm just picking on Querreys named Sam. But they were up 4-1 in that super tiebreak....

10. Granby $50K QF: Jessica Moore d. Ellie Halbauer 6-7(5) 6-4 7-6(5).  The newly 18-year-old Halbauer was up 5*-0 in the 3rd, meaning she served for the match 3 times. She also had 2 match points returning at 5-1*. The final set comeback from the Aussie was presaged in the first set, in which she was down 0*-5 and nearly won it. I can only speculate, but I'm guessing that might have been going through both players' heads toward the end of the match. Perhaps fortunately for Halbauer, the match was upstaged by the emergence of 14-year-old Felix Auger-Aliassime, playing his first Challenger quarterfinal in the men's tournament that same day.

11. Washington, DC QF: Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova d. Christina McHale 2-6 6-1 7-6(5). McHale had a 4-2 third-set lead against the eventual finalist. A bummer for the Mid-Atlantic-born American.

12.  Beijing QR2: Lara Arruabarrena d. Christina McHale 6-4 6-7(3) 7-6(11). The Spaniard attempted (and failed) to serve out the match four times, and in all had 9 match points before closing. No doubt, McHale fought. Still, a bummer for the Mandarin-speaking American.

13. Knoxville Challenger QR2: Daniel Smethurst d. Jared Hiltzik 5-7 7-6(8) 7-6(12).  This one would be much higher on the list -- after all, Hiltzik had a match point in the 2nd set tiebreak and a 4-0* 40-0 lead in the third set -- except the American had his own remarkable comeback to help ease the pain a bit. Serving down 5*-6 0-40 in the third set (three match points), Hiltzik summoned the resolve to get the match to a BUSTER, and from there saved additional match points at 5-6*, 6*-7, 8*-9, 9-10* and 10*-11. But from match point up at 12-11*, he lost the last three points, and with them a match that lasted 3:12:57. Remarkably, Smethurst was able to come back the next day and upset Henri Laaksonen in straight sets to qualify for the main draw.

14. Surbiton Challenger F: Matthew Ebden d. Denis Kudla 6-7(4) 6-4 7-6(5). Kudla was absolutely rampaging through the draw, losing just 19 games in four straight-set matches. Against his toughest competition of the week, he finally got his first break to go up 4*-2 in the third, and consolidated for 5-2*. And then it all kind of went downhill. This one also would be muuuuuch higher, except Kudla rallied to beat Ebden the following week in the Ilkley Challenger final and then of course reach the Wimbledon 4th round with the wild card he was given as a result of his grass success.

15. Champaign Challenger F: Henri Laaksonen d. Taylor Fritz 4-6 6-2 6-2. After the first set this contest was relatively bereft of drama (to which the dead silence of the crowd was testament). But given the stakes (a Fritz win, in addition to being historic, would have given him the Australian Open reciprocal wild card), it was a bitter pill. It may have ended up motivating the youngster, though, as he started 2016 gangbusters, winning his first tournament, the Happy Valley Challenger.

16. Wimbledon Juniors QF: Anna Blinkova d. Tornado Alicia Black 1-6 6-3 12-10. I had to include this match. Not often do you see 15 breaks in a set, nor a 51(!) winner differential between two players (Blinkova had 48 just in the final set, 63 in all). It was perhaps the most epic match of The 2015 Championships but of course someone had to lose. That person was the American.

17. Paris Final: Ivan Dodig & Marcelo Melo d. Jack Sock & Vasek Pospisil 2-6 6-3 [10-5]. For the second year in a row, the North American buddies didn't play a full schedule but still found themselves a match away from the World Tour Finals in London. For the second  year in a row, they came up short. One wonders if that was their last, best chance.

18. US Open 2R: Ruben Bemelmans d. Jack Sock 4-6 4-6 6-3 2-1 (RET). Coming in as the #2 American, having steamrolled his first opponent 2, 3 & 2, there were high hopes that Sock could make his mark at this year's home slam. But instead he became a statistic -- one of a record number of retirements.

19. Sumter $25K F: Mayo Hibi d. Lauren Embree 6-4 3-6 6-4. This also was a warm one.

20. Winston-Salem 2R: Simone Bolelli d. Sam Querrey 7-6(7) 6-7(4) 7-6(9). Because Sam.

Monday, January 11, 2016

The triumph of Koz

Our intrepid guest contributor, Parsa, made his way to the USA F1 Futures event in Los Angeles for yesterday's final. The tournament was the first men's Futures in ITF history to offer a $25,000 prize pool. Enjoy his report on the excitement that transpired. Twitter users, be sure to follow Parsa at @Smith_J1989!

In the first-ever 25K men’s futures event, there were 64 players that started out in the qualifying draw, with another 24 players competing in the main draw in addition to the 8 qualifiers. However, during yesterday’s singles final, only two players remained standing: 17-year-old American Stefan Kozlov and 27-year-old Canadian Philip Bester. It was the second consecutive year that the University of Southern California (USC) hosted this USTA Pro Circuit event, however last year it was a 15K event.

Kozlov, from Florida, dropped only one set en route to the final while Bester advanced without dropping a single set. Kozlov’s first four opponents were Jean-Yves Aubone (Florida State ’11), Max de Vroome (USC senior), Gianluigi Quinzi (former ITF No. 1 junior), and top seed Tennys Sandgren (Tennessee ’11), who was injured. Meanwhile, Bester’s first four opponents were: Brandon Holt (USC commit), Jake Devine (USC freshman), 2015 NCAA champion Ryan Shane (UVA senior), and Clay Thompson (UCLA ’14).

Towards the end of 2015, Kozlov started working with Russian Andrei Cherkasov, a former ATP player who achieved a career-high singles ranking of 13. They found success together quite quickly as Kozlov won his first pro singles title in Belarus in October after previously going 0-3 in futures finals and 0-1 in challenger finals. Bester has been working with Bertrand de Ducla since the US Open, and de Ducla told me he has known Bester since he was 12 years old. Kozlov does not have the most firepower, however he has great shot selection and moves well around the court -- he is able to play some fantastic defense if needed. On the other hand, Bester has a big game comprising a pretty big serve, a nice flat forehand, and a decent one-handed backhand. Both Kozlov and Bester are exceptional at the net, and both players frequently used their strong volleys to their advantage.

Philip Bester in action (c) Parsa
Kozlov broke Bester three times in the first set but failed to consolidate the break each time, allowing Bester to get right back into the set each time. Kozlov had two set points on his own serve at 5-4, but blew both opportunities. During the first point he hit a forehand approach shot out, while on his second set point he netted a forehand. A few points later, Bester secured the break and was back in the match once again as he yelled “Allez” (means “come on” in French), a word he shouted throughout the match.

After having two set points of his own earlier in the set, the young American now found himself in a bit of a hole, down *3-6 in the tiebreaker. Kozlov won the two points on his serve to put the pressure on Bester, who wilted under pressure and hit a netcord on his second serve forcing his serve to go long. A few points later at 7-8 with Bester serving, Kozlov stepped in on the second serve to hit a low cross-court backhand which Bester netted to give Kozlov the first set. As a result, Kozlov jumped up in the air and fistpumped as he ran over to his seat excitingly.

It looked as though Kozlov was going to breeze through the second set as he quickly went up a break in the second set to go up 3-1. However, Bester stayed resilient and repeatedly pumped himself up between points as he stayed calm and composed in his effort to mount a comeback. Kozlov let up a bit in his next service game and Bester stepped up his game to get the break right back. The next crucial service game came at 4-all with Kozlov serving.

In between his first and second serve on the first point of the game, Kozlov started squeezing the ball and took it to the chair umpire for inspection as he thought it was a flat ball. He had a quick discussion with the chair umpire before he was given a replacement ball, however he was not given a first serve which irked him. Kozlov ended up winning that point which was good for him, as I suspect he would have had some more words for the chair umpire had he lost the point. Next at 15-15, Kozlov had a pretty routine overhead at the service line but he tried to be fancy as he attempted a drop volley, and Bester read the play perfectly, sprinting up to the service line to hit a beautiful backhand winner down the line. Two points later, Kozlov double faulted to hand Bester an opportunity to serve for the second set. Kozlov fought well though to get the break right back. At that point in the match, each player had their serve broken five times.

It was déjà vu in the second set tiebreaker as just like the first set, Bester raced out to a 6-3 lead. This time, he was not going to let the lead slip away as he crushed an ace down the T to force a third set.

There were no breaks of serve in the early part of the third set, until the American broke the Canadian in the fifth game to take a 3-2 lead. From there, Kozlov never looked back: he broke Bester once again at 5-3* to clinch the title after a two-hour and 50 minute battle!

A pumped Kozlov serving at 2-2 in the 3rd set. (c) Parsa

Both players are staying in the Southern California area as they are competing in this week's Long Beach 25K Futures. Kozlov is the fourth seed and will face fellow American teen Michael Mmoh in the first round. Bester is in the other half of the draw as the second seed, and he faces former USC player Yannick Hanfmann in the first round.

Interesting notes:

  • It was apparent that both players respected each other on the court as they regularly commended each other on each other’s nice shots.
  • Kozlov needs to mature a bit on the court, but that will come in time as he is only 17. In terms of gamesmanship and competitiveness, Kozlov reminds me of NBA star Chris Paul since both of them will do anything to win, and they both have extremely high IQ’s on the court. Kozlov started grunting a bit in the second and third sets, but it was sort of a delayed grunt which would occur a second after he swung his racquet which was funny to watch. Furthermore, in the third set, he was demonstrating to Bester that he was not going to just go away in the match as he was shouting “Come on,” very frequently in the third set, and this was usually followed up by a Michael Jordan-esque fistpump.

Kozlov fist pump. (c) Parsa

  • After he shook Bester and the umpire’s hands, Kozlov went to his bench and threw his racquet up in the air to show his joy. Oh and of course he dropped the racquet when he threw it up.
  • Shoutout to USC coach Peter Smith’s dog Rex for lying on the court adjacent to the match without so much of a whimper or bark. If only some professional players had that same level of etiquette towards the sport.
  • Shoutout to one of the ballboys who looked like he was about 9 years old since the poor fella got absolutely nailed by a Bester 1st serve near his stomach. He fought through the pain and carried out his duties as ball boy.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

December 2015 USA Career-High Rankings

Periodically I will bring you a list of USAmerican players who have reached a new career-high ranking (CHR) in the previous weeks. This list covers all players in the Top 1000. Any player outside the Top 1000 generally will not be included unless they have earned at least one point since the prior ranking period. See all the CHR posts.

Here are the new CHRs for December 2015!

  • If the ranking was a new career high, it will be noted in bold
  • If it tied his or her previous career high, it will be noted with an asterisk.* 
  • If it marks his or her debut in the ranking it will be noted in red.

New ATP Career-High Rankings, December 2015

Player name
Pvs (achieved)
Taylor Fritz
176 (11/23/15)
Frances Tiafoe
178 (11/23/15)
Sekou Bangoura
348 (11/23/15)
Stefan Kozlov
353 (11/30/15)
Mackenzie McDonald
376 (11/30/15
Peter Kobelt
445 (11/2/15)
Clay Thompson
471 (11/30/15)
Eric Johnson
557 (11/30/15)
Alexios Halebian
638 (11/23/15)
Ryan Shane
882 (10/5/15)
Gonzales Austin
782 (11/23/15)
Winston Lin
873 (11/30/15)
Henrik Wiersholm
902 (11/30/15)
Nathan Pasha
915 (11/30/15)
John Lamble
1218 (11/30/15)
Hunter Reese
Junior Ore
1329 (5/17/10)
Tim Kopinski
1348 (10/12/15)
Robert Levine
1729 (9/14/15)
Nicholas Reyes
1494 (9/21/15)
Denis Nguyen
1551 (11/30/15)
Mitchell McDaniels
Beau Treyz
Robbie Mudge


It was a great year for American men. 126 different players achieved their career-high rankings this year, including 19 of the year-end top 25. Most of them are youngsters still on the upswing of their careers. So -- exciting times!

End-of-year Futures: Given that it's the "off-season," it's no surprise that December does not bring a lot of big rankings jumps. A lot of guys are on the list solely thanks to others above them falling. But there were a number of solid performances at late-November and early-December challengers that lifted men to new heights. Of particular note:
  • Sekou Bangoura got to the Waco final over Thanksgiving, then two weeks later won the Dominican Republic F3 title, to end the year in the Top 300 (over 250 spots higher than he started) and set himself up well for a shot at the French Open and Wimbledon qualies.
  • Peter Kobelt, after many close calls, finally won his first title, at Israel F17, to open December, and followed it up with a semifinal run the next week at Israel F18 .
  • Eric Johnson reached the Israel F16 semis at the end of November.
  • Ryan Shane had a fantastic first week of December, reaching the Tallahassee Futures final, in the process ending Henri Laaksonen's 11 match win streak. 
Four debutants: Congrats to Hunter Reese (University of Tennessee), Mitchell McDaniels (University of New Mexico), Robbie Mudge (NC State), and Beau Treyz (University of Nebraska) for all picking up their first ATP points! Reese qualified for Dominican Republic F1 and reached the quarters (beating Top 300 player Nicolas Barrientos in the first round), then followed it up two weeks later by qualifying for DOM F3 ... and again reaching the quarters! McDaniels also qualified for DOM F1, and won a round, while Mudge qualified for the Waco Futures and won a match.

As for Treyz, it was great to see him get his prized first point. For those unaware, Treyz has a podcast called "What Do You Get?" that has recently been focused on his first steps into the world of pro tennis and interviews with some of the guys he's met. Give a listen!

New WTA Career-High Rankings, December 2015

Player name
Pvs (achieved)
Kristie Ahn
207 (11/30/15)
Robin Anderson
280 (11/30/15)
Raveena Kingsley
606 (11/23/15)
Madeleine Kobelt
993 (7/13/15)
Mara Schmidt
Sophia Bursulaya
1271 (11/30/15)


December is even slower for women's tennis. Madeleine Kobelt reached the quarters of a $10K in Colombia, and Mara Schmidt got a win at at $25K in Lagos, Nigeria, and then another win the following week in the same city.

And then there's Sophia Bursulaya. She was already in the rankings thanks to some wins at $10Ks, but then she entered qualifying at the end-of-year Cairo $25K. Only 11 players entered the 16-player draw, meaning that only 3 first-round matches were played, and as a seed, Bursulaya got a bye into the main draw. There she faced 7 seed Ivakhnenko and ... didn't win a game. But by making the main draw, she picked up a point, vaulting her up 33 spots into the Top 1250 for the first time.

And the was the end of the year that was!