Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Getting to know: Andrew Fenty

Andrew Fenty. © Jonathan Kelley.A
A few weeks ago, while at the USTA Boys 16s & 18s National Championships in Kalamazoo, Michigan, I spoke to two young players who caught my attention -- Siddharth Chari of California and Andrew Fenty of Washington, D.C. 16-year-old Fenty trains at the JTCC, and was seeded #27 at the Nats (he's currently the #222-ranked junior in the world). The match I watched saw Fenty go down an early break against JanMagnus Johnson, then come back to win the last 10 games of the match. He would win his next match in straight sets before falling to #6 seed Axel Nefve 7-6(6) 6-3 in the 4th round. (As he did last year, Fenty went on to play and win several matches in the feed-in tournament.)

What is your name?
Andrew Fenty

Where are you from?
Washington, D.C.

Where do you train?
I train at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Md.

There have been some big names that have come through there, correct?
Yes, Denis Kudla, Frances Tiafoe. We have a player who just won Wimbledon juniors doubles, Usue Arconada. Yeah, they're great players.

When did you start playing?
I started playing when I was 4.

What would you say are the strengths of your game?
The strengths of my game are probably to mix up the pace and just give my opponents different looks throughout the match.

Did you think you did that well in your match today?
I think I did that very well, especially in the end of the first set, and all the way through the second.

You went down 4-2 in the first set, and then you got the next 4 games. What changed?
I started figuring out his weaknesses, I started moving him to his forehand side, started serving better - serving wide and hitting the first ball into the open court. Started playing more of an aggressive game, taking more risks.

Do you really try to think your way through a match as much as possible?
Sure. That’s how you win matches here.

What was your road to get to the Nats?
My only way into this tournament was winning a sectional. If I didn't win it, I wouldn't have played this tournament.

Who did you play in the sectional final?
His name was Joseph Brailovsky. He won today, he's from my academy.

Are you guys friends? Friendly rivalry?
Great friends, yeah.

It it tough playing a friend in such a high-stakes match?
Of course, always hard. But, you know, we'll be fine after the match.

What would you say is your favorite surface?
I like clay a lot.

What do you like about it?
Longer points, you get to find weaknesses, and it's just fun to compete on the surface.

You have a brother who also plays, true?
Yeah, I have a twin. He's here right now, he's watching me. He just had hip surgery. He's coming back, he’s doing physical therapy right now. Hope to see him back soon.

Are you in the process of thinking about college tennis?
Not really.

Is that an aspiration of yours?
My ultimate goal is to play professional tennis. I don't know if that will be before college or a couple of years after college.

What do you think you have to do to reach the level of becoming a professional player?
Probably just work harder, better fitness, better eating habits, better training. Just getting better every day, at least 1%. Just 1% every day.

When you hit against a guy like Frances Tiafoe, do you learn stuff just from playing against him?
Yeah, every day. When he comes back from pro tournaments, even when we're not on the court, you're always learning. Always learning what professional tennis is like.

I was here last year when he played in the final, and that was just crazy. It was an unbelievable match.

Obviously you come from a high profile family. [Andrew's father was mayor of Washington, D.C.] Is that something that people know you for?
Yeah, in D.C. a lot. But as soon as you play international, sometimes people will say stuff, but not as much.

Would you say it has impacted you in any way?
Everyone knows who you are, I guess. You play tournaments and people will be like, "You're him" or something.

Do you go into a tournament like this thinking you have a chance of winning the whole thing?
For sure. I think I'm one of the favorites, or a person who could win the tournament.

How long have you had the beard?
Oooh, recent. Just letting it grow. Probably for the whole tournament, then I’ll shave.

Your playoff beard.
[Laughs.] Yeah, my playoff beard. My Kalamazoo beard.

What's your favorite sport other than tennis?
Probably basketball.

What’s your favorite team?
Wizards. Washington Wizards.

Thanks very much for your time.
Thank you!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Getting to Know the 2016 US Open Main Draw Wild Cards: WTA Edition

Danielle Collins. © Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise

Earlier this week I took a look at the wild card recipients into men’s singles draw of the 2016 US Open. Today I will be doing the same for the women’s draw. 

Danielle Collins

Danielle Collins is coming into the US Open after one of the most successful individual careers in college tennis history. The 22-year-old Floridian was awarded the wild card that is traditionally reserved for American-born NCAA DI singles champions. The USTA has awarded a main draw wild card to every American-born NCAA champion save for Amanda McDowell in 2008.

Collins played one year at the University of Florida, but it wasn’t until she transferred to the University of Virginia in fall 2013 that she really hit her stride. During her first year as a Virginia Cavalier, Collins won the NCAA singles title for the first time. Collins’ second NCAA title this spring made her the sixth repeat champion in NCAA DI women’s tennis history, but the only repeat champion who didn’t win her titles in consecutive seasons.

Prior to her collegiate career, Collins was a top ranked junior within the United States, but only played a limited number of events on the ITF junior circuit. Collins won a $10,000 level pro circuit title in 2011 but has played few professional events since starting college.

Collins is a big-hitting baseliner with a game that seems primed for a successful transition to the WTA tour. Due to her inactivity professionally, Collins is currently unranked on the WTA but has a career high ranking of #553.

This will be Collins’ second appearance in the US Open main draw, having received the NCAA wild card in 2014. In the first round in 2014, Collins pushed the second seed, Simona Halep, before falling in three sets.

Lauren Davis

Lauren Davis has been a fixture in the top 100 throughout the past few seasons. However, a year filled with uncharacteristic inconsistency caused Davis’ ranking to drop out of the top 100 for the first time since 2012. Davis currently sits at #102 in the WTA rankings.

Lauren Davis
Davis had a standout junior career, reaching number 3 in the ITF junior rankings. In the fall of 2010, she was dominant: she went on an 18-match win streak in junior events and won three top tier titles, including the Eddie Herr International Junior Tennis Championships and the Orange Bowl. 

Davis’ transition to the professional ranks was a steady one. After breaking into the top 100 in 2012, Davis eventually reached a career high ranking of #43. Davis has won seven singles titles on the ITF Pro Circuit, including a $100,000 level event in Midland, Mich. The Ohio native has reached at least the second round of every grand slam.

Davis started out 2016 on a strong note by reaching the third round of the Australian Open. Her results stalled until this summer when she reached her first WTA final in Washington D.C. Davis’ run to the final included a win over the recently crowned gold medalist, Monica Puig of Puerto Rico.

Davis will no doubt be looking to build off of her success from earlier this summer and finish out 2016 on a strong note. This year will mark Davis’ fifth appearance in the US Open main draw. Her best showing came in 2015, when she reached the second round.

Kayla Day

Kayla Day at the 2016 Junior Fed Cup
16-year-old Kayla Day is going to be one of the youngest players in the draw, if not the youngest. Day secured her wild card by winning the USTA Girls’ 18s National Championships in San Diego, Calif. Day was the top seed at the event and dominant until the final, where she was pushed to three sets by seventh-seeded Nicole Frenkel.

Day has been one of the world’s best junior players over the last 12 months; she is currently at a career-high ranking of #5. Day’s junior highlights include a runner-up finish at the Orange Bowl, the semifinals at Junior Wimbledon, and three G1-level titles. Day was a part of the American Junior Fed Cup team which finished second to the Czech Republic last fall.

Day has begun to play ITF pro circuit events with more regularity in 2016 and reached a number of quarterfinals at $25,000 level tournaments. Day’s best result thus far on the pro circuit came in May when she reached the final of a $25,000 tournament in Naples, Fla.

Day is ranked #424 on the WTA rankings, which is a career best. The 2016 US Open was to have been Day’s debut in the main draw of a WTA event, but by reaching the final qualifying round this weekend in New Haven, and following Barbora Strycova's withdrawal, she got lucky loser into the Connecticut Open.

Sofia Kenin

Child prodigies have always seemed to have a place in tennis, especially in the women’s game. Sofia Kenin could definitely be labeled as such, having caught the attention of world-renowned coach Rick Macci at age six. Kenin began to train at Macci’s academy in Florida and has consistently been ranked at the top of the USTA’s girls’ rankings in every age division.

Now 17 years old, Kenin was awarded her wild card on the strength of her results on the USTA Pro Circuit. Her title at the $50,000 event in Sacramento clinched her the wild card reserved for the winner of the US Open Wild Card Challenge. The title was Kenin’s second pro title of the year, the first being at a $25,000 event in Florida in January.

Kenin had an outstanding junior career and has been ranked as high as #2 in the world. In 2014, Kenin won the Orange Bowl and the following summer was the runner up at the junior US Open.

Kenin will be making her second main draw appearance at the US Open. She also received a wild card last year after she won the USTA Girls’ 18s National Championships. Last year Kenin fell in the first round to Mariana Duque-Mariño.

Vania King

Vania King has been a stalwart presence in American tennis throughout the last decade. King had her breakout season in 2006 when, as a 17-year-old, she won her first and only WTA title in Bangkok and reached a career high ranking of #50.

At 27, King can now be considered a veteran of the tour. She’s been consistently ranked inside of the top 100 in singles during her career and has also established herself as an elite doubles player. King has won 15 tour doubles titles with ten different partners. Kings’ doubles highlights came in 2010, when she teamed with Yaroslava Shvedova of Kazakhstan to win Wimbledon and the US Open.

King saw her ranking drop after a neck and back injury kept her out of competition for nearly a full year after the 2014 US Open. She returned to competition at ITF Pro Circuit events just before the US Open last year.

Vania King at the 2015 Redding $50K. © Jonathan Kelley
If the entries for the US Open were to have closed this week instead of a month ago, King would have been comfortably in the draw, as she is currently ranked #88. A string of impressive results at WTA events in Bucharest (semifinals), Montreal (qualified and won a round), and Nanchang (finals) propelled King’s ranking nearly 60 spots.

The 2016 US Open is King’s 12th main draw appearance. Her previous best results were third round finishes in 2009 and 2011.

Bethanie Mattek-Sands

For the first part of her career, Bethanie Mattek-Sands was known more for her unconventional on-court style than her tennis. Now, Mattek-Sands lets her tennis do the talking. Since late 2008, Mattek-Sands has reached four WTA level finals, finishing runner-up at all of them. She achieved a career best singles ranking of #30 in 2011.

Bethanie Mattek-Sands
Mattek-Sands' aggressive, all-court tennis makes her a dangerous opponent for nearly any player in the draw. The variety in Mattek-Sands’ game has translated to success on the doubles court as well. She’s a two-time grand slam champion with partner Lucie Safarova. Mattek-Sands’ latest doubles triumph came at the Olympics, where she won gold in mixed doubles with Jack Sock.

In singles, Mattek-Sands has had a rough year. She is 2-11 in main draw matches, but eight of those losses were in three sets. The lack of wins, though, has caused her singles ranking to drop from #60 at the beginning of the season to #109, where she currently sits.

The 31-year-old veteran will be making her 15th appearance at the US Open. Mattek-Sands’ third round finish last year, where she fell to Serena Williams, was her best singles performance at the US Open.

Mattek-Sands is the top alternate for the main draw. Should another player withdraw, Mattek-Sands will be directly into the main draw and her wild card will be awarded to another player.

Ellen Perez

Australia’s Ellen Perez received a wild card for winning Tennis Australia’s wildcard playoff. She defeated former junior star Ashleigh Barty in the final. Tennis Australia has a reciprocal wild card agreement with the USTA.

Although she is from Australia, Perez has lived in the United States for the past two years. Perez plays college tennis for the University of Georgia. As a Bulldog, Perez has become a top player in the college game. Last year she compiled a 28-7 record at #1 singles and finished the year ranked #5 in the ITA college rankings.

This summer, Perez traveled to Europe to play some professional events. She came through qualifying at three separate $10,000 level events. Perez reached the semifinals, finals, and won these events respectively. Perez’s ranking is currently #725.

The US Open will be Perez’s first US Open main draw appearance. The 20-year-old has also played in the main draw of the Australian Open doubles.

Virginie Razzano

Virginie Razzano of France received her wild card due to the reciprocal agreement that the USTA has with the French Tennis Federation.

Razzano is probably most known for her shocking first round upset of Serena Williams at Roland Garros in 2012. Razzano was ranked outside of the top 100 at the time, and it was Williams’ first career loss in the first round of a grand slam.

Razzano was a top player in her own right for a time, following a breakout season in 2009. Razzano reached her career high ranking of #16 that year, with runs to the fourth round of Roland Garros and Wimbledon.

Razzano has won 2 WTA singles titles and 5 ITF singles titles throughout her career.

At 33 years old and with a ranking of #165, this year’s US Open has the potential to be Razzano’s last. This will mark Razzano’s 15th US Open main draw. She reached the fourth round in 2006.

Final Thoughts

In the past six years, there has been a steady flow of new American talent on the women’s side. There are a lot of worthy candidates for wild cards, but with only a handful of wild cards to hand out, it’s inevitable that players get left out who have a legitimate chance at winning a first round match.

Former junior world number one players CiCi Bellis and Taylor Townsend, as well as UCLA standout Jennifer Brady come to mind. All three are young players with big games, but they will have to come through qualifying. Jessica Pegula, who reached the semifinals of at the Citi Open in DC, and Julia Boserup, who qualified and reached the third round of Wimbledon, will have to qualify as well.

What do you think about the selections for the women’s wild cards? Leave your opinions in the comments below.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Getting to Know the 2016 US Open Main Draw Wild Cards: ATP Edition

Bjorn Fratangelo

by Alex Simon, guest blogger

The draw for the 2016 US Open will be released next week. As you peruse it, you might see some unfamiliar names sprinkled through the 128 player field. You may see a player who has a very low ranking -- or none at all. If the player has “WC” annotated next to his or her name on the draw, then it means the tournament has awarded the player a wild card into the tournament.

Wild cards are given out to players whose ranking doesn’t give them direct entry to the main draw. The USTA heavily favors Americans in their wild card selections in order to help home grown players’ careers and development. (The same phenomenon takes place at nearly every professional tournament in the world.) Top players whose ranking has dropped outside of the cutoff or who are making a return to the game also receive consideration.

The USTA announced the wild card recipients for the US Open this week. I will be taking a look at each recipient, some of his career and season highlights, and what caused him to earn and be considered for a wild card.

Ernesto Escobedo

© Jonathan Kelley
Southern California’s Ernesto Escobedo earned his wild card on the strength of his results on the USTA Pro Circuit this summer. In 2012, the USTA established the “US Open Wild Card Challenge,” which takes into account each American player’s best two results in a series of three ATP Challenger events. The player who amasses the most ranking points earns a US Open wild card.

Escobedo won the challenger in Lexington, the second event in the wild card challenge, and held onto his lead to secure the wild card. The 20-year-old is also part of the strong contingent of rising American men, but perhaps has been overshadowed by the flashier results of his compatriots such as Taylor Fritz, Frances Tiafoe, and Stefan Kozlov.

Escobedo has been on a steady rise in 2016. He has seen his ranking jump almost 200 spots this season and currently sits at #207. In addition to his maiden challenger win in Lexington, he reached the final of another in São Paulo on clay and qualified for ATP events in Nottingham and 's-Hertogenbosch on grass. The 2016 US Open will be Escobedo’s first appearance in a grand slam main draw.

Bjorn Fratangelo

Bjorn Fratangelo is one of the highest ranked Americans not directly into the US Open main draw, sitting at #116 in the ATP rankings (the cut-off was #98). Fratangelo first garnered international attention as a junior in 2011 when he won the boys' singles title at Roland Garros. The title helped propel Fratangelo to number 2 in the ITF junior rankings.

While he hasn’t had the meteoric rise that some junior stars experience, Fratangelo has seen his ranking improve each season since he turned pro in 2012. Fratangelo has won 8 futures titles and 2 challengers titles throughout his career.

2016 has been a career best year for Fratangelo. The 23-year-old Pennsylvania native gained attention when he won the first set against world number 1, Novak Djokovic, in Indian Wells before falling in three sets. When Fratangelo moved to the clay court season, his strong results on the USTA Pro Circuit clinched him the USTA wild card into Roland Garros.

At Roland Garros, Fratangelo defeated compatriot Sam Querrey in the first round in straight sets to record his first main draw victory at a major. Fratangelo’s success at the French Open caused him to crack into the top 100 for the first time, where he peaked at #99 in the world.

This is Fratangelo’s second appearance in the US Open main draw, having also received a wild card in 2015. He fell to Thomas Berdych in straight sets in the first round last year.

Juan Martín del Potro

One wild card who won’t need much introduction is 2009 US Open champion Juan Martín del Potro. Del Potro has had a career marred by injuries. He first missed nine months in 2010 due to a wrist injury. Del Potro was able to bounce back and reenter the top 5 in 2013, but another wrist injury derailed his career further. After two surgeries and a premature return in early 2015, del Potro made his long awaited comeback to the tour at the 2016 Delray Beach Open, where he reached the semifinals.

The big hitting 27-year-old has seen his results slowly build since his comeback this winter. Wimbledon marked del Potro’s first grand slam appearance since the 2014 Australian Open. Del Potro upset fourth seeded Stanislas Wawrinka in the second round but lost in four sets to 32nd seed Lucas Pouille in the third round.

Del Potro proved that he was ready to compete against the world’s best at the Olympic Games in Rio. Del Potro opened the tournament with a win over Novak Djokovic, showing off the monstrous forehand that helped propel him to the top of the game in the past. Del Potro continued to storm through the draw and got another win over one of the “Big Four” by defeating Rafael Nadal in the semifinals. Del Potro came away with the silver medal after falling to Andy Murray in the gold medal match.

At #141 in the world, del Potro was shy of the main draw cut off, but if his form in Rio is any indication, he is playing well above that ranking.

Mackenzie McDonald

Mackenzie McDonald is the reigning NCAA DI singles champion. While a wild card to the NCAA champion is not technically guaranteed, tradition has it that NCAA champions who represent USA are all but assured one.

© Jonathan Kelley

McDonald had a successful junior career, peaking at number 12 in ITF junior rankings. McDonald decided to hone his game in college and joined the UCLA Bruins in 2013. McDonald’s collegiate career culminated in NCAA singles and doubles championships this spring and a year-end number one collegiate ranking.

After achieving college tennis’ top individual titles, turning pro seemed like a logical next step for the 21-year-old Californian. McDonald announced he would turn pro despite having one more year of NCAA eligibility.

McDonald took fall 2015 off from college to test the waters on the professional circuit. In three months, he managed to reach a Futures final and two Challenger semifinals. The 2016 US Open will be the 416-ranked McDonald’s grand slam main draw debut.

Michael Mmoh

Mmoh is part of a very strong group of young Americans on the rise. The 18-year-old, who lives and trains at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, earned the wild card that is reserved for winner of the USTA Boys’ 18s National Championships in Kalamazoo, Mich. Mmoh, the top seed, was dominant in his run to the 18s title. He didn’t drop a single set and was only forced to a tiebreaker in one match.
From left: Michael Mmoh, Frances Tiafoe, Henrik Wiersholm
Tommy Paul. 2014 USTA Boys Nationals. © Jonathan Kelley

Mmoh is looking to emulate the same success in the professional ranks as he had in the juniors, where he was ranked as high as second in the world. Mmoh won several top tier titles on the ITF Junior Circuit. He was also a part of the USA’s Junior Davis Cup team in 2014, which won the title.

Mmoh had a strong start to 2016. He won a futures title, was runner up at another, and qualified for the ATP event in Memphis all before April. The 2016 US Open will be Mmoh’s first appearance in a grand slam main draw. Mmoh is currently #386 in the ATP rankings.

Rajeev Ram

32-year-old Rajeev Ram is a veteran compared to many of the other wild card recipients. If you look at Ram’s career, he fits the modern mold of a player who peaks at a later age. Ram achieved his career high singles ranking, #56, earlier this season.

Although he turned pro in 2004 following a successful season playing collegiate tennis for the University of Illinois Fighting Illini, Ram didn’t break into the top 100 until 2009. Ram has won two ATP titles: at Newport during his breakthrough 2009 season, and in 2015 -- also at Newport.

Ram started 2016 on a strong note reaching the second round of the Australian Open, as well as the final of the Delray Beach Open in February. Ram is coming off a silver medal finish in Mixed Doubles at the Olympic Games with Venus Williams.

Ram currently has an ATP ranking of 103, which makes him the highest ranked American not directly into the US Open main draw. This will be Ram’s seventh appearance in the US Open; he reached the second round in 2013 and 2015.

Frances Tiafoe

Frances Tiafoe has been billed as a potential star of the men’s game, and the ATP has included him in its “Next Gen” campaign, which seeks to highlight the results of promising young players.

Tiafoe first showed his potential by winning the Orange Bowl, one of the top 18-and-under international junior tournaments, as a 15-year-old. He was the youngest player in history to win that event. Tiafoe peaked at number 2 in the ITF junior rankings in 2014.

Following his success in the juniors, Tiafoe turned professional in 2015. The decision quickly proved to be a wise one, as Tiafoe’s strong results on the Futures and Challenger circuit propelled his ranking from #1,145 at the end of the 2014 season to inside the top 200 by November 2015.

Tiafoe has continued to move in the right direction in 2016. He recorded his first ATP Masters 1000 level win in Indian Wells over compatriot and fellow Next Gen star Taylor Fritz. The 18-year-old, who hails from College Park, Md. and trains at the Junior Tennis Champion Center, has continued to post impressive results on the Challenger circuit. He has reached four Challenger finals, finishing runner up at three before finally claiming his first title at the Challenger level in Granby, Canada earlier this month. Tiafoe currently sits at a career best #123 in the ATP rankings.

The 2016 US Open will be Tiafoe’s second appearance in the main draw. Tiafoe earned a wild card into the 2015 US Open by winning the USTA Boy’s 18s National Championships. He fell to 22nd seed Victor Troicki last year in straight sets.

Final Thoughts

There are arguably more talented American men who were viable candidates for wild cards this year than any other in the past decade. The limited number of slots meant that a resurgent Ryan Harrison, a rising former college star, Dennis Novikov, and young phenoms like Jared Donaldson, Reilly Opelka, Tommy Paul, Noah Rubin, and Stefan Kozlov will all be playing qualifying.

The USTA decided to go with a mix of rising stars, veterans, and players who just missed out on the main draw. There is still one more wild card left to be announced, which will go to an Australian player due to the reciprocal wild card agreement that the USTA has had with Tennis Australia since 2006.

What do you think of the USTA’s wild card selections? Would you make any changes? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below. Next we will take a look at the women’s wild card recipients.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Rhyne Williams, Christian Harrison, and the long road back

Champaign, Illinois
Rhyne Williams. ©Jonathan Kelley

There they were, across the net from each other. Two comeback kids trying to restart their careers after a string of setbacks. Deep into a third set, well over three hours into a match that could pay big dividends down the road. 

For one, a 25-year-old former college star, back problems were what halted his progress at a high point in his career. For the other, the 22-year-old brother of a high-profile player, it was mostly about the hips and thighs.

Both blessed with plenty of talent, Rhyne Williams and Christian Harrison took very different routes to where they are now. But both have faced significant obstacles in their quest to fulfill their promise. The struggle, as they say, has been real. But both are now brimming with hope that they are on the right paths; still young, both can see themselves reaching newfound heights.

A win on Saturday in the Car-X Futures final would be a great stepping stone.

Getting to this point
After a fantastic junior career, during which he reached a high of #8 in the world ITF rankings and even won a Futures event at age 16, Rhyne Williams chose to attend the University of Tennessee, where he starred on one of the most talent-laden teams in recent college tennis history. After two years as a Volunteer (culminating with a three-set loss in the 2011 NCAA singles final to Steve Johnson), Williams turned pro and within two years had reached #114 in the world. He qualified for the 2014 Australian Open and drew Juan Martin del Potro, against whom he won the first set in an electrifying match. The next month he reached the Delray Beach ATP quarterfinals, beating Marcos Baghdatis along the way. Surely the Top 100 was around the corner. And then ... problems.

Williams started struggling with his back -- a herniated disc -- and by the middle of 2015 it proved too much.

"I had surgery on the low L5 S1, lower left back," Williams told me after his quarterfinal win on Thursday. "They just cut me open -- it's minimally invasive -- went in and shaved down the disc with the laser. Because my issue was the disc was just grinding on my nerve. So I had shooting pain all down my legs. Pretty much couldn't function."

That put him out for six months. "So they did that little repair, and I was actually healthy and ready to play in December. But I had another setback. I was on court in off-season, bent over to pick up a ball, I stood up and was like, 'Oh boy.' Could not walk for several weeks. I had 2 more herniations. So something crazy like that happens. Just a simple movement -- bending over, standing up and I did it again. So now I have 3 herniations."

Six more months out. He wouldn't return until this June of this year.

Christian Harrison, for his part, had already been forced to take a year and a half off as a teen due to a serious leg injury caused by a staph infection. Once he was able to return to tennis, still only 16, he eschewed the junior/college route and followed his brother, Ryan, into the pros. He won a Futures event at 19 and reached #351 in the world. And then ... pop.

"It was 3 years ago now, just over 3 years ago," Harrison said after his own quarterfinal win. "I had an adductor problem. I felt it pop in one of my matches, felt it tear. Ended up seeing some doctors, and tried doing some stuff to avoid surgery but just wasn't able to. And I'd already had that problem on the opposite side. So we decided that was the time to take care of both of my hips and adductors that were the problem. Originally we thought we could just have hip surgery on both sides and the problem was going to go away. But it didn't. Ended up having to do adductor also. In the meantime I had a little shoulder and wrist problem; that wasn't something that was killing me but it was something that I just had a little operation on both just to get it settled."
Christian Harrison tidies up. ©Jonathan Kelley.
(I told Harrison that I had noted quite a few teens getting hip surgery, and asked him his thoughts as to why. "If you look at how guys play now, they play with a lot more open stance, a lot more rotation, torque in the hips," he said. He also noted the change in equipment (both rackets and strings), and the concominant move to more western grips to generate more spin.)

Despite everything, Harrison stayed positive. He never forgot his goals. He would come back.

The Road Back

Williams spent the first half of the year focused on rehab. He is based at Saddlebrook in Tampa, Florida, where his fitness trainers, Dylan Smith and Chris May, are based, and where he worked with his "therapy guy," PJ Orgass. They have helped get him to a place where he can compete at this level. Smith and May, he said, "do an unreal job. They work with me, Denis Kudla, Tim Smyczek, Alex Kuznetsov. We have a really good group there. So Saddlebrook's really helping me out big time." 

"I really don't know how long it's going to last or how I'm able to play," he said. "But I just figured, 'Screw it, I have to give it a shot.' I honestly don't know how it's holding up. I've just done a ton of rehab, and I think that's been the key."

Williams returned to the court in June playing the qualies of Futures. He racked up 21 wins to only 6 losses en route to the Champaign final -- his first pro singles final since winning the Dallas Challenger in 2013. 

He declared, with no small hint of surprise in his voice, that the injuries aren't really affecting his game. "I feel like maybe I'm not in quite as good shape as a couple of years ago. But I feel like I'm moving just fine, serving fine. I'm not really limited out there. I definitely don't feel like I did pre-surgery, because I could not move a muscle. So I think things are looking up. As long as I can maintain where I'm at right now and just keep getting fitter, I think I'll be all right. We'll see."

(For the record, Williams said he was feeling good at the end of a four week stretch of hot, humid Futures in Illinois. When asked why he was stretching against the fence in the second set of his quarterfinal, he said it was due to concern about possible cramping -- not about the back.)

I asked Harrison to describe an average day for him when he was working his way through his layoff. "It was like 3 to 4 hours of rehabbing," he said. "I would probably sleep in -- I have trouble going to sleep if I'm not out playing tennis and getting tired -- so I was probably up until 2:00-3:00 every morning, and then I probably would sleep until 12:00-1:00 and then I would start my day at 1:30, going to rehab from 1:30-5:00, sometimes longer. I spent a lot of time with Jorge [Giral]," the physical therapist at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. "There I had everything that I needed. Countless guys helped me back. Another was Christopher Wheaton out in Vail. So I had tons of people as far as off-court stuff to get my body healthy again."

Harrison started his comeback slowly, playing World Team Tennis; doubles with his brother last year at Winston-Salem (they won their first round match); and then mixed doubles with another comeback kid, Victoria Duval, at the US Open. He returned in earnest this spring and had reached a couple of Futures quarterfinals before his run in Champaign, putting him on the cusp of the Top 1000.

Motivation and lessons learned

Harrison credited his past layoff with helping him through the more recent one. "I kind of knew what to expect a little bit better this time. Especially when I started back with tournaments, I was kind of aware of the things I wasn't doing well. It takes a while to get back into your routine at tournaments, just being around the guys again and learning how to keep yourself focused and just in that environment. That's a lot different, that you can't replicate in practice.

"So whether it was just writing things down when I was hurt, just being aware of the focus when I came back, I was already doing things like that to try to make it better this time."
Harrison also said the batch of younger Americans -- the Fritzes, the Tiafoes, the Donaldsons -- doing well has provided an extra push. "Honestly it's great for me because I can kind of compare myself with them and use it as motivation to stay with those guys who are coming up," he said. "Before I got hurt, they were younger so I never got the chance to play them. And now that they're breaking through, I haven't been able to see a lot of these guys play in person, but I do know them."

Given how much developmental time he missed, he notes, he's a similar "tennis age" to them. But, he adds, "You never want to get beat by a younger guy, especially from your country. It's good to see Americans doing well, but also from a competitive standpoint, it makes you a little more fired up."

Williams, too, has a higher-ranked, younger player he can point to for motivation: himself. He often thinks back to his matches at grand slams and other big tournaments. "Christopher, my cousin [and former coach], made me a really cool compilation of good points that he filmed over the 2 years that we were working together. So I actually go back and watch a lot of that stuff. It just really gets me fired up, to know that I've played at that level and I can do it again. It gives me hope. It's cool to look back at those moments. It's not every day that you're playing against Juan Martin del Potro in the Australian Open. It's cool to have that and I'm glad that Christopher made me that video, because I watch it once a week, maybe, especially in the tournaments."

Grinding it out

Despite their talent level, Williams and Harrison will need to grind it out to get to where they want to be. For both guys, wild cards will be less plentiful. And reaching the quarterfinals of Futures tournaments -- which often requires beating two very talented players -- only brings a few ranking points. “It’s pretty tough, honestly," said Williams. "Because the level is high here. Nobody out here is a plumber, I can guarantee that. Every match is tough. All these guys hit the ball like they're Top 300 at least. So it is frustrating when you feel like you're playing good tennis and you lose 2nd or 3rd round and you only leave with a couple hundred bucks and a few points. It is very tough. That’s why it’s so hard to get out of these and get to the next level. Because it grinds you down, that's for sure. So you really have to try and keep a positive attitude and just accept that you're going to have some tough losses, and you're going to leave some tournaments unsatisfied. That’s just tennis. But it’s always good to fall back on the experiences that I’ve had. "

"I know that I can play at a high level," he said matter-of-factly, "and as long as my body lets me I think that I have a good chance getting back there."

Harrison is also feeling positive. "Honestly right now I'm feeling better than I've felt yet," he said. "I was exploring around with treatments before and I finally found something I feel like is really clicking for me. Especially now I'm way more confident in myself to be able to not just play and not worry about getting hurt, throwing myself around the way that I need to; but also that I'll stay healthy. I still have a couple of hurdles that I'm going to get over, just naturally as you're coming back; if you see guys that come back from a lot of surgeries, they might be playing for a year or two but it still takes them a while to get their body feeling where they need, and for me that's why I'm going to make sure that allow more off weeks and if I feel something that I'm even the slightest bit unsure of then I'll just rest or take it at that time. But that's how I'm going to do things a little bit different this time around."

One thing Harrison has been working on is his timing -- a notable asset for him already. "I work on it all the time," he said. "You watch these top guys and, whether it's like Nishikori who trains down at Bradenton or David Ferrer. You know, they're not as big as some of these other guys that are able to get a lot more cheap points, but you watch them, and the timing of their strokes, just being able to really take balls on the rise, learn how to keep it short, holding that baseline and learning how to take time away from their opponent once they see them off balance. that's something that I really try to work on probably where that comes into play, because I try to utilize that in my points. That's something that I've been really trying to work on last couple of months."

The final

I wasn't able to witness the final, but it looks to have been quite the classic. After both guys had gotten to the last match without dropping a set, the two warriors went at it (according to the ITF live scores) for three sets. 231 points. 

3 hours and 34 minutes.

After winning the first set in a tiebreaker, Williams couldn't capitalize on his 5 break points in the second, and was broken himself in the sixth game. In the final set, Harrison raced to a 4-0 lead, but Williams chipped away to 3-4*. However, neither player could muster a break after that, and three games later, the match was over, along with the tournament, and this swing through the Land of Lincoln.

FINAL: Harrison d. Williams 6-7(2) 6-3 6-4. 27 rankings points for Harrison (back into the Top 700) and 15 for Williams (good enough for Top 750). A big help.

What's next

Williams' next stop was back to Saddlebrook, where he works with John Isner's coach Rene Moller, who is the director of tennis, and with coach Andrew Banks. After that, "I think I'm probably going to go to Canada. There are 3-4 $25Ks in a row [in late August/early September]. But it's funky -- It goes outdoor hard to green clay to outdoor hard to indoor hard. So I really don't know what to think of that. Maybe play 2 or 3 of them. I don't know. But I'm probably going to need a couple of weeks off after this, that's for sure." Then his goal is to try to get into the draws of the fall indoor challenger events that in recent years have comprised the USTA Australian Open Wild Card Challenge. "I always play well at those. Indoors is great for me. So who knows. If I can get my ranking up high enough to get into those then definitely, that would be huge. So that's the goal I guess."

Harrison is also planning on going to Canada for those Futures. The one thing that might delay that trip? A potential wild card to US Open qualifying. "I'm still waiting to hear. You know, I haven't been able to play a lot so I haven't had a chance to get my ranking there, but I'm hoping, if I can continue to do well here and prove that I'm healthy that I'll have a chance there, but it's tough to say because there are so many good younger American guys that they might want to give a chance with the USTA." He said that would be "completely understandable," considering he got some of those opportunities when he was their age.

Both guys can use all the help they can get on their roads back. They are still quite young by modern tennis standards, when ATP and Challenger finals between players in their 30s has become commonplace. And both have the ability to play world-class tennis.

As long as their bodies let them.

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!

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Getting to know: Siddharth Chari

On Sunday, I had the opportunity to take my third consecutive trip to the USTA Boys' 16s & 18s National Championships in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I only had part of an afternoon to spend, and that meant the only options on the Kalamazoo College courts for me were the Boys 16s singles 2nd round matches. I took the opportunity to check out players who were new to me, and one of the matches that caught my eye was an engaging tussle between two players of South Asian heritage: a tall, lanky player named Shiddharth Chari and his shorter opponent, #26 seed Nevin Arimilli of Texas. I was taken by Chari's big strokes and his fluency at net. Many of the games were tense, drawn-out affairs; in the end, Chari took the match 7-5 6-4.

I thought it would be interesting to talk to this low-profile player to learn more about his journey to Kalamazoo and give On the Rise readers insight into the life of a lower profile junior player. Many thanks to Chari for taking the time to talk!

Can you tell us your name?
Siddharth Chari.

And where are you from?
Saratoga, California.

And where is that?
It’s kind of close to San Jose, about an hour from San Francisco. So, Bay Area.

Tell us about your journey. How did you end up at Nationals?
Well, I was an alternate last year, but this past year, I’ve been playing really well, I really stepped up my game knowing that it’s getting close to college and I kind of want to go D1. So I was training really hard and I was really happy to make it here. I’m ecstatic over this win, I can’t believe I’m in the third round. It's pretty cool.

You played a seeded player. Did you know anything about him before you played him?
I’d never played him, I just knew he was ranked higher than me. That’s all I knew.

Where about are you ranked now?
I’m around, I think, #66 in the nation for 16-and-under. Obviously he’s higher, that’s why he’s seeded. That's why it's an awesome win for me.

Where are you ranked in your Section?
I think I’m ranked 7th or 8th in the NorCal Section.

So you’ve played some of these other guys at the tournament before?
Yeah for sure. I think there are 10 or 11 kids from NorCal and I’ve played all of them. And then there are also a few kids from other sections that I’ve played, at other nationals like Clay Courts and intersectionals and some Level 2s.

So tell me about your match today. What worked well for you?
My serves, for sure. On huge points I would break out a huge kick serve or a huge first serve, which really helped me. My confidence level on my service games, knowing that I would hit a big serve really helped me.

Also, my mentality — my mental toughness during break points really helped me. I knew I had nothing to lose because he was the higher seeded player, so I just left everything out there, really happy I came out with a win.

You've got something of a cannon of a forehand. Has that always been a weapon of yours?
No, not always. Actually my backhand used to be better than my forehand but recently I had a bad left wrist injury so I was just practicing forehands and now it’s a weapon of mine.

It seems a little bit unorthodox, your technique on it. Would you agree?
Yeah it is. My coach when I was really young told me to “break my wrist” so I’d get more hook on my balls, so I just kept it that way.

On my backhand, I have a little injury on my backhand. I think the breaking my wrist so much has taken its toll on my wrist, a little tendonitis. Hopefully it heals soon, and I’m playing well still.

Who are you here with?
Just my dad.

Did he give you any advice before your match today?
Just in general. Nothing specific against this opponent, just he gave me these five things to do. Bend my knees, because I’m a tall guy and a lot of times, stupid errors, don’t bend my knees. A lot of it was just mental. Like take your time between points, breathe, don’t get mad at yourself over anything, and just have fun out there, fight.

Did you have any chance to do any YouTube/video research on your opponent before your started?
No, I didn’t know much about him other than asking a friend how he played, but that didn’t really help.

Can I ask where you are on your college journey?
I’m starting to look at colleges right now. But I haven’t talked to anyone yet. After this tournament, going into Junior year, starting September 1 I can start talking to coaches.

Is there a part of the country or division that you’d like to be in particularly?
I’m going for Division I, and I kind of want to move East Coast but I mean there are some amazing schools on the West Coast like Stanford. But I’m going to start touring colleges and looking into that.

Do you have a favorite professional player?
Not really a favorite, but I just like looking at how amazing Djokovic is. It’s like a joke. He’s amazing. Just all the pros are so good. I like Kei Nishikori, he’s pretty cool.

Have you ever had a chance to hit against a pro?

When did you start playing?
When I was 7 or 8.

What’s your favorite surface?
Hard for sure.

Have you ever played on grass?
Yeah, I like grass. I don’t really like clay. My game doesn’t suit clay. [Smiles.]

What about your transition game — coming forward — is that something that you work on a lot?
Yeah for sure. It was really bad actually just the beginning of this year. My dad would tell me to bend my knees. I would just go up there, thinking it was an easy shot, and I would just hit without bending my knees and it would be a careless error. But I’ve been working on it a lot. My big idea when hitting those is it doesn’t have to be a great shot. Keep it safe so you can come to net, finish off there. It’s really helped me.

What about volleys?
Volleys … my coach used to be a professional doubles player, so he’s really helped me just stick it. So my technique is really good on volleys.

What’s your coach’s name?
Sandy Mayer. [Mayer, a former Top 10 ATP player, reached the 1973 Wimbledon semifinals (beating top seed Ilie Nastase along the way); that same year he was part of the Stanford national championship team. Mayer's brother Gene reached #4 in the world; the two brothers teamed up to win the 1979 French Open in men's doubles.]

Postscript: Chari fell in his third round match 6-7(3) 6-3 6-4 to Niroop Vallabhaneni of Paradise Valley, Arizona.