American junior Samantha Crawford charges to her first Slam title at U.S. Open

Samantha Crawford during her title win at the US Open

By David Kane, Special for Tennis Grandstand

Tennis has a way of giving its fans an eerie sense of symmetry.

Why else would I find myself watching Samantha Crawford play for the US Open girls’ singles title nearly two weeks after watching her on the same court in women’s qualifying. That day, I had had no idea who Crawford was, and viewed her only as a stepping-stone for another established junior, Irina Khromacheva, to make her foray up and into the senior level.

Tennis also has a way of punishing fans that don’t do their homework.

Far from a pushover, the 17-year-old Georgia native clad in Nike and armed with an orange Wilson racquet, clocks the ball as hard and flat as another former US Open girls’ champion, Lindsay Davenport. And Crawford stood her ground as she played the final junior Slam of 2012 like a big fish in a small pond.

After qualifying for the senior main draw (with wins over Khromacheva and former top 20 player Eleni Daniilidou) and pushing giant killer Laura Robson in the first round, Crawford entered the junior tournament unseeded and relatively under the radar amidst a field of more celebrated junior prospects like compatriot Taylor Townsend and Yulia Putintseva. Free from pressure, the American made light work of her unseeded opponents and eeked out tight three-setters against higher ranked opponents like Sachia Vickery.

She didn’t have to play the feisty Putintseva, who withdrew from their quarterfinal clash with a rumored heart problem. But after seeing her trounce Khromacheva and Estonia’s Anett Kontaveti in the girls’ final today, I’m willing to argue that Crawford would have emerged victorious from that encounter as well. While many of the higher ranked juniors are undersized baseliners, Crawford is tall (6’2” to be exact) and has an effortlessly powerless serve that makes her appear light-years ahead of her similarly aged opponents who struggle on their second – and even their first – delivery.

Against Kontaveit, she started on the back foot, failing to put enough first serves in and falling too far behind the baseline, allowing the Estonian, who hits hard enough on both sides to be called a baby Kaia Kanepi, to dictate from the onset. But just like against Khromacheva, the young American began to find her range and once she did, the match was all but over. The Estonian has had a solid year at the junior Slams and a win over Townsend this week to be proud of, but she didn’t serve even half as well as her opponent, failing to consolidate a single break or 30-15 point on her racquet.

Crawford meanwhile, got better and better as the first set wore on, looking visibly giddy as she clocked short balls into the corner and converted her first opportunity to take the opening set. Nerve-free, she never looked back as she broke several more times to take the match in straight sets. The giggles and bubbly personality shone through during the trophy ceremony; Crawford barely got any words out and only provided nervous laughter as explanation for three weeks of utterly serious tennis.

For all the high-profile stories involving the next generation of WTA superstars, Crawford’s spectacularly underrated showing may prove to be a springboard that will have her laughing last for years to come.

David Kane is an avid tennis fan reporting from the grounds of the U.S. Open. You can follow him on Twitter @ovafanboy.