Kelyn Soong

Kelyn Soong is a freelance tennis writer and photographer. He has covered tennis and other sports as an intern for Voice of America and is a regular contributor to USTA/Mid-Atlantic, USTA/Maryland and On The Baseline Tennis News. Kelyn plays USTA league tennis but spends most of his efforts beating friends for bragging rights. He has covered ATP and WTA Tour events, World TeamTennis and junior tournaments in the Mid-Atlantic area. Kelyn currently lives in Maryland and is a Philip Merrill School of Journalism graduate student at the University of Maryland, College Park. To view more of Kelyn’s work, visit his blog at www.kelynsoong.blogspot.com. He can be reached at KelynSoong@gmail.com or on twitter @KelynSoong.

Denis Kudla reflects on young career, sets sights for top 50 (exclusive interview)

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qG7JWOGsyUE&w=560&h=315]

By Kelyn Soong

Denis Kudla may not be a household name in tennis, but he has made significant strides in his three years on the pro tour.

At only 19 years old, Kudla is third youngest player in the top 200 of ATP World Tour rankings.

He is currently ranked world No. 177 and has a career high of No. 168.

This year, Kudla played in his first Grand Slam main draw match in Australia (losing in four sets to Tommy Haas), was one game away from beating Andy Roddick in the second round at the SAP Open and got the opportunity to play one of his idols, Roger Federer, in the second round at Indian Wells.

“My professional career so far has been pretty successful,” Kudla said. “I got through the rankings pretty quick…As long as I keep improving, I’m pretty happy with everything.”

Kudla has wanted to a professional tennis player for as long as he could remember, and he has enjoyed the nomadic lifestyle that comes with the profession.

“Life on tour is pretty good, it’s a different lifestyle,” Kudla said. “You’re traveling every single week – I don’t think I’ve been in the same place for more than 10 days. It’s tough, but I enjoy it. You’re in a different hotel every week, you get to travel the world, new food – it’s the lifestyle I chose.”

After all the traveling, Kudla had time to return to the Washington, D.C. area for a few weeks after his failed bid to reach the Wimbledon main draw.

The Arlington, Va. native practiced and trained with his old coaches and hitting partners at the Tennis Center in College Park in preparation for his next tournament in Newport, RI, which starts July 9.

The tournament holds a special place for Kudla, who recorded his first ATP World Tour win there just a year ago.

As for his future goals, Kudla is setting his sights for a big year.

“In this time next year I want to be potentially top 50,” he said. “I don’t want to give myself too many ranking goals now – I realize that’s maybe not the best way to look at yourself and improving. I just want to be keep being successful, try to make a run at an ATP title and keep improving, and I think everything will come along.”

Brian Baker’s dream season pushes on

By Kelyn Soong

Brian Baker’s biggest win on the ATP World Tour occurred in the first round of the 2005 U.S. Open, where he upset ninth-seeded Gaston Gaudio.

It would be more than six years and five major surgeries later before Baker would earn another ATP main draw victory.

After breezing through the qualifying rounds, the 27-year-old Baker defeated world No. 84 Sergiy Stakhovsky in the first round of the Nice Open in France and will meet fourth seeded Gael Monfils next.

The win continues the comeback story of the former junior phenom, who earned a USTA wild card into the 2012 French Open by winning the Savannah Challenger in Georgia last month. For Baker, it will be a return to the scene he once commanded.

Back in 2003, Baker reached the Boys’ Singles final at Roland Garros – losing to former top 10 player Stanislas Wawrinka. En route he defeated 2006 Australian Open finalist Marcos Baghdatis in the quarterfinals and current world No. 5 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the semifinals. The tennis world had its eyes on the tall, powerful American.

But injuries and surgeries – left hip, sports hernia, right hip, left hip again and a Tommy John elbow procedure – would rear its ugly head.

By the time Baker was 23, the Nashville, Tenn. native returned home and enrolled at nearby Belmont University, where he worked as an assistant tennis coach. He was majoring in business with a finance concentration and still has one more year to complete.

The degree may have to wait a little longer than planned.

Now world No. 216 and not far off from his career best of No. 172 from November 2004, Baker has jumped more than 200 spots since the beginning of the year.

In a career full of twists and turns, Baker now has the chance to make the biggest splash of them all – mounting a comeback that no one expected.

(Photo of Brian Baker by Kathy Willens, AP)

Roger Federer and Serena Williams are still on top of the game

By Kelyn Soong

Over the last couple years both players have been dismissed as past their primes, too old to dominate the game they once owned.

But Roger Federer and Serena Williams, both 30, have been turning back the clock these past few weeks, conquering the blue clay at the Madrid Open and continuing their win streaks at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome, Italy.

With the title – his third in Madrid – Federer surpassed rival Rafael Nadal for the world No. 2 spot and Williams moved up three positions to No. 6, her highest ranking since 2010.

Federer, owner of 16 Grand Slams, continues to deliver on the big stages – showing consistency that few, if any, other players possess. Thirteen-time major champion Williams appears to be returning her dominating form, with convincing straight sets wins over former world No. 1 Maria Sharapova and current world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka in Madrid.

Seeded third in Rome, Federer has battled his way into the quarterfinals and will play crowd favorite, Italian Andreas Seppi next. Seppi saved six match points in his fourth round encounter with Federer’s compatriot Stanislas Wawrinka.

No. 9 seed Williams has reached the semifinals in Rome after Italy’s Flavia Pennetta retired while being down 4-0 in the first set due to a right wrist injury. Williams awaits the winner of 14th seed Dominika Cibulkova and eighth seeded Li Na. Older sister Venus will face No. 2 seed Maria Sharapova in a quarterfinal matchup.

Whether it’s the blue clay of Madrid or the classic red clay of Rome, both players are rising to the occasion and are still on top of the game that was once undisputedly theirs. It wasn’t long ago that some fans and analysts began writing Federer and Serena off as no longer contenders, but these champions continue to prove skeptics wrong.

And these two are just getting warmed up for the main show that begins May 22 at Roland Garros.

Varvara Lepchenko’s successful season continues in Madrid

By Kelyn Soong

What do Serena Williams and Varvara Lepchenko have in common? Both players are into the third round at the 2012 Mutua Madrid Open and are the only American women left in the tournament.

While the former has a much higher profile, Lepchenko, an Uzbek-born American, scored the bigger win with a first round upset over 2010 French Open champion Francesca Schiavone – the best win of her career. She followed up the victory by beating former world No. 11 Shahar Peer in the second round and will take on 30th seed Anabel Medina Garrigues next.

Currently ranked No. 77 in the world, Lepchenko reached a career high No. 73 just last month. The 25-year-old is now the fifth ranked American, behind only Williams (9), older sister Venus (72), and youngsters Christina McHale (36) and Vania King (57).

Born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Lepchenko has lived in the United States since 2001 – the same year she turned pro. She switched nationalities from UZB to USA in 2007 and became a U.S. citizen last September. She currently resides in Allentown, PA.

Lepchenko has spent the past six years bouncing in and out of the top 100 – her highest year-end finish was at world No. 79 in 2010. Her best Grand Slam result has been reaching the second round, which she accomplished at the 2006 U.S. Open, 2010 Wimbledon, and 2010 and 2011 French Open.

But the success in Madrid may signal a breakout year for Lepchenko. Throughout the season she has battled through the qualifying rounds. In addition to Madrid, Lepchenko successfully qualified for the main draw in Melbourne, Paris, Doha, Indian Wells, and Madrid.

Even after more than a decade on the professional tour, it appears that Lepchenko’s best is yet to come.

New sponsor, facility upgrades for Legg Mason Tennis Classic

Change is coming to the nation’s capital and it might take tennis fans some time to adjust.

The Legg Mason Tennis Classic is now the Citi Open, after Legg Mason, the title sponsor of the ATP tournament in Washington, D.C. for the past 18 years, has decided not to renew its contract.

No reason was given for the why the Baltimore-based Legg Mason will no longer be the title sponsor, but Donald Dell, the chairman and co-founder of the tournament, emphasized that both sides parted on good terms.

“I want to thank Legg Mason for their tremendous sponsorship,” he said. “They have been with us 18 years – they were the longest running title sponsor in tennis in North America. We owe the Legg Mason a great bit. They decided not to come back – their contract expired in November. It was a very amicable transition.”

Stepping in to replace Legg Mason is Citigroup Inc., the sponsor of the inaugural professional women’s tournament in College Park, MD last summer, for a five-year deal. The Citi Open will combine the ATP tournament with the women’s event in efforts to attract an even more diverse fan base.

“We are very excited about [having a joint tournament], because over the years we’ve had lots of requests and lots of pressure to have both events – men and women – and the demographics of tennis is 52 percent men and 48 percent women,” said Dell.

The men’s tournament will remain an ATP 500 event, one of only two in the United States (the other is in Memphis), and the women’s will be a $250,000 International Level tournament. Last year’s winner on the men’s side was Radek Stepanek of the Czech Republic, while Russia’s Nadia Petrova claimed the women’s trophy.

Along with the name change and the inclusion of the women’s tournament will be stadium upgrades to accommodate the increase of players. The renovations, which will begin in May and finish before the start of the summer tournament, will include a new show court that seats 2,500 people and five new practice courts. The Washington Tennis and Education Foundation (WTEF), a charitable foundation that provides tennis instruction and education to DC-area youth, privately funded the expansion. The tournament is owned by the organization.

“We built [the stadium] with [WTEF] in 1989, and we just think it’s time to upgrade in a lot of different ways,” said Dell. “We are competing on the world tour. It is very competitive that we have a facility and proper usage of the court site for the players.”

The Citi Open will continue to be held at the William H.G. Fitzgerald Tennis Center in Rock Creek Park and will run from July 28 to Aug. 5.

Because the tournament coincides with the London Olympics, the draw size will decrease from the usual 48 players to 32. While several marquee players will be competing for Olympic medals, current world No. 9 Mardy Fish has already confirmed to play at the Citi Open in preparations for the U.S. Open. Also expected is former world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt.

Despite the tournament expansion, Dell said that there are no plans on increasing parking, but that General Admission ticket prices will most likely not rise.

The name may take some getting used to, but the changes should give tennis fans in the metropolitan area much to be excited about.

Donald Young’s Slump Continues

Donald Young proved doubters wrong last season.

It began with an upset win over then world No. 5 Andy Murray at the 2011 Indian Wells Masters. Then came a series of career highs as Young reached his first ATP semifinals in Washington, D.C., had a fourth round showing at the U.S. Open, and played in his maiden ATP final in Bangkok. After struggling on the ATP Tour, it appeared that Young was on his way to fulfill the potential he showed during his extremely successful junior career.

But despite the momentum heading into the new season and reaching a career high No. 38 in February, the 22-year-old Young is struggling to repeat the success in 2012.

In the nine tournaments Young has played this year he has only gone past the first round twice – at the Australian Open and at Memphis, losing both in the second round. His latest loss came at the hands of world No. 352 Paul-Henri Mathieu, losing 6-0, 6-1 in the first round at the Monte Carlo Masters. It was his fifth consecutive loss to a lower ranked player.

At No. 50 in the world, Young is the fourth ranked American and is still in a position to turn around his sub-par season. And if the 2011 U.S. Open was any indication, American tennis fans are eager to see Young succeed. With each victory in Flushing Meadows, the crowds for Young grew increasing boisterous and spirited. Young, who often exhibits negative body language during his matches, seemed to be on an upward trajectory and the American player to watch. That distinction now belongs to 26-year-old John Isner, who at No. 9 in the world is the top ranked American.

With Young, the coaching question is never far. After accepting an increased role from the USTA coaches last season, Young decided to go back to being coached by his mother Ilona in late 2011. As of now, there is no indication Young will be making any coaching changes.

Young may have proved his skeptics wrong last season, and as a result played with confidence befitting his talents, but he must find his game quickly before the doubts and doubters begin creeping up again.

Young Americans Struggle at Family Circle Cup

The youth movement has stalled temporarily.

Among the American women, the 2012 Family Circle Cup in Charleston, SC has belonged to the tour veterans. The tournament began with 10 main draw players from the United States but only four remain: 5th seed Serena Williams, 30, wildcard Venus Williams, 31, qualifier Jill Craybas, 37, and Varvara Lepchenko, 25, an Uzbek-American who turned pro back in 2001.

The younger Americans have not fared well. Aside from fast-rising Jamie Hampton’s win over compatriot Sloane Stephens, 19, in the first round, none of the other players aged 23 or younger made it into the second round. The 22-year-old Hampton, who is ranked No. 92 in the world, would go on to lose in the following round to second seed Sam Stosur.

Eleventh-seed Christina McHale, 19, faded down the stretch in a three-set loss to Aleksandra Wozniak – marking the first time this year she has lost to a player ranked below her. Twenty-three-year-old Vania King, the 3rd ranked American behind the younger Williams and McHale, exited in straight sets to 12th seed Yanina Wickmayer.

Wildcard Irina Falconi, 21, has hit a slump after exceeding expectations last year. Currently ranked No. 99 in the world, Falconi will have to find her game quickly in order to reach her goal of qualifying for the Olympic team.

Melanie Oudin, ranked No. 304 in the world, needed to win two qualifying matches for a spot in the main draw. Despite losing in three sets to 10th seed Anabel Medina Garrigues, the 20-year-old can take positives away from her experience in Charleston. Oudin showed glimpses of her confidence and fighting spirit that defined her earlier in her career with victories over Heather Watson and Petra Rampre, her first WTA Tour wins this season.

With plenty of tennis to be played, these young players have a lot to look forward to. The spotlight may belong to them in the future, but for the rest of the week in Charleston, it’s the veterans’ time to shine.

(Photo of Christina McHale by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images North America)

Bartoli Ends Azarenka’s Win Streak

With the result of the match no longer in question, tears began forming in Victoria Azarenka’s eyes. There would be no magic escape from defeat this time around.

Marion Bartoli, ranked a career-high No. 7, beat world No. 1 Azarenka 6-3, 6-3 in a convincing fashion to end the Belarussian’s 26-match win streak. The 27-year-old Frenchwoman kept Azarenka on her heels all night and won six out of 10 break points. As the match wore on, it was evident that the 22-year-old Azarenka was running out of steam. She finished the match with 16 winners to Bartoli’s 27.

“I honestly never seen her play that well,” said Azarenka, who owns an 8-3 head-to-head edge over Bartoli. “But, I mean, all the credit to her. She did an amazing job today.”

Bartoli will play fifth seed Agnieszka Radwanska next in the Sony Ericsson Open semifinals. She is through to the final four in Miami for the second time (2010) and is aiming for her first final at the WTA Premier Mandatory event.

“I think the main key for me was the belief and really to step up on the court trying to win the match,” said Bartoli, the 2007 Wimbledon runner-up. “Not only thinking about how well she’s playing and everything, but really go on the court, having a game plan and try to go for my shots.”

Azarenka has been the dominant player on the WTA Tour this year. She has won four titles, including her first Grand Slam – the Australian Open – to become the top ranked player in the world. But in the quarterfinals against Dominika Cibulkova in Miami, Azarenka was forced to dig deep and fought back to emerge with a 1-6, 7-6, 7-5 victory, keeping her 2012 win streak alive. It was the longest win streak to start a year since Steffi Graf began the 1990 season with 25 wins. Five-time Grand Slam winner Martina Hingis holds the record for the longest season opening streak at 37 wins.

“What I’ve done in the last couple of months, I have to be really proud of myself,” said Azarenka. “For sure, you know, I could have maybe played better today, that’s for sure, but I gave it all I had. Physically I was just not able to do anything today. It was just not possible. You know, I’m a human, not a super woman, and I wish I could be but I’m not (smiling).”

While Azarenka will get some time to rest, Bartoli will be getting ready for Radwanska, a player she has not defeated in six tries.

“I know the stats (smiling),” said Bartoli. “But I think a first is always to happen, so maybe it’s going to be my first tomorrow. But I know it’s not going to be easy. That’s for sure. I know I will have to run a lot, a lot more forward, because I know she’s going to make a lot of dropshots. I’m going to be ready.”

Vania King: A Model of Consistency

Call it the Vania King generation.

With the Williams sisters seemingly nearing the end of their careers and the focus of American tennis turning to young rising stars such as Christina McHale and Sloane Stephens, King remains one of the standout players who fits neither group – the other being 26-year-old Bethanie Mattek-Sands, a former American No. 1.

The oft-overlooked King has reached success mostly as a doubles player – winning the 2010 Wimbledon and U.S. Open women’s doubles titles with partner Yaroslava Shevdova – but has enjoyed a consistently strong singles career as well.

The 23-year-old southern California native turned pro at the age of 17 in July 2006. She would go on to reach a career high of No. 50 in the world a few months later. Since then, King has never finished a season ranked lower than No. 129. She is now the third ranked American behind Serena Williams and McHale at world No. 54.

And she is just getting started.

“I think my game has evolved a lot,” King told Tennis Grandstand. “Most importantly, my motivation and my confidence have been good. I’ve been happy with playing. Obviously, I feel like my tennis has improved. I feel like I have a lot to improve still. It’s always a good thing to know that you can be better – I’ll have something to look forward to.”

When speaking of her current status in the game, King turned philosophical.

“I’m trying not to worry too much about the ranking; I’m trying to focus on each match and my game itself,” she said. “I feel like if you’re playing well, the results will come. It’s not a reflection of the number that you have, it’s more of a reflection of the work you’ve done before.

Although her only WTA title came in 2006 at the now defunct PTT Bangkok Open, King has experienced a recent surge in success at the big stages. A run into the third rounds at last year’s French Open and U.S. Open was followed by a third round finish at the 2012 Australian Open – her best results at the majors.

At the BNP Paribas Open last week, King came down with the stomach virus that affected many other players and was forced to withdraw after posting two strong victories over higher ranked opponents. Still not feeling 100 percent, she defeated Laura Pous-Tio to open her Sony Ericsson Open campaign in Miami. She takes on 15th seed Ana Ivanovic, who defeated her earlier this year in Melbourne, in the second round.

Even with the success on court, King has never been one to let tennis consume her life. The youngest of four children of Taiwanese immigrants – her brother Phillip was also a professional tennis player – King has found passions in other outlets. A very talented singer, she has performed at baseball stadiums and night sessions at Arthur Ashe Stadium. Additionally, King has been taking online classes for the past half year.

“I think I’d be something like a guidance counselor for kids, that’s something that I want to pursue,” she said, when asked what career she would have chosen aside from tennis. “I haven’t declared my major yet, but I’m studying online right now. I’d like to work in something like elementary education or psychology.”

King may not be the headline American player at tournaments or have experienced a notable break out match that some of the younger players have, but she has been a stalwart of the U.S. contingent ever since turning pro.

If it feels like Vania King has been around the pro tennis circuits for a long time, it is because she has. And she is not going anywhere, anytime soon.

(Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images North America)

Ivanovic Cruises to Victory Over Wozniacki

The battle of two former world No. 1s turned out to be a one-sided affair.

Ana Ivanovic, playing some of her best tennis in recent memory, overwhelmed defending champion Caroline Wozniacki in a convincing 6-3, 6-2 victory at the 2012 BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells. It was her first top-10 win since October 2011, when she defeated No. 3 Vera Zvonareva in Beijing.

The pair had split their encounters coming into the fourth round match, with two victories each, but there was no stopping Ivanovic on this night.

The 24-year-old Serb, currently ranked No. 16 in the world, blasted forehands and backhands past Wozniacki, the No. 4 seed, and dictated points from the beginning of the match. Ivanovic finished with 24 winners and 28 unforced errors, while the error-prone Wozniacki had only four winners and 17 unforced errors. Normally a shaky server, Ivanovic turned in three aces for good measure.

“I was really looking for opportunities, and, you know, trying to come in, as well, whenever I had chance, and trying to step in from both sides and trying to stay calm in my serve and execute the way I was executing in practice,” said Ivanovic in her post match press conference. “I really managed to do that well today.”

And she not only played with power, but with precision and poise.

Up 4-2 in the second set and holding a break point, a long rally ensued. Wozniacki started to hit with conviction but a well timed and perfectly placed drop shot by Ivanovic left the 21-year-old Dane flat-footed. Ivanovic, whose right thigh was taped throughout the match, had broken Wozniacki for the fifth time.

“She just played better than me today,” said a dejected Wozniacki. “I just need to get back and practice on a few things and hopefully get back strong for Miami.”

The victory improves Ivanovic’s 2012 record to 10 wins and 5 losses. She takes on No. 7 seed Marion Bartoli next in the quarterfinals. Wozniacki’s 2012 record drops to 9 wins and 5 losses, and questions on whether she can regain her top spot or win a Grand Slam will persist.

Both players have been world No. 1, but on this night it was the confident Ivanovic who looked as if she could dominate on the WTA Tour.