WASHINGTON, D.C. — Despite home soil advantage, it was a rocky day for American tennis players on the grounds of the Citi Open in Washington, D.C. as nine players went out in the first round of play on the men’s and women’s side.
In the biggest stunner of the day, 19-year-old Sloane Stephens went down to world No. 88 Olga Puchkova in very uncharacteristic form, 7-5, 6-3. From her first service game, Stephens was broken and it continued downhill through five more breaks. She continued to send balls long and mid-way through the second set, she seemed void of energy, just standing in frustration looking to her team in the stands after errors.
But Stephens herself isn’t that worried about Monday night’s performance, citing the quick turn around from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., the differing courts and her poor practice in the days prior to her match.
“Leading up (to the match), I didn’t practice that great,” admitted Stephens. “I just wasn’t feeling the ball that well. Sometimes you just have tough days like that. Unfortunate that it came today and I couldn’t really get it together.”
Physically, she “felt fine,” even joking that “when I’m injured I play great, and then when I’m healthy I can’t hit a ball right.”
Looking forward to the US Open, she feels the home pressure is inevitable based on her recent Slam results, but chooses to focus on her game, saying “I don’t care anymore” about the buzz.
“Everyone is going to be like, ‘You should do really well here because you’ve done well in all of the Slams,’” commented Stephens. “If I lose first round, you guys, just don’t be upset.”
Earlier in the day in just his fourth tournament of the year, Mardy Fish continued his comeback on unsteady ground as he found himself down a set against Australian Matt Ebden, 6-2. He opened up the second set by winning a 22-point game, breaking Ebden three times before taking it 6-1, and closing it 6-3 in the final set.
A sober Fish arrived in press, feeling healthy and “satisfied to win,” but he admitted to being drained of energy.
“It’s a process. Fitness is a big a part of playing, and sometimes that spells trouble for me … My expectations as far as winning the tournament are pretty low. I’m just enjoying competing right now.”
2002 champion James Blake also faced a tough opponent in another fellow Aussie, Marinko Matosevic, except the end results didn’t favor the American as he went down 6-2, 7-6(6).
“I never really got any real rhythm at all on my serve, and that made all the difference in the first set,” said Blake. “I got back into the second set, and had my chances … but missed it.”
Despite the early exit, Blake still has fond memories of the tournament, and enjoys the support he gets from fans
“(Washington, D.C.) was the first tournament I ever won,” he said. “It was an unbelievable week beating one of my idols, Andre Agassi in the semis. And really fond memories of beating Paradorn Srichaphan in the final.”
So, what is next for the 33-year-old father?
“I don’t know. Right now, that’s a tough question. I don’t feel great about the way I played today. My plan has always been, play through the summer and then see where I’m at. See where my body is at, where my head’s at, how I’m feeling, how much I want to travel, how much I still enjoy it all — if my body allows me to keep going.”
Monday play also included a late night win by 21-year-old Melanie Oudin. However, seven additional Americans failed to reach the second round, including Steve Johnson, Denis Kudla, Rhyne Williams, Rajeev Ram, Christian McHale, Jessica Pegula, and Beatrice Capra.
Play is already in full swing as qualifiers took to the courts for their matches, and top players like Juan Martin del Potro, Andrea Petkovic and Tommy Haas hit the practice courts on a hot weekend in Washington, D.C. to kick off the Citi Open.
Check out the full gallery from opening weekend, including other players like Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori, Irina Falconi, Jessica Pegula, Rhyne Williams, Donald Young, Christian Harrison, Caroline Garcia, Matt Ebden, and Sloane Stephens.
Gallery by Tennis Grandstand photographer Christopher Levy.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Twenty-two-year-old Rhyne Williams captured his first win at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C. as he defeated good friend Robby Ginepri in the grueling heat, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3. (Gallery at bottom)
The pair went our for dinner Friday night in D.C. joking about the possibility of having to play each other in yet another tournament, after Williams most recently defeated his fellow American to win the Dallas Challenger in February.
Williams acknowledged how tough of a competitor Ginepri was again today.
“I played Robby so many times, we know each other’s game so well,” said Williams. “I knew it was going to be tough from the first point. We always have battles. He likes to run me side to side, I’ve noticed. So it was fun to get to play him again.”
Despite the nine aces, the Tennessee native admitted to having some right shoulder trouble the past couple of months and feeling “a little banged up right now,” but is hoping it’s nothing serious. He plans on checking it out sometime after this week’s tournament, but not before attending his sister’s wedding next weekend.
So what if Williams happens to make a deep run at the Citi Open and is forced to miss his sister’s wedding?
“She’ll probably be pissed,” he laughed. “But I have to do it!”
I sat down with the charismatic, funny and level-headed Williams as he talked about his family’s tennis legacy, his love for Chipotle and his most embarrassing moment among other topics. Get to know one of American tennis’ rising stars!
What is your most memorable moment?
I’ll probably say qualifying for the US Open last year. Not only qualifying but I got to play Andy Roddick on Ashe stadium. That was a blast. To feel that environment for my first time — I’ll never forget that. …. That’s by far my favorite tournament.
How did you first start playing tennis?
My mom taught me tennis. She was top 100 in the world, so she taught me when I was 7 or 8 years old. We got out there a couple of times per week. I also played a lot of basketball and baseball growing up, but decided on tennis. Everybody (in the family plays.) You wouldn’t believe it. It’s overwhelming at times, but they’ve done a good job letting me do my thing. My cousin is with me all the time, and that’s been great. We’ve been not only family, but best friends. We grew up across the street from each other, hit every day growing up. No one knows me really as well as Christopher does.
If you were hosting a party, what three tennis players would you invite and why?
(Laughs) I would invite Roger (Federer) – he’s my all-time favorite. I guess I have to throw a female in there too. I’ll go with Ana Ivanovic, another one of my favorites. And then, I’ll probably invite my best buddy, Tennys Sandgren.
What is one thing that scares you?
Flying. I used to never, never be fazed. But lately, I can’t even handle a little bump. I freak out, grab an armrest. I’m terrified now; it’s awful.
There are a few in D.C.
Yes, we went. I’ve been.
Yea. (Laughs) … So, Chipotle … and college sports.
If you weren’t a tennis player, what would you be doing?
I would probably be playing baseball. That was my first love. The first thing I picked up was a baseball bat and gloves. My dad and I used to throw the baseball around and have batting practice.
What is your most embarrassing moment?
(Laughs) I was playing a Future in Spain a long time ago — I think I was 16 years old. And there was a pretty good crowd; I was playing one of the hometown favorites and everyone was cheering for him. I was acting like an idiot. I think I ran for a dropshot, didn’t get it. Got mad. Kicked the net and my foot got stuck in the net. I fell down on the court and everyone in the crowd erupted into cheers. I actually injured my tailbone from doing that. I was hobbling around the rest of the match and ended up losing. I deserved it. (Laughs)
What’s the secret to keeping your cool on court now, after being somewhat notorious for smashing racquets and such?
Don’t jinx it! (Laughs) Maybe I’m just growing up, I don’t know. It’s such a day-by-day thing. Some days I really love being out there. Some days I just can’t stand it. That’s why I have Christopher to try and keep me happy and calm out there.
Sometimes there’s just no turning back (from an outburst), but sometimes I can catch myself before it gets out of hand. But I have been better. It really just depends if I’m mentally fresh, then I’m probably going to hold it together. If I’m worn out or something is bothering me off the court, then maybe I’m more likely to smash a racquet or something. But I’ve been working on it really hard for sure.
What are your goals for the year in terms of progress or ranking?
I really want to make the push for the top 100. I think I’m already really close. But if I do end up breaking that, I don’t want to be satisfied with that. I want to stay inside the top 100, and be in all the Grand Slams without having to qualify.
That’s where I want to be the rest of my career. I think it’s doable. I still have a lot of work to do and a lot of growing up to do, but I think I’m on the right track. And I see guys like Steve (Johnson), Jack (Sock) and Denis (Kudla) who have all done it. We’re all pushing each other up the rankings, and that’s so great about having peers that are trying to do the same thing you are. You want to push yourself to stay on pace with them. It’s been nice having a group – we’re all friends and good buddies — who are doing the same thing as you.
Gallery by Tennis Grandstand photographer Christopher Levy.
Among the annual narratives of the US Open Series are the glimpses of rising American talents on both Tours. The first week of the 2013 Series shone a spotlight on a dozen of these players in Atlanta and Stanford, small events without draws too daunting. Some took advantage of the breathing room this week, while others allowed opportunities to escape them.
Ryan Harrison: He had not reached an ATP quarterfinal since early January, compiling barely more wins in 2013 than one could count on the figures of one hand. But Harrison ended that drought and bolstered his sagging ranking by weathering a pair of rollercoasters against higher-ranked opponents. He outlasted Marinko Matosevic and the fourth-seeded Igor Sijsling more from superior determination than superior tennis. Under the Friday night lights, Harrison will face Santiago Giraldo in a rematch of an Australian Open meeting that he won comfortably. A first career final is not inconceivable.
Christian Harrison: Every player must remember the moment of their first victory in the main draw an ATP tournament. For Ryan’s 19-year-old brother, that moment came in the first round of Atlanta. While Alejandro Falla entered that match drained from last week’s Bogota finals run, Christian still showed impressive grit by battling through three tight sets to upset an opponent ranked 210 places higher. The grit resurfaced a round later, when he fell to the top-seeded Isner by the narrowest of margins. Christian battled a far more powerful, far more experienced opponent deep into the third set, nearly scoring a massive upset.
Jack Sock: A quarterfinalist at Atlanta last year, Sock could not recapture his success despite his clear advantage in power over Santiago Giraldo. This Colombian clay specialist even out-aced Sock on a hard court. Since reaching the quarterfinals in Memphis, Sock has not advanced past the second round of any ATP tournament. Accumulated frustration from those struggles may have contributed to his outbursts of temper in Atlanta. Fans should remember that Sock remains a raw, unfinished talent still a few years away from fulfilling his potential.
Rhyne Williams: Raining aces aplenty on both of his opponents, this prospect established himself as an intimidating server in the mold of many American men before him. Williams powered past compatriot higher-ranked compatriot Denis Kudla in the first round without dropping his serve. He threatened to spring an upset on the seventh-seeded, much more experienced Lleyton Hewitt behind another barrage of aces. But his inexperience showed in the first-set tiebreak, which Williams lost after holding four consecutive set points and donating a costly double fault.
Denis Kudla: The world No. 93 showed promise in North American challengers this spring and by reaching the quarterfinals at Queen’s Club. Kudla’s modest serve left him at a critical disadvantage against a torrid Williams, so Atlanta fans could not fully appreciate his skills in other areas. He will hope for more advantageous draws as the US Open Series continues.
Tim Smyczek: Just behind Williams in the rankings, Smyczek earned attention at the Australian Open when he upset Ivo Karlovic and won a set from David Ferrer. Since that promising statement, Smyczek has won just three main-draw matches at ATP tournaments. Curiously, two of those have come against notable opponents in Fernando Verdasco and Sam Querrey. Smyczek needs to exploit opportunities in winnable matches better than in his loss to James Blake. At 5-5 in the third set, he could not convert break points that might have sealed the match.
Jamie Hampton: Like Smyczek, Hampton emerged on the radar of observant fans in Melbourne, where she won a set from eventual champion Victoria Azarenka. A clay upset of Petra Kvitova signaled a second peak in June, marked by a stirring run to the Eastbourne final as a qualifier. The 23-year-old Hampton holds a seed for the first time this week. She carried that burden with mixed results in her opener, striking over 50 winners while spraying plenty of careless errors. A semifinal looms against Agnieszka Radwanska, whom she defeated in Eastbourne. She must clean up her game by then.
Madison Keys: In a tale of two matches, Keys dominated eighth seed Magdalena Rybarikova and then fell quietly to qualifier Vera Dushevina. Eagerness to find a successor to the Williams sisters, which Keys could become, should not blind onlookers to the inconsistency in her results this year. She often plays to the level of her competition, a trait common among young, raw talents, and more growing pains will lie ahead before we can rely on her as a late-week threat. Stanford brought a dose of optimism and a dash of realism, a healthy recipe for both Keys and her fans to consume.
Christina McHale: A once-promising talent veered off the rails when McHale fell victim last year to mononucleosis, often a death sentence for tennis careers. The New Jersey native has time to regroup, though, for she just turned 21 in May. McHale has advanced past the second round at only one tournament (Doha) in the last 11 months, but she has troubled top-15 opponents such as Li Na, Sara Errani, and Maria Kirilenko this year. Still searching for confidence, she won just four games from Urszula Radwanska in the first round of Stanford.
Coco Vandeweghe: Reaching last year’s Stanford final as a lucky loser, she qualified for the main draw this time and routed her first opponent. The somewhat less inconsistent Sorana Cirstea then ended Vandeweghe’s bid for another breakthrough. Back inside the top 200, the Southern California slugger wields a huge serve—and not much else. She accomplished about as much as one could expect in the context of her year overall.
Mallory Burdette: Unfortunate to draw Marion Bartoli in the first round last year, Burdette enjoyed only slightly better fortune by facing Francesca Schiavone in this year’s opener. The Italian has feasted on inexperienced players like the Stanford alum, who became a full-time pro last fall. Despite her dwindling form, Schiavone pulled away in straight sets to hand Burdette her fourth straight loss. She will hope for less thorny draws as the US Open Series progresses.
Nicole Gibbs: The best player in NCAA women’s tennis again received a wildcard to the tournament at her university. Gibbs produced a result similar on paper to her Stanford appearance in 2012, when she won one match before losing the second. But her three-set dogfight with the fourth-seeded Hampton revealed the toughness behind her gentle demeanor. Gibbs easily could have grown disheartened after failing to serve out the second set, or after falling behind 0-4 in the third. Her resilience in both of those situations suggested that she has the heart to succeed in the WTA, if perhaps not the weapons.
The US Open Series kicks off this week in the sweltering summer heat of Atlanta. Perhaps uninspired by those conditions, most of the leading ATP stars have spurned that stop on the road to New York. But Atlanta still offers glimpses of rising stars, distinctive characters, and diverse playing styles. For those who prefer familiar names, two tournaments on European clay offer more tantalizing fare.
Top half: The march toward the final major of the year starts with a whimper more than a roar, featuring only two men on track for a US Open seed and none in the top 20. Fresh from his exploits at home in Bogota, Alejandro Falla travels north for a meeting with Ryan Harrison’s younger brother, Christian Harrison. The winner of that match would face top seed John Isner, a former finalist in Atlanta. Isner, who once spearheaded the University of Georgia tennis team, can expect fervent support as he attempts to master the conditions. He towers over a section where the long goodbye of James Blake and the rise of Russian hope Evgeny Donskoy might collide.
Atlanta features plenty of young talent up and down its draw, not all of it American. Two wildcards from the host nation will vie for a berth in the second round, both Denis Kudla and Rhyne Williams having shown flashes of promise. On the other hand, Ricardas Berankis has shown more than just flashes of promise. Destined for a clash with third seed Ivan Dodig, the compact Latvian combines a deceptively powerful serve with smooth touch and a pinpoint two-handed backhand. His best result so far came on American soil last year, a runner-up appearance in Los Angeles. Berankis will struggle to echo that feat in a section that includes Lleyton Hewitt. A strong summer on grass, including a recent final in Newport, has infused the former US Open champion with plenty of momentum.
Semifinal: Isner vs. Hewitt
Bottom half: The older and more famous Harrison finds himself in a relatively soft section, important for a player who has reached just one quarterfinal in the last twelve months. Ryan Harrison’s disturbingly long slump included a first-round loss in Atlanta last year, something that he will look to avoid against Australian No. 3 Marinko Matosevic. Nearby looms Nebraska native Jack Sock, more explosive but also less reliable. The draw has placed Sock on a collision course with returning veteran Mardy Fish, the sixth seed and twice an Atlanta champion. Fish has played just one ATP tournament this year, Indian Wells, as he copes with physical issues. Less intriguing is fourth seed Igor Sijsling, who upset Milos Raonic at Wimbledon but has not sustained consistency long enough to impress.
Bombing their way through the Bogota draw last week, Ivo Karlovic and Kevin Anderson enjoyed that tournament’s altitude. They squared off in a three-set semifinal on Saturday but would meet as early as the second round in Atlanta. Few of the other names in this section jump out at first glance, so one of the Americans in the section above might need to cope with not just the mind-melting heat but a mind-melting serve.
Semifinal: Fish vs. Anderson
Final: Hewitt vs. Anderson
Top half: As fellow blogger Josh Meiseles (@TheSixthSet) observed, Roger Federer should feel grateful to see neither Sergei Stakhovsky nor Federico Delbonis in his half of the draw. Those last two nemeses of his will inspire other underdogs against the Swiss star in the weeks ahead, though. Second-round opponent Daniel Brands needs little inspiration from others, for he won the first set from Federer in Hamburg last week. Adjusting to his new racket, Federer will fancy his chances against the slow-footed Victor Hanescu if they meet in a quarterfinal. But Roberto Bautista Agut has played some eye-opening tennis recently, including a strong effort against David Ferrer at Wimbledon.
A season of disappointments continued for fourth seed Juan Monaco last week when he fell well short of defending his Hamburg title. The path looks a little easier for him at this lesser tournament, where relatively few clay specialists lurk in his half. Madrid surprise semifinalist Pablo Andujar has not accomplished much of note since then, and sixth seed Mikhail Youzhny lost his first match in Hamburg. Youzhny also lost his only previous meeting with Monaco, who may have more to fear from Bucharest finalist Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in the second round.
Semifinal: Federer vs. Monaco
Bottom half: Welcome to the land of the giant-killers, spearheaded by seventh seed Lukas Rosol. Gone early in Hamburg, Rosol did win the first title of his career on clay this spring. But the surface seems poorly suited to his all-or-nothing style, and Marcel Granollers should have the patience to outlast him. The aforementioned Federico Delbonis faces an intriguing start against Thomaz Bellucci, a lefty who can shine on clay when healthy (not recently true) and disciplined (rarely true). Two of the ATP’s more notable headcases could collide as well. The reeling Janko Tipsarevic seeks to regain a modicum of confidence against Robin Haase, who set the ATP record for consecutive tiebreaks lost this year.
That other Federer-killer, Sergiy Stakhovsky, can look forward to a battle of similar styles against fellow serve-volleyer Feliciano Lopez. Neither man thrives on clay, so second seed Stanislas Wawrinka should advance comfortably through this section. Unexpectedly reaching the second week of Wimbledon, Kenny de Schepper looks to prove himself more than a one-hit wonder. Other than Wawrinka, the strongest clay credentials in this section belong to Daniel Gimeno-Traver.
Semifinal: Granollers vs. Wawrinka
Final: Federer vs. Wawrinka
Top half: Historically less than imposing in the role of the favorite, Richard Gasquet holds that role as the only top-20 man in the draw. He cannot count on too easy a route despite his ranking, for Nice champion Albert Montanes could await in his opener and resurgent compatriot Gael Monfils a round later. Gasquet has not played a single clay tournament this year below the Masters 1000 level, so his entry in Umag surprises. The presence of those players makes more sense, considering the clay expertise of Montanes and the cheap points available for Monfils to rebuild his ranking. Nearly able to upset Federer in Hamburg last week, seventh seed Florian Mayer will hope to make those points less cheap than Monfils expects.
In pursuit of his third straight title, Fabio Fognini sweeps from Stuttgart and Hamburg south to Gstaad. This surprise story of the month will write its next chapter against men less dangerous on clay, such as recent Berdych nemesis Thiemo de Bakker. An exception to that trend, Albert Ramos has reached two clay quarterfinals this year. Martin Klizan, Fognini’s main threat, prefers hard courts despite winning a set from Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros.
Semifinal: Gasquet vs. Fognini
Bottom half: Although he shone on clay at Roland Garros, Tommy Robredo could not recapture his mastery on the surface when he returned there after Wimbledon. Early exits in each of the last two weeks leave him searching for answers as the fifth seed in Bastad. A clash of steadiness against stylishness awaits in the quarterfinals if Robredo meets Alexandr Dolgopolov there. The mercurial Dolgopolov has regressed this year from a breakthrough season in 2012.
The surprise champion in Bastad, Carlos Berlocq, may regret a draw that places him near compatriot Horacio Zeballos. While he defeated Berlocq in Vina del Mar this February, Zeballos has won only a handful of matches since upsetting Nadal there. Neither Argentine bore heavy expectations to start the season, unlike second seed Andreas Seppi. On his best surface, Seppi has a losing record this year with first-round losses at six of eight clay tournaments.
Semifinal: Robredo vs. Berlocq
Final: Fognini vs. Robredo
(July 15, 2013) A few weeks ago, Tennis Grandstand teamed up with Athletic DNA to give three lucky fans the chance to submit a question for American tennis player Tim Smyczek, while in the process winning one of the brand’s new tops from their popular summer 2013 line.
Last week, Smyczek defeated top American Sam Querrey in the first round of Newport, and this morning, he will be battling it out alongside fellow American Rhyne Williams for the Newport doubles title.
Many great fan questions were submitted, Smyczek had a good time answering them and even reminiscing over a few, and now the entire video is viewable for all to enjoy.
Smyczek dishes on how he first started in tennis, his greatest strength, who his idol was growing up and even jokes about the mustache he had to sport last Fall because of a lost bet. Check out that and more in the fun video below!
(Video courtesy of Athletic DNA)
It sometimes feels like there is a long-standing tradition of Americans skipping the European clay court season. Oh, everyone will play Roland Garros because even a first-round loss at a Slam is too much money to pass up and the Slams are prestigious enough to merit playing on an uncomfortable surface. But no American since Agassi really seems to expect to win more than a few matches in Paris. The evidence is in the fact that no American ever really seems to take the clay preludes to Roland Garros seriously.
John Isner looks like he wants to buck the trend. Even though it ended disastrously for him, he took a late wild card to play Monte Carlo and really looked like he wanted to get more match play in on the dirt. Of all the Americans, he has the best chance to do well on clay and appears to have finally decided to try and pick up his results in Europe—which have not been good in his career, to say the least. Isner will also play Nice the week before Roland Garros. And while it is often debated whether or not playing the week before a Slam is a good idea, it clearly shows that Isner is in the right frame of mind here.
Sam Querrey seems to have gone the standard American route and will only play Madrid and Rome before the French Open. And, while we should not conjecture anything bad here, Americans since Andy Roddick have often found ways to avoid playing one or two of those Masters events each year.
After those two, it’s not only in Europe where Americans can’t be found. It’s really anywhere. Mardy Fish is still in the top 50 on the back of a good summer last year, but he has only played 1 tournament in the last 6 months and a heart condition isn’t always something that you can heal or fix. He is playing in the Savannah Challenger this week, but you have to begin to wonder how much longer he can physically play tennis.
Brian Baker, last year’s amazing comeback story, is still out with a torn meniscus suffered at the Australian Open. Ryan Harrison and Donald Young, both of whom have been in the top 50 within the past year, have dropped considerably. James Blake and Mike Russell are consistently in the tail end of the top 100, which seems to have been their constant place in the last 5 years.
The most spirited American tennis during the clay season always seems to come on the Challenger tour. This is because the USTA gives their wild card for the French Open to the player who earns the most total points in the Sarasota, Savannah, and Tallahassee Challengers. These players mostly know that their chances of getting through qualifiers and actually playing in a Slam, especially on clay, aren’t so high. Thus, we often see these 100+ ranked players giving everything they can and more in these tournaments.
Of the Americans outside the top 100, Rhyne Williams is rising. He began really improve last season and this looks to be his breakout year. He gained over 300 rankings spots in 2012, from 510 up to 191 and is currently ranked #119 in the world. Jack Sock and Steve Johnson, two talented youngsters, are still looking for their first breakthroughs on the professional tour. And Alex Kuznetsov, a once-hyped player who hasn’t been able to do that much with his career won the Sarasota Challenger and has the inside track for that wild card and his first-ever French Open Main Draw.
April 13, 2013 – In a semifinal that was physically much closer than the scoreline indicated, world No. 12 and US Men’s Clay Court Championship No. 1 seed Nicolas Almagro defeated 22-year-old rising American Rhyne Williams, 6-2, 6-1.
But don’t be fooled by the skewed scoreline, as eight of the first eleven games went to 30 or deuce on each player’s serve. Given Almagro’s commanding style to punish his opponents by running them around the court, Williams took the early initiative on most points in the first set, but his transition game and net play got over-powered by one of the best active players on clay.
Leading up the match, Williams had spent nearly seven hours on court in Houston, while Almagro not even half of that. After his win yesterday, Williams admitted that his left quad and glut were sore and that he was near cramping. He wasn’t sure how his body would hold up in the semi today, but he played through any pain to put on a stellar performance for the crowd.
On groundstrokes and serving alone, the match was nearly a draw. But it was Almagro’s experience on clay that proved most effective in the end and he advanced to his 19th career final on clay.
Despite today’s loss, Williams should feel confident with his performance this week and celebrate his breakthrough. Not only will he reach a career-high ranking of around 116 come Monday, but in only his first ATP-level clay court tournament, Williams recorded his first ATP quarterfinal and semifinal appearances — and no less on his favorite surface. “An American with his best surface on clay?” you might be asking. Yes. Despite his recent hard court title in Dallas, his first three tournament titles all came at clay events in Madrid, Florida and Pennsylvania.
Williams, who received a wildcard into Houston, earlier this week posted wins over Argentine Guido Pella 7-5, 7-5 in the first round, 2007 champion Ivo Karlovic 6-4, 6-7(5), 7-6(3) and Spaniard Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo 7-6(1), 1-6, 6-4 to reach the semis.
With his fiery and animated personality on court, it’s sometimes difficult to tell whether Williams is happy or angry from photos, and he has joked about the same. (For the record, the photo at right was taken after he defeated Ramirez Hidalgo to reach the semis. See? Not so simple.) But whether he’s smashing his racquet in disgust due to a bad serve, or fist-pumping after a wicked forehand winner, he always wears his heart on his sleeve – and it’s easy to get behind the American with his recent success.
So, where does Williams fit in with the current crop of fresh-faced Americans on tour? Well, for one, he is now the youngest and highest-ranked American of generation “next,” and the new No. 9 ranked American overall.
With the retirement of Andy Roddick last year and the ensuing hype of finding the next top American in the likes of players like Jack Sock and Steve Johnson, Williams has emerged onto the Tour a bit under the radar. Until now, that is. He has now not only out-ranked his fellow Americans, but outplayed them as well, leading their overall head-to-head matchups seven to four.
While it’s true that you shouldn’t judge a player based on one great run at a tournament, Williams’ trajectory has been far from that as his 2013 results show.
After finishing off the 2012 season ranked at a respectable 192 after starting the year outside of the top 500, Williams had a bit of a slow start during his first trip to Australia. He lost in the qualifying rounds of Brisbane and Sydney before falling in the first round of the Australian Open after being up two sets to love against No. 25 seed Florian Mayer. The former Tennessee Volunteer then kicked it into high gear and went on to win his first Challenger title in Dallas the following month by defeating veteran Robby Ginepri. Two weeks later, Williams qualified for his home state tournament in Memphis and defeated former USC Trojan Steve Johnson in the first round before falling to world No. 23 Alexandr Dolgopolov, 6-4 in the third.
After appearances in Indian Wells and Miami in March, Williams headed back to the USTA Training Center in Boca Raton, FL where he trains, to continue working on his fitness while making the transition to clay.
In heavy contrast, Williams’ compatriots have had somewhat inconsistent performances this year. Despite reaching the Memphis quarterfinals, Sock has failed to make it past the second round on all but one of his six other tournaments in 2013. Similarly, Johnson reached the Maui Challenger and San Jose quarterfinals, but failed to make it past the first round in any of his other six tournaments this year.
The reason for Williams’ consistency compared to his fellow Americans can stem from several things, but outside of his natural talent for the sport, two reasons come to mind: his focus on mental and physical fitness, and his family — and the two often intersect.
A native of Knoxville, TN, Williams turned pro in 2011 after playing two years at the University of Tennessee where he won the 2010 USTA/ITA National Indoor Intercollegiate Championship. After admitting to tipping the scales at just over 200 pounds after leaving college, the American put in the hard hours and is now listed on the ATP site at a fit 185lbs for his 6’1” frame. Though he admitted this week that he still needs to lose “5 to 8 pounds” to hang with the top players in long grueling matches, his attacking game style and rocket forehand are already competitive enough for the top 50.
His roots in tennis are also deeper than many players’ as Williams hails from a tennis family. His mother, father and both sisters have played or still currently play at the collegiate level, his grandfather is the co-founder of the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy and coached at Tennessee, his uncle Mike de Palmer Jr. was a top 35 ATP player and former coach of Boris Becker, and his cousin, Christopher, a former fellow Vol currently coaches and travels with Williams.
Few players – if any – hold this kind of tennis pedigree, but it hasn’t always been easy. Williams admitted last year that he decided to go to college in order to mature before hitting the pro tour, and that time spent learning the mental game in a team setting has helped him achieve his results today.
Furthermore, not only has his cousin Christopher’s master’s in sports psychology continued to fuel his mental game by bringing an emotional attachment to his goals, but his ability to travel as a coach also brings a unique stability to Williams’ training. Unless you’re John Isner or Sam Querrey, a travelling coach is financially not possible for players around Williams’ ranking, and it’s surprising still how many top players don’t travel with a mental coach. Given both his support system and focused approach to his training, Williams is on the right path to continue climbing the rankings steadily.
So what exactly is next for the Houston semifinalist?
Williams will now travel to three Challenger events in Sarasota, Savannah and Tallahassee which are all also on clay. The collective group of tournaments is part of the USTA Pro Circuit Wild Card Challenge which grants the winner an automatic bid into the main draw of Roland Garros through a reciprocal wildcard exchange with the French Tennis Federation.
If Williams had made the Houston final, he wouldn’t have needed to vie for the wildcard as his ranking would have been high enough to gain him direct entry, since the acceptance list is based on Monday’s rankings. However, with his ranking now hovering around 116, he will most likely need to either play the qualifying tournament or win the reciprocal wildcard this month if he hopes to make the main draw in Paris. But given his current form and the fact that he won the Australian Open Wildcard Challenge back in December to get a wildcard Down Under, he not only has the winning confidence but also the experience to pull off the feat.
April 1, 2013 — The Sony Open may be over, but Tennis Grandstand’s stream of photos from the event is not. Below are all the photos we missed the first time around that are definitely worth a look.
We feature Andy Murray, Andrea Petkovic, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Ajla Tomljanovic, Caroline Wozniacki, Marion Bartoli, Rhyne Williams, Benoit Paire, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Feliciano Lopez and more.