Stanford tennis

Future Stars Earning Their Stripes: Rising Americans in Stanford and Atlanta

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 Series Is Open: Previewing WTA Stanford (and Baku)

The women’s US Open Series launches in California with one of the oldest tournaments in the WTA.  In the tranquil setting of Stanford University, the Bank of the West Classic a particularly cozy and rewarding tournaments.  Here is a look ahead at what to expect this week at Stanford and at the International event half a world away in Azerbaijan.


Top half:  Rarely do Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, and Victoria Azarenka all spurn Stanford.  Their absence this year offers world No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska an opportunity as the only top-10 player in the draw.  The top seed probably still can taste the bitter disappointment of a greater opportunity squandered at Wimbledon.  Radwanska will seek to bounce back on a relatively fast hard court, where she has reached the semifinals before.  She should reach that stage again with no pre-semifinal opponent more formidable than Varvara Lepchenko, just 2-9 away from clay this year.  A potentially intriguing first-round match between youthful energy and veteran cunning pits Stanford alum Mallory Burdette against Roland Garros champion Francesca Schiavone.

Sandwiched between two unimpressive seeds, Madison Keys should showcase her power on a court suited to it.  American fans will enjoy their glimpse of the woman who could become their leading threat to win a major in a few years.  Keys will look to deliver an opening upset over eighth seed Magdalena Rybarikova en route to a possible quarterfinal against compatriot Jamie Hampton.  Climbing into relevance with an Eastbourne final, Hampton holds the fourth seed and may face another Stanford alum in Nicole Gibbs.  Hampton stunned Radwanska at Eastbourne last month, while Keys took a set from her at Wimbledon.

Semifinal:  Radwanska vs. Keys

Bottom half:  The third quarter features another unseeded American hopeful—and another Radwanska.  Stanford’s depleted field allowed Agnieszka’s younger sister, Urszula, to snag the seventh seed, while Christina McHale looks for momentum on the long road back from mononucleosis.  Still elegant as she fades, Daniela Hantuchova brings a touch of grace that should contrast with the athleticism of first-round opponent Yanina Wickmayer.  Often a presence but rarely a threat at Stanford, third seed Dominika Cibulkova has not won more than two matches at any tournament since January.

The only US Open champion in the draw, Samantha Stosur might face a challenging test against Julia Goerges.  This enigmatic German has won three of their four meetings, including both on hard courts, although the last three all have reached a third set.  Of course, a 14-17 record in 2013 does not bode well for her chances of surviving Olga Govortsova in the first round.  The road might not get any easier for Stosur in the quarterfinals, though, where she could meet Sorana Cirstea.  A product of the Adidas training program in Las Vegas, Cirstea upset Stosur at last year’s Australian Open.  None of the women in the lower half ever has reached a final at Stanford.

Semifinal:  Cibulkova vs. Stosur

Final:  Radwanska vs. Stosur


Top half:  Not one of these women will hold a seed at the US Open unless their rankings rise between now and then.  Holding the top seed is Bojana Jovanovski, who owes many of her poitns to a second-week appearance at the Australian Open.  Jovanovski has two victories over Caroline Wozniacki but few over anyone else since then.  Former junior No. 1 Daria Gavrilova and fellow Serb Vesna Dolonc offer her most credible competition before the semifinals.

At that stage, Jovanovski might meet Andrea Hlavackova, the runner-up in a similarly weak draw at Bad Gastein a week ago.  Although she has fallen outside the top 100, meanwhile, Shahar Peer will hope to rely on her experience to stop either Hlavackova or third seed Chanelle Scheepers.  The speed of the surface may determine whether a counterpuncher like Peer or Scheepers overcomes the heavier serve of fifth seed Karolina Pliskova.

Bottom half:  Unheralded players from the home nation often play above expectations at small tournaments like Baku.  Wildcard Kamilla Farhad, an Azerbaijani citizen, will hope to echo Yvonne Meusberger’s astonishing title run in Bad Gastein.  Surrounding her are clay specialist Alexandra Cadantu and the stagnating Polona Hercog.  A tall Slovenian, the later woman seems the best equipped to win on hard courts from this section.  Cadantu will need to blunt the explosive serve of Michaella Krajicek to survive her opener.

The 18-year-old Elina Svitolina showed promise in Bad Gastein by reaching the semifinals.  That experience will have served her well heading into another International event with an open draw.  She even holds a seed here, as does another rising star in Donna Vekic.  Nearly two years younger than Svitolina, Vekic already has reached two WTA finals.  A quarterfinal between the two teenagers might offer a preview of more momentous matches in the future.

Final:  Pliskova vs. Vekic

Nicole Gibbs Q & A: “There is no life in which I’m not an athlete”

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA (April 25, 2013) – This week at the Boyd Tinsley Women’s Clay Court Classic at the picturesque Boar’s Head club in Charlottesville, VA, 20-year-old Nicole Gibbs continues her good form, reaching the third round of the USTA Har-Tru event after taking out world No. 109 Tatjana Maria in her opener and former UNC player Sanaz Marand in the second round.

Currently a junior at Stanford University majoring in Economics and thus not yet able to travel full-time on the Tour, Gibbs has quickly learned to balance her school commitments and international tennis travel schedule. She recently competed on two of tennis’ biggest stages at the US Open and Australian Open among others, and has climbed to a career-high ranking of 185 earlier this month.

The Ohio native moved to the Los Angeles area with her family at the age of fourteen, and has always “dreamed of going to Stanford,” even jokingly calling herself a “nerd.” A tough and fierce competitor on court with her 5 ft.6 in. (1.68m) frame, she is thoughtful, kind-hearted, grounded and funny in person.

Gibbs is set to finish up her collegiate career next month and will then plan to turn pro in time to debut at the Wimbledon Championships in June. Normally, players at lower-tiered events like these are not required to do media interviews, but Gibbs was ready and willing, and was quite a charming interview! Get to know the bubbly American as she talks about the Williams sisters, her decision to turn pro, and the three people she would most want to have dinner with!

How would you describe your personality?
(Laughs) That’s so broad; I have no idea! I mean, I’m kind of a nerd — everyone at school can attest to that. I’ve always really dreamed of going to Stanford, and I’m majoring in Economics there and working hard. (Laughs) Beyond that … it depends on the situation: with my friends, I’m the most outgoing, but I also have trouble talking in public, doing interviews and meeting new people sometimes.

What is your greatest strength?
I think my fight has always been my biggest asset on court. I never really back down, and I pride myself on being really tough on the key points.

What is your biggest weakness?
My size. I can’t hit quite as big of a ball as a lot of the girls out there. I feel that I have to work a little harder per point than the average girl. I just don’t have a lot of power.

What helped you make the choice to go pro after this college season?
I just felt – with the exception of a team title which I’m chasing with my team this year – that I’ve maxed my potential in the college game having a great run individually last year (winning the NCAA singles and doubles titles), and have used my teammates and my coaches to their full potential in those few years. I think it’s really just time for me to (turn pro) and grow my game further. I’ve had some pretty reasonable success on the pro tour already, so I’m really excited to get out there (full-time).

If you weren’t a tennis player, what would you want to be? Would you have looked to use your college degree?
I would have to be an athlete. There is no life in which I’m not an athlete. I really liked soccer growing up, so I could see myself playing soccer – I maybe would have been built better for that sport. I definitely have to be out there competing, so I would be playing some sport even if it weren’t tennis.

When did you start playing tennis?
Pretty much as soon as I could hold a racquet, my dad had me hitting in the driveway over two trashcans with a board across. He was really into it. (Laughs)

If you could learn to do anything, what would it be?
I’m currently learning to surf. That was on the agenda of things I wanted to learn, and that’s the one that is the most important to me. I always really wanted to surf but I didn’t buy boards until just this last summer. So I’ve been working hard at it.

Hopefully no surfing scars or accidents yet?
Not yet, but I did get hit in the face with my board once and thought I broke my nose; blood was gushing everywhere! It ended up being a minor incident and something I could laugh about.

If you were hosting a party, what three tennis players would you invite and why?
Venus Williams. She is awesome, the sweetest girl out there. There are so many, but she is the first person that comes to mind because she is an idol for me. I got to practice with her a little bit a couple of summers ago, and have really always looked up to her.

And then, honestly, there are so many girls that I don’t think I could even choose (the other two) between them all because I’m here week in and week out on tour, and I have a lot of friends here.

What is one thing that scares you?
Going pro. (Laughs) Even though it’s the most exciting thing that’s happening for me right now, I’m also really nervous about the transition.

What are two things you couldn’t live without?
(Pauses, thinking) Tennis. (Laughs) And my friends, my boyfriend, and my family are all very important to me.

If you were in a Rock ‘N Roll band, what would your job be?
I would have to be lead singer! (Laughs) I’m a little bit of a diva sometimes.

Do you sing or karaoke?
No, not at all! I’m learning to play guitar though. So maybe I could be the guitar player too.

If you could play against any player in history, who would it be and why?
Well, I actually did play her (last year at the Bank of the West Classic): Serena Williams. I think she is indisputably the best player to ever play the women’s game. I was very very very lucky to get to be on the court with her last summer, so that was a really special experience for me.

If you can pick anybody as a mentor, who would it be?
Ohmygosh. I think I’ve had some great mentors in my past actually. Obviously, Lele Forood, my current tennis coach at Stanford is a legend in her own rite; played a lot on tour and was a great player. I’ve had the fortune to be on the court with Ray Ruffels, an Australian who was a very successful Davis Cup player, I’ve had Tom Gullikson as my coach. So, I have already been very blessed to have very noteworthy mentors and I couldn’t ask for anything more.

If you could have dinner with any three people, living or dead, who would they be and why?
I’m so terrible at these questions – so many people to choose from! (Pauses) I would love to meet President Obama as I have a lot of respect and admiration for him. Also Roger Federer because I’m obsessed with him. And then … Oh! Adam Levine from Maroon 5 – again, also obsessed with him but in a different way! I love him, he’s really great. Maroon 5 has always been my favorite band.

Interested in more Nicole Gibbs wisdom and fun? Give her a follow on Twitter at @Gibbsyyyy!