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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Eight Americans Begin Roland Garros Junior Qualifying Thursday; ITA Final D-I Rankings Allocate Accelerator Spots, Spizzirri and Stoiana Finish No. 1; Division II Team Championships Recap; Kissell Named WMU Women's Head Coach

Qualifying for the 2024 Roland Garros Junior Championships begins Thursday, at the Cercle Athl├ętique Montrougewith six American girls and two American boys in the 32-player draws.

This year the tournament maintains its position as the most difficult one to obtain direct entry, with almost no movement in the main since the initial acceptances at the end of last month.  One girl moved into the main draw with the withdrawal of Victoria Mboko of Canada; that left Shannon Lam as the first player out, but special exempts were filled from the J300 in Belgium, so Lam is in qualifying. Not a single boy withdrew, and again the special exempts were filled from players still competing in Belgium, although it's not clear who they are, with a host of candidates given that the both genders' singles semifinals, the girls doubles semifinals and the boys doubles quarterfinals sare still to played.

The US girls competing in Thursday's first round are Lam, the No. 3 seed, Claire An, Monika Ekstrand, Mia Slama, Kate Fakih, the No. 7 seed, and No. 10 seed Christasha McNeil. The US two boys are Kase Schinnerer, the No. 7 seed, and Noah Johnston. 

Main draw play in the Roland Garros Junior Championships will begin Sunday. For a list of the junior main and qualifying singles wild cards, all but three of whom are from France, can be found here.

The final ITA Division I rankings were released today, and with the Accelerator program now in its second year, those rankings are even more significant than ever. Previously the rankings were anticipated for their implications for All-America status (Top 20) and for positioning, for those with eligibility remaining, for next fall's preseason rankings. The team rankings also are important for selecting hosts for the ITF Kickoff Weekend, which determines the National Team Indoor Championships participants, with that draft coming soon. Click on the headings for the full ranking lists. The list of seeded players at the just completed NCAA individual championships can be found here. They received All-America status when those seeds were announced.

The top 14 in the Division I team rankings (SMU and Baylor, the two host teams, receive byes into the National Team Indoor)

1. TCU
2. Texas
3. Ohio State
4. Virginia
5. Kentucky
6. Wake Forest
7. Tennessee
8. Columbia
9. Arizona
10. Florida State
11. Oklahoma
12. Harvard
13. Mississippi State
14. Duke

Singles Top 20:
1. Eliot Spizzirri, Texas
2. Johannus Monday, Tennessee
3. Micah Braswell, Texas
4. Antoine Cornut-Chauvinc, Florida State
5. Ozan Baris, Michigan State
6. Jack Pinnington Jones, TCU
7. Chris Rodesch, Virginia
8. Jake Fearnley, TCU
9. Toby Samuel, South Carolina
10. Michael Zheng, Columbia
11. Oliver Tarvet, San Diego
12. Nishesh Basavareddy, Stanford
13. Murphy Cassone, Arizona State
14. Cooper Williams, Harvard
15. Alex Martinez, Oklahoma
16. Colton Smith, Arizona
17. Filip Planinsek, Alabama
18. JJ Tracy, Ohio State
19. Andres Martin, Georgia Tech
20. Radu Papoe, Cornell

All 20 had earned All-American honors earlier, either by being seeded at the NCAAs or by reaching the round of 16 in the singles tournament.  The Top 10 will receive 6 or 8 main draw ATP Challenger wild cards at 50 or 75 level tournaments, depending on whether they are still in school, according to the Accelerator terms, explained here. Those with final rankings of 11-20 will receive qualifying wild cards. Ohio State rising junior Jack Anthrop, who finished with a ranking of 28, also will get the benefit of the Accelerator Program, as a quarterfinalist.

Doubles Top 10
1. Robert Cash and JJ Tracy, Ohio State
2. Garrett Johns and Pedro Rodenas, Duke
3. DK Suresh and Holden Koons, Wake Forest
4. Etienne Donnet and Natan Rodrigues, Louisville
5. Joshua Lapadat and JJ Mercer, Kentucky
6. Petar Jovanovic and Benito Sanchez Martinez, Mississippi St
7. Antoine Cornut-Chauvinc and Joshua Dous Karpenschif, Florida St
8. Johannus Monday and Angel Diaz, Tennessee
9. Hunter Heck and Karlis Ozolins, Illinois
10. Tyler Zink and Isaac Becroft, Oklahoma State

Two teams not listed above received All-America status by reaching the quarterfinals last week: Cassone and Jacob Bullard of Arizona State and Bozo Barun and Jared Horwood of Arkansas. The above teams from Illinois and Oklahoma State earned All-American status by finishing in the top 10 in the final rankings. All seeded doubles teams at the NCAAs had already earned All-America status. There is no ATP/ITA Accelerator program for doubles.

1. Texas A&M
2. Oklahoma State
3. Georgia
4. Stanford
5. Michigan
6. Pepperdine
7. North Carolina
8. Virginia
10. Cal
11. Texas
12. Tennessee
13. Southern Cal
14. Florida

The ITA/ITF Women's Accelerator Program is much less generous, with only the top five, plus the NCAA singles finalists, qualifying for wild cards. This is obviously not a good look, when gender equity is major point of contention in women's college athletics; let's hope an improved program for women is coming, sooner rather than later. Singles finalist Anastasiia Lopata, who finished No. 30 in the final rankings, up from 70 at the beginning of the NCAAs, will qualify for the Accelerator Program, as well as the Top 5 below.

Singles Top 20:
1. Mary Stoiana, Texas A&M
2. Amelia Rajecki, North Carolina St
3. Alexa Noel, Miami
4. Dasha Vidmanova, Georgia
5. Kari Miller, Michigan
6. Celia-Belle Mohr, Vanderbilt
7. Connia Ma, Stanford
8. Ange Oby Kajuru, Oklahoma St
9. Reese Brantmeier, North Carolina
10. Rachel Gailis, Florida
11. Sofia Cabezas, Tennessee
12. Ayana Akli, South Carolina
13. Irina Cantos Siemers, Ohio St
14. Carolyn Ansari, Auburn
15. Fiona Crawley, North Carolina
16. Savannah Broadus, Pepperdine
17. Malaika Rapolu, Texas
18. Elizabeth Scotty, North Carolina
19. Lisa Zaar, Pepperdine
20. Alexandra Yepifanova, Stanford

For a list of all the singles players who earned All-America status by reaching the round of 16 last week, see my post from May 21.

Doubles Top 10:
1. Janice Tjen and Savannah Broadus, Pepperdine
2. Ange Oby Kajuru and Anastasiya Komar, Oklahoma St
3. Mary Stoiana and Mia Kupres, Texas A&M
4. Ayesegul Mert and Dasha Vidmanova, Georgia
5. Elizabeth Scotty and Reese Brantmeier, North Carolina
6. Fiona Crawley and Carson Tanguilig, North Carolina
7. Sofia Cabezas and Elza Tomase, Tennessee
8. Metka Komac and Avelina Sayfetdinova, Texas Tech
9. Alina Shcherbinina and Dana Guzman, Oklahoma
10. Fangran Tian and Elise Wagle, UCLA

The UCLA team received All-America status by this final Top 10 ranking; No. 10 Mohr and Anessa Lee of Vanderbilt earned it via their run to the semifinals last week.

ITA Player of the Year honors go to the top-ranked player in singles; the rest of the ITF year-end awards, which for many years were revealed right before the team finals, have yet to be announced. 

The Tennis Recruiting Network posted an article today on the Division II Team Championships, which were played last week in Altamonte Springs Florida, with neither No. 1 seed prevailing. No. 3 seed Valdosta State won the men's title, their third, beating No. 1 seed Flagler 4-3. The No. 2 seeded Nova Southeastern women ended the six-year run of No. 1 seed Barry 4-2 to claim the program's first title.

This is big local news for me, with Western Michigan University announced yesterday that Joelle Kissell has been named head coach of the women's program, succeeding Ryan Tomlinson, who coached the team from 2015 until September of 2023, with assistant Jimmy Beckwith serving as interim coach this season. Prior to Tomlinson's tenure, Betsy Kuhle, sister of Chuck and Lornie Kuhle, had coached the Broncos for 33 years.  Kissell, a former standout at North Carolina State, comes to Kalamazoo from Wichita State, where she was an assistant for the past two seasons.

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Williams, Svajda and Quan Advance at Little Rock Challenger; First SoCal Pro Series Events Underway in San Diego; Chicago's Rena Lin, Bowdoin's Tristan Bradley Claim D-III Titles

Eighteen-year-olds Cooper Williams of Harvard and UCLA rising freshman Rudy Quan won their first ATP Challenger main draw matches, while Trevor Svajda, also 18, notched his second today at the 75 tournament in Little Rock Arkansas.
Williams, a rising sophomore who turns 19 next month, defeated 26-year-old qualifier Yusuke Takahashi of Japan 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 for that milestone, while qualifier Quan came from 5-2 down in the second set to beat Stefan Kozlov 6-1, 7-5 for his first Challenger main draw win.

Eighteen-year-old Trevor Svajda, a rising sophomore at SMU, earned his first Challenger win in January at the Indian Wells II Challenger 50; today the wild card from San Diego defeated qualifier Ernesto Escobedo of Mexico 6-3, 6-4 to claim his second.

Qualifier Andres Martin of Georgia Tech, who was a No. 9 seed at NCAA singles championship last week but lost in the first round, posted the biggest upset of the day, beating No. 4 seed Yu Hsiou Hsu of Taiwan 7-6(1), 6-2.

Williams, who is in the top half, will play again Wednesday, facing former Florida Gator Abdullah Shelbayh of Jordan, the No. 8 seed. 

Nishesh Basavareddy, who beat No. 7 seed Ethan Quinn(Georgia) yesterday, is in the bottom half, as are Svajda and Martin, who play each other Thursday, and Quan. Quan will face Andres Andrade(Florida) for the third time in the past seven months, with Quan winning the most recent encounter at the beginning of this month in the quarterfinals of the $15K in Orange Park Florida. Andrade, who won the Pensacola $25K last week, defeated No. 2 seed Coleman Wong of Hong Kong yesterday 6-7(5), 6-4, 6-3.

Mike Cation is providing commentary on Stadium Court matches, with the live streams available at the Challenger TV page.

The SoCal Pro Series, now in its third year, is starting earlier than ever, with both the men and women at converging on San Diego's Barnes Tennis for the first two $15,000 tournaments, with five more following at other Southern California locations.

Qualifying concluded today, with five American men and four American women reaching the main draw: three of the US women qualifying are juniors: Alexis Nguyen, Claire Hill and Taylor Goetz. The other, 19-year-old Isabelle Chhiv, is a rising sophomore at Princeton. UCLA's rising sophomore Spencer Johnson, the Pac-12 freshman of the year, is among the US men qualifying.

Top seeds in the two events are two-time Kalamazoo champion Learner Tien(USC), who has been out with injury the past three months, and former Cal All-American Haley Giavara. A preview of this week's tournaments is available on the USTA Southern California website.

The NCAA Division III individual tournament concluded today in St. Louis, with the top seeds winning the singles titles.

Bowdoin's Tristan Bradley, a senior, defeated unseeded Kael Shah of Denison 6-4, 5-7, 6-0 to become the second Polar Bear to claim an NCAA singles title. For more on the match, see Bowdoin's website.

Rena Lin of Chicago took the women's title Monday, defeating teammate Sylwia Mikos, the No. 5 seed, 6-0, 7-6(3) in the final. Lin, a graduate student who started her college career at Yale, is the first Chicago Maroon to claim an NCAA singles title. See the Chicago website for all the details on the all-Chicago final.

No. 4 seeds Olivia Soffer and Matia Cristiani of Babson won the women's doubles title, defeating top seeds Nika Batoshvili and Alisha Chulani of Claremont-Mudd-Scripps 6-1, 6-7(1), 6-4 in the final.

The men's doubles final was between two unseeded teams, with Tyler Haddorff and Gage Gohl of Gustavus Adolphus defeating  Jordan Theron and Quinn Wicklund of Sewanee 6-2, 1-6, 6-4 in today's championship match.

Results can be found on the NCAA Division III tournament page at  Washington-St. Louis University's website.

Monday, May 27, 2024

Quan Qualifies, Basavareddy Beats Quinn in First Round at ATP Challenger in Little Rock; Virginia's 2024 Recruiting Class Voted No. 1; Hoo Sweeps Titles at J60 in Canada; Three Americans Advance at ITF J300 in Belgium

Eighteen-year-old Rudy Quan is 10-4 this year on the USTA Pro Circuit, 6-0 in ITF junior competion as the champion at the J300 in Indian Wells, and now can add two Challenger qualifying victories, after reaching the main draw of the ATP Challenger 75 in Little Rock Arkansas today. The UCLA incoming freshman, who received a qualifying wild card, beat No. 10 seed Shintaro Imai of Japan 4-6, 6-4, 6-2 in the first round of qualifying Sunday and defeated No. 4 seed Filip Peliwo of 6-4, 6-2 in today's final round. Quan will play Stefan Kozlov in a first round match Tuesday.

With its proximity to Stillwater Oklahoma, five players who competed in last week's NCAA singles championship are in the main draw: Arizona State's Murphy Cassone(quarterfinalist), Harvard's Cooper Williams(quarterfinalist), SMU's Trevor Svajda(rd 2), Georgia Tech's Andres Martin(rd 1) and Stanford's Nishesh Basavareddy(rd of 16). Cassone and Svajda received wild cards, Martin qualified, and Williams and Basavareddy used Accelerator Program slots to gain entry.

Only Basavareddy played his first round match today, against 2023 NCAA champion and No. 7 seed Ethan Quinn(Georgia), with the 19-year-old from Indiana coming through in straight sets, 7-5, 6-4. Basavareddy is no stranger to Challenger success, sporting an 11-8 record, including a final last fall in Fairfield California. A No. 9 seed in Stillwater, he lost to unseeded Colton Smith of Arizona 7-6(2), 6-1 in the third round. He will play the winner of Tuesday's match between qualifier Christian Langmo(Miami) and Ramkumar Ramanathan of India.

The Tennis Recruiting Network's rankings of the 2024 recruiting classes will be regular features throughout the month of June; the first edition is today's men's Division I rankings. Virginia, who topped the rankings in January, remained at No. 1 despite the loss of Joao Fonseca due to his recent success on the ATP Tour. But, after Fonseca's removal from consideration, four other teams also received first-place votes: Arizona, UCLA, Pepperdine and North Carolina. 

The Top 10: Virginia, Central Florida, Pepperdine, UCLA, Arizona, South Carolina, North Carolina, Harvard, Auburn and Columbia.  For the complete Top 25, with historical information on which schools are perennials and which are relatively new to the rankings, see today's TRN article.

As busy as I was at the NCAA D-I championships the past couple of weeks, I wasn't able to follow all the ITF Junior Circuit tournaments as much as I usually do, but I did want to mention that 15-year-old Carrie Ann Hoo swept the titles at last week's J60 in New Brunswick Canada. The blue chip from New York won her first title in February at the J30 in Wisconsin; these are the second and third titles of her career.  In the singles final, Hoo, seeded seventh, defeated fellow New Yorker Anastasia Pleskun, an unseeded 14-year-old, 6-4, 6-2.  Hoo and Canada's Bianca Ceroni, the No. 4 seeds, defeated unseeded Natasha Rajaram and Sophie Dement 6-4, 3-6, 10-5 in the final.

With the Roland Garros Junior Championships starting on Sunday, most American juniors are not competing in this week's ITF J300 in Belgium. Two top 4 seeds who did elect to play the Astrid Bowl, No. 3 seed Alexander Razeghi and No. 4 seed Thea Frodin lost in the first round, as did Christasha McNeil, one of four US girls in the draw. Katie Rolls in the top seed, and she won her first round match, as did Claire An. Matisse Farzam is the only US boy remaining in the 32-player draw.

Boys top seed Hoyoung Roh of Korea lost in the first round to Denis Petak of the Czech Republic 7-5, 6-0. 

Sunday, May 26, 2024

Bigun Claims ITF J500 Title in Milan, Exsted and Woestendick Earn Doubles Championship; Chicago's D-III Titles Recap; Gorzny Transfering to Texas; Stearns Claims First WTA Title

After ten exhilarating and exhausting days covering the NCAA Division I men's and women's team and individual championships, I'm back home, badly in need of a holiday. 

But tennis never stops, and there was big news today from the ITF J500 Trofeo Bonfiglio in Milan Italy, where Kaylan Bigun claimed his first J500 title. The sixth-seeded Bigun, who has signed with UCLA for this fall, defeated No. 8 seed Jangjun Kim of Korea 6-3, 6-3 for the biggest title of his career. The 18-year-old left-hander has shown he can play on all surfaces, reaching the Wimbledon junior quarterfinals last summer, the Orange Bowl semifinal on Har-Tru in December, the Australian Open quarterfinals in January, and now this prestigious title. He also won his first ATP Challenger match this spring in Sarasota. Bigun was the third straight boys finalist from the United States with Nishesh Basavareddy(Stanford) the 2022 champion and Cooper Williams(Harvard) a finalist in 2023. Maxwell Exsted and Cooper Woestendick won the boys doubles title, their fourth ITF J300 and above title of the year and their fifth as team. The No. 2 seeds defeated Hayden Jones of Australia and Charlie Robertson of Great Britain 6-4, 7-6(0)

Tyra Grant, the No. 2 seed, suffered her third loss of the year to Emerson Jones, the top seed, in the girls final today. Grant, who beat Jones on the Italian red clay a year ago in the first round of the J300 in Santa Croce, has yet to take a set from the 15-year-old Australian in their three matches since, losing twice in Australia to start the year and now in Milan. As a side note, it was five years ago that 2024 NCAA D-I champion Alexa Noel won the Milan title; she went on to make the Wimbledon final less than two months later.

No. 3 seeds Iva Ivanova of Bulgaria and Alena Kovackova of the Czech Republic won the girls doubles title, defeating the unseeded team Julie Pastikova of the Czech Republic and Julia Stusek of Germany 4-6, 7-6(1), 10-7. Ivanova and Kovackova had beaten No. 2 seeds Grant and Iva Jovic in the semifinals 0-6, 7-6(7), 12-10.

The Tennis Recruiting Network's Rhiannon Potkey has all the details on the University of Chicago's sweep of the NCAA Division III team titles last week in St. Louis. Another title is coming for the Maroons on Monday, with teammates Rena Lin[1] and Sylwia Mikos[5] playing for the women's singles title. Women's draws are here. The men's D-III singles quarterfinals and semifinals are tomorrow, with the final scheduled for Tuesday.

A week ago, Sebastian Gorzny was clinching TCU's first NCAA team title in program history, beating Texas's Jonah Braswell to seal the Horned Frogs' 4-3 victory. On Friday, the sophomore from Austin Texas entered the transfer portal, and two days later, I have confirmed that he will be transfering to the University of Texas. Although Gorzny is the most recent high-profile collegian to announce his transfer, other top players are also exploring their options, so look for plenty more intrigue this post-season. 

Former Texas Longhorn Peyton Stearns, the 2022 NCAA women's singles and team champion, won her first WTA title yesterday at the 250 in Rabat Morocco. Stearns won the all-collegiate final, beating former Pepperdine star Mayar Sherif of Egypt 6-2, 6-1. Stearns was 7-12 in WTA-level matches(including 125s) this year before this run to the title at Rabat. For more on the final, see this article from the WTA website.  Madison Keys won the WTA 250 in Strasbourg, beating 2014 and 2016 NCAA singles champion Danielle Collins(Virginia) 6-1, 6-2. With her runner-up result, Collins moves back into the Top 10, while Keys is at 12. Both have career-high WTA rankings of 7.

Saturday, May 25, 2024

Alabama's Planinsek and Miami's Noel Fight Back to Claim NCAA Singles Titles; Ohio State Men and Georgia Women Win Match Tiebreakers to Capture Doubles Championships; Grant and Bigun Advance to ITF J500 Milan Singles Finals

©Colette Lewis 2024--
Stillwater Oklahoma--

Unseeded Filip Planinsek of Alabama delivered a first NCAA singles title for the Crimson Tide, while No. 8 seed Alexa Noel continued an impressive tradition for the Miami women in the NCAA Division I singles finals on hot and sunny Saturday at the Greenwood Tennis Center.

Both needed to shake off the determined efforts of their opponents and the loss of a first set to prevail, with Planinsek defeating Michael Zheng of Columbia 6-7(4), 6-3, 6-2 and Noel ending the Cinderella story of ninth alternate Anastasiia Lopata of Georgia 4-6, 7-5, 6-3.

Planinsek, a junior from Slovenia, wasn't discouraged when he failed to convert three set points with Zheng serving at 4-5, 15-40, and held his nerve to come back from 30-40 down in the next game, with two good first serves. Clutch serving has been Planinsek's trademark since he first assumed the role of American slayer with a second round win over Ohio State's No. 9 seed Cannon Kingsley, but it was Zheng who came up with the big serve at 6-4 in the first set tiebreaker to take the lead.

"I came back in the first set, started playing better and just always felt that I can prevail in this match," said Planinsek, competing in the first NCAA men's singles final between unseeded players since the current format was introduced in 1978. "I always knew I had one more gear left."

Planinsek thought he detected an energy gap, with Zheng having played four consecutive three-setters, coming from a set down in three of them.

"I kind of noticed that he was pretty tired," said Planinsek, who beat four seeded Americans before encountering the unseeded Zheng. "I work hard in the off season with a strength and conditioning coach, I feel super strong, and I could go play another set now."

Zheng acknowledged that Planinsek had been the more aggressive player, despite the loss of the first set.

"I was a little bit lucky to get that first set; I saved three set points at 4-5, and in the second and third he just raised his level," said the sophomore from New Jersey, the first Ivy League player to reach an NCAA singles final since Harvard's James Blake in 1998, and the first Columbia man to do it in the modern era. "He started stepping into the court more, and his forehand really got going in the second and third."

Planinsek, who dropped serve just once in the final, approached the next set with an increased commitment to using his forehand, which led to a impressive number of winners from that side early in rallies.

"I broke quite early in the second set and the momentum started building and building, my game was being more aggressive," said Planinsek, who had an ITF junior ranking outside the Top 200 when entered his freshman season at Alabama. "We have a saying at the beginning of tournaments, 'stay greedy'. Every time I get the break I want more, I want more. So I stayed greedy, I knew he was struggling at the end, and I broke him so I didn't have to serve it out."

Zheng played Japan's Kei Nishikori in an ATP Challenger final and won a round in the US Open qualifying, so he is familiar with the level of those competing as professionals. Asked how Planinsek's level compared today, Zheng put it in the same category.

"I thought it was pretty similar to those players up there in the rankings, top 200," Zheng said. "If he continues playing like this, I'm sure he's going to go through the rankings pretty quickly."

Planinsek is planning to head back to Slovenia, also the home country of 2013 NCAA singles champion Blaz Rola of Ohio State, for some rest, before playing in the ATP Challengers he now has access to through the ITA and ATP Accelerator program. But making a specific number continues to be a secondary goal.

"I'm not thinking too much about rankings, I'm just thinking about my game," said Planinsek, who saved four match points in his 7-5, 5-7, 7-6(6) semifinal win over Ozan Baris of Michigan State. "My game's important, it comes first and then if I play aggressive, if I serve good, if I enjoy myself, the ranking will come."

Planinsek knew he had the level to win the event once he defeated Kingsley to earn All-American status for the first time, with his 2022 win over current ATP No. 15 Ben Shelton of Florida, who went on to win the NCAA title that year, providing a glimpse of what might be in store for him with time and experience.

"I've beat a lot of good players in my college career," Planinsek said. "But I was never consistent. This tournament I was consistent, I was super focused, I was determined, I was doing the same thing every single day, recovery, we ate at the same place every single day. I got so tired of this sandwich, but I think it helped."

Head coach George Husack, in his 12th year leading the Crimson Tide, attributed Planinsek's improvement over the past three years to his attitude.

"During the course of the past three years and certainly this week, he's learned to how to execute under a lot of pressure," Husack said. "He's learned how to continue doing the same things, as boring as it may be, and he's been willing to do all these things...he's put a lot of work into himself. He's matured, but he hasn't reached anything, there's no mountain top. So we're going to keep pushing him, because he's got a lot longer to go."

One place Planinsek is not going is back to the sandwich shop. As he made his way toward the parking lot, he said was contemplating a steak for dinner.

The women's final was expected to be a lengthy affair, but when Lopata took a 6-4, 3-1 lead, her improbable appearance in the final appeared to be heading to an even more unlikely title.
That's when Noel made her move, getting the break back on a deciding point and holding for 3-all. She continued to negotiate the pressurized position of serving from behind, with the 21-year-old from New Jersey breaking at 5-all and holding to send the final to a third set.

"At 3-1, I thought, this could go one of two ways, and I picked the hard way, but the better way," said Noel, who earned her degree at Miami this spring, but has a year of eligibility remaining after redshirting due to injury. "I started to play tennis that makes me a little more uncomfortable than what I typically do. I started to step in a little bit more, take the ball a little bit earlier, change the pace of the rally and the rhythm. I stayed mentally tough, present, and believed that if this was going to go three sets, I can outlast anybody in the country, and at that point I played on faith and trust in Paige."

Miami's head coach Paige Yaroshuk-Tews, who has now coached three NCAA women's singles champions, guided and encouraged Noel on nearly every point, never doubting that she could turn the match around.

"I wasn't really too concerned with her ability to flip the match," said Yaroshuk-Tews, who was on court for Audra Cohen's 2007 title and Estela Perez Somaribba's 2019 title. "But flipping a match between an opponent like that isn't easy to do...I told her, if this is going to come down to work and resiliency, my money's on you. A lot of credit to Anastasiia. She's a great player, coming off a great tournament and a great season, super tough to play, and we did incredible."

After Georgia reached the team final last Sunday, Lopata, who played at line 4 for the Bulldogs, was competing for the ninth straight day, and her run through the event, which included wins over pre-tournament favorites Fiona Crawley[5] of North Carolina in the second round and Amelia Rajecki[2] of NC State in the semifinals. That effort was bound to take a toll, and while her patience and strategic placement never deserted her, a few more errors crept in, and when a she sent a deep, looping ball long on a deciding point serving at 2-4 in the third set, Noel prepared to serve for the title. 

She didn't get to match point, with Lopata breaking at 30-40, and Noel admitted doubts intensified as the match passed the three-hour mark.

"When I got that double break, that added pressure," said Noel, who lost in the finals of the ITA All-American Championships in 2021, when she played for Iowa, and in 2023 as a Hurricane. "I felt relieved, but it almost added pressure to do some special on my service game and I did the opposite, I played a little tentative. There were doubts for sure, doubts throughout the entire match, throughout the entire tournament, but we work hard to minimize those, we can't let those doubts define who we are and I'm not going to let those doubts define how I'm going to play tennis."

As an American champion, Noel is expected to receive a US Open wild card, and she is thrilled at the possibility to return to a slam, after reaching the Wimbledon girls final in 2019.

"It's crazy to think I have an opportunity like that in a few short months," Noel said. "That's something I've been dreaming about since I was a kid...I'm here for a reason, this is exactly what I wanted and we're going to keep pushing through. This is not the end, this is hopefully the start, and right now I'm just pumped."

Lopata, the lowest ranked woman to ever reach an NCAA singles final, declined to participate in a post-match press conference, but provided this statement:

"I left everything I had today on court. I’m happy that I was able to make it this far. Of course I wish I could have won one more, but this was an experience I will never forget.”

Georgia head coach Drake Bernstein was effusive in his praise of the 19-year-old from Ukraine, who is only able to return to visit her mother in Kiev for short periods of time due to the country's invasion by Russia. 

"I’m so proud of Nastya and her performances this week. To do what she did after making the NCAA team final is nothing short of incredible. This has certainly been a tournament we will never forget and will head back to Athens proud of our effort here in Stillwater.”

Georgia is also heading back to Athens with a championship trophy after unseeded Dasha Vidmanova and Aysegul Mert saved a match point in their 7-6(4), 2-6, 11-9 victory over top seeds Savannah Broadus and Janice Tjen of Pepperdine.

An extremely close match tiebreaker provided both teams with match points; Tjen and Broadus took at 9-8 lead to earn theirs, but Broadus's forehand return of a Vidmanova serve hit the tape and went wide. Vidmanova held to earn Georgia's first match point, and Vidmanova's return produced a short ball that she put away with a forehand, delivering Georgia's first NCAA women's doubles title in six trips to the final.

"I didn't know it was the first one, but obviously it means a lot," said Vidmanova, a junior from the Czech Republic. "The opportunity to play for Georgia in any way we can, it's a big honor and I'm really happy we could do it."

Vidmanova and Mert both said first-year associate head coach Jarryd Chaplin was instrumental in the title.

"He was a big addition, and he literally taught us how to play doubles," Vidmanova said. "With the help of Chaps, we improved a lot, knew what we were doing on the court."

Mert, a freshman from Turkey, echoed those sentiments. 

"I don't think anyone knows how much time he spends with us, teaching doubles to us," Mert said. "He kept on coaching us, even in the times when we were not doing well and I'm grateful for the experience."

Mert felt the sting of the team loss, and was determined to avoid it a second time.

"Losing in the team finals, I told myself when I'm back on the final stage again, I'll do anything not to be in that losing situation," Mert said. "So when we were down today, I kept thinking about that moment, and did everything I could to be on the winners side again."

As with the men's singles champion, the men's doubles champions saved match points in the semifinals en route to the title, with JJ Tracy and Robert Cash of Ohio State delivering a second straight title for the Buckeyes with a 5-7, 6-0, 10-5 win over Antoine Cornut-Chauvinc and Joshua Dous Karpenschif of Florida State.

Tracy and Cash, who had saved two match points at 9-7 in their semifinal with Louisville's Etienne Donnet and Natan Rodrigues, were ready as they headed into another one Saturday afternoon with a title on the line.

"I thought about yesterday, we lost the second set and were in a tiebreaker so we were tested, and I was very confident in ourselves," said Cash, a fifth year senior from Ohio, who lost in the 2022 doubles final with Matej Vocel as his partner. "I thought about two years, losing in the breaker and I definitely didn't want to go out that way again. I was really excited, sitting on the bench before the tiebreaker, to play a 10-minute tiebreaker for everything."

With James Trotter and Andrew Lutschaunig winning last year's title, another championship comes as no surprise to Tracy.

"We practice doubles so much, and we have a system that everyone loves to play," said Tracy, a senior from Ohio. "No matter how good a volleyer you are coming in, you turn into a great volleyer at Ohio State by the time you leave."

"We work so hard at doubles, we know how important the doubles point is," Cash said. "Don't be surprised to see two more Buckeyes back here in the final because those guys are so good and Ty (head coach Tucker) and Kro(associate head coach Justin Kronauge) are so good. We're going to keep producing the best doubles teams and doing what Buckeyes do."

As an American pair, Cash and Tracy can expect to receive a US Open doubles wild card as the first all-US team since Keegan Smith and Maxime Cressy of UCLA in 2019 to win the title.

"I'm definitely interested in playing the US Open with JJ, and having fun doing it," Cash said. "I'm excited to continue my tennis career this summer and just have fun with it." 

"It's amazing that we'll get an opportunity like that to compete at the US Open," said Tracy, who will begin his professional career this summer. "In terms of my career, it will give me a great look at what that huge stage looks like, so when I get there, I'll be more prepared."

At the ITF J500 in Milan, Kaylan Bigun and Tyra Grant will play for the prestigious Trofeo Bonfiglioi singles titles, while Cooper Woestendick and Maxwell Exsted will compete for the doubles title.

Bigun, seeded No. 6, defeated No. 16 seed Mees Rottgering of the Netherlands 7-5, 4-6, 6-3 and will play No. 8  seed Jangjun Kim of Korea, who upset top seed Nicolai Budkov Kjaer 4-6, 7-6(6), 6-2.

No. 2 seed Grant defeated close friend and doubles partner Iva Jovic, the No. 14 seed,  6-3, 1-6, 6-1 and will play top seed Emerson Jones of Australia. Grant beat Jones on clay last spring, but Jones took both their meetings in Australia this year.

Australian Open doubles champions and No. 2 seeds Cooper Woestendick and Maxwell Exsted will face unseeded Hayden Jones of Australia and Charlie Robertson of Great Britain in the boys doubles final Sunday.

Friday, May 24, 2024

Thrilling Men's Semifinals Produce First Final Between Unseeded Players in NCAA Division I History; Georgia's Lopata, Lowest-Ranked Player to Advance to Women's Final, Faces Noel; Three Americans Reach Milan Semis; Chicago Adds D-III Men's Title

©Colette Lewis 2024--
Stillwater Oklahoma--

History has been the theme of this year's NCAA Division I championships, with first-time team winners crowned on Sunday. Saturday's conclusion to the individual championships will feature more of the same, with ninth alternate Anastasiia Lopata of Georgia the lowest ranked woman to reach a women's final and, 
for the first time under the current NCAA singles format, established in 1978, two unseeded players will meet for the men's championship.

The two men's semifinals, played simultaneously, entertained the small crowd at the Greenwood Tennis Center at every twist and turn, with both coming down to a handful of points in the 12th and 13th games of the third set. Filip Planinsek defeated Ozan Baris 5-7, 7-5, 7-6(6) and Michael Zheng downed Colton Smith 1-6, 6-3, 7-5.

Planinsek of Alabama, the first semifinalist in program history, earned two match points against No. 8 seed Ozan Baris of Michigan State, another program earning its first NCAA semifinal appearance.  

The first came with Baris serving at at 5-7, 3-5, when his 40-0 lead disappeared and he had to put away an overhead on a decided point to stay alive. Planinsek, now attempting to close out the match on his own serve, fell behind 15-40 with, Baris refusing to miss in the long physical rallies. Two aces in the game brought him to match point, but Baris caught him with a good dropshot, and Planinsek's response to it landed wide.

Baris then rode the momentum of that point to a hold and another break, and when the sophomore from Okemos Michigan held to open the third set, he had claimed five straight games.

Planinsek held to end Baris's streak, and after such a grueling end to the second set, the next seven games of the third set went quickly, until Baris forced a match deciding point with Planinsek serving at 4-5. Despite the stakes, Planinsek kept his nerve, hitting a forehand approach and putting away the volley, and two holds later, they began the tiebreaker to decide it. Baris ran out to a 5-1 lead with some aggressive tennis, but Planinsek got one of the minibreaks back for 5-3, before Baris held for 6-3.

Planinsek won both of his service points, with a good serve and backhand that forced an error, but Baris had earned his fourth match point on his serve. He played a tentative point, netting a backhand to make it 6-6 and after the change of ends, Planinsek came up with one of the shots of the tournament, an inspired running backhand pass that he dipped crosscourt. Now leading 7-6, Planinsek finally had earned a third match point, over an hour after his first, and he cranked a forehand winner to end the nearly three-hour contest, claiming his fourth consecutive victory over a seeded American.

"I don't even know what just happened," said the junior from Slovenia, ranked 29th coming into the tournament. "I think I need a couple of hours to realize I just made the NCAA finals. But awesome match, he's just a great player, great competitor."

Planinsek, who had 14 aces and myriad service winners, acknowledged the importance of that shot in a match decided by such a slim margin.
"This was one of the best serving performances I had this year, especially this week. I was hitting my targets well; all the practice on my serves over the years is actually paying off. I'm super glad it's working and I just want to serve even better tomorrow."

Zheng, a sophomore at Columbia, had recently defeated Arizona junior Colton Smith 6-4, 6-1 in the Lions 4-3 win in the Super Regionals, but Smith looked ready to continue his revenge tour, a theme throughout his run this week, taking the first set in a 30-minute tour de force. After beating Oliver Tarvet of San Diego, Nishesh Basavareddy of Stanford and Arizona State's Murphy Cassone, all of whom had dealt him losses in their last encounters, Smith was hoping to continue that pattern.

The window was there when, Smith went up a break at 3-2 in the second set, but the junior from Washington state immediately gave it back, with Zheng going on to claim the next four games to even the match. After struggling with his serve in the first two sets, Zheng was able to hold more easily in the third, and after a love hold for 4-4, he broke Smith. But Smith dug in and produced some of his best tennis since the first set, breaking Zheng at 15 for 5-5. 

Smith couldn't hold in the next game however, double faulting at 30-40 to give Zheng a second chance to serve for the final. When he went down 0-40, with a forehand error, a double fault and Smith volley winner, it looked as if another third set tiebreaker was in store, but Zheng clawed back. After Smith netted a backhand, Zheng hit a big first serve for 30-40, then reached his first match point with a forehand forcing an error.

Although his first serve percentage hovered around 50 percent during the match, Zheng made the most important one of his collegiate career, which just grazed the tape as it approached Smith, who had little chance to return it.

"I thought Colton played great on both of those games when I was trying to serve out the match," said Zheng, 20-year-old from New Jersey. "He just wouldn't miss a ball. It's tough when you're a little bit nervous, you know he's a little bit nervous but not missing a ball, and it's on you to take the initiative and take the match, instead of having him give it to you. But I thought I served pretty good in big moments in that last game, on the deuce point, and I'm happy to get it done."

Zheng is aware that as an American he is in line for a US Open men's main draw wild card if he defeats Planinsek Saturday. 

"That's something that's always in the back of your mind, but I have to keep it in the back of my mind," said Zheng, who received a US Open qualifying wild card last year and won a round. "I'm not going to be thinking about that too much in tomorrow's match. It's obviously a huge plus if I end up winning and getting a wild card, but if I don't get it, it's ok as well. I'm just focusing on improvement. If I get to that level, I'll eventually get the chance to play there anyway."

Zheng has experience competing on one of the sport's biggest stages as a finalist at the Wimbledon Junior Championships in 2022, and he believes that can benefit him Saturday.

"I think it's helpful for sure," Zheng said. "The first time playing on such a big stage you obviously feel a lot of pressure, there's so many people watching. It was helpful to get that experience, to have peace of mind going into tomorrow, ready to give it my all."

Zheng and Planinsek have met twice in college, both times indoors, with their most recent match at the ITA National Team Indoors at Columbia unfinished, and Zheng winning in Alabama last year in three sets. 

Zheng isn't the only singles finalist who can draw on the experience of competing in the Wimbledon Junior final, with Alexa Noel of Miami reaching the girls championship match in 2019. She too will draw on that experience Saturday, after the No. 8 seed turned in a near-perfect performance against top seed Mary Stoiana of Texas A&M in a 6-3, 6-2 victory.

"I'm not sure the crowd will be the same size," said the 21-year-old from New Jersey, who played in front of more than 5000 British tennis fans on Court One five years ago and perhaps 100 on Friday. "It's great to have that experience as a junior and carry that through, collegiately and professionally. You can learn what you've done wrong, what you've done right, change and adapt and be ready to go for tomorrow.....it's super beneficial, something I take pride in and will apply in the match tomorrow."

Noel, whose backhand slice pass on match point was an apt ending, not only has the Wimbledon junior experience to draw on as she approaches Saturday's final. She also has Paige Yaroshuk-Tews, who has coached two previous NCAA women's singles champions at Miami: Audra Cohen in 2007 and Estela Perez Somarriba in 2019.

Yaroshuk-Tews, in her 23rd year as head coach at Miami, said that she will not be overloading Noel with information from her previous times on court with NCAA champions.

"Everybody's personality is different, everybody's approach is different, everybody's 'why' is different, so you've got to figure it out with each kid," Yaroshuk-Tews said. "But this one is a special one; she's got the fire, the passion. I'm not an easy one to get along with sometimes, nor is she, so we're like a match made in heaven I think. As we say in the recruiting process, we want kids who love tennis, and nobody loves tennis more than Alexa, and I think it's showing."

Noel, like Zheng, will likely be awarded a US Open main draw wid card, and she too is motivated by the prospect. 

"You definitely don't want something so massive weighing on your mind when you're trying to win points and matches," said Noel, who earned her degree, but due to a significant injury layoff. has a year of eligibility remaining. "But it's something every American looks forward to, something I hope to get; but my mindset is one match at a time, so if it happens great, but if it doesn't you move on and keep playing tennis."

The inconceivable run this week of Georgia sophomore Anastasiia Lopata, Noel's opponent in Saturday's final, continued Friday, when the 19-year-old from Ukraine defeated No. 2 seed and last year's semifinalist Amelia Rajecki of North Carolina State 6-4, 7-5.

Lopata, whose placid demeanor and counterpunching game has proved unsolvable by every opponent she has faced in her eight days in Stillwater, stayed with the powerful Rajecki in every rally. Down three break points serving for the first set, Lopata held on the deciding point, and a similar pattern played out in the second set, when Rajecki, who double faulted four times to drop serve at 5-all, took a 15-40 lead in Lopata's service game. Two errors by Rajecki gave Lopata another deciding point, and she put away an overhead to confound yet another more highly ranked opponent.

"It's a little bit funny to me because I didn't expect to do that,"  said Georgia's No. 4, who has beaten the No. 1 players from Cal (Valentina Ivanov), North Carolina (No. 5 Fiona Crawley), Old Dominion (Sofia Johnson), Vanderbilt (No. 9 Celia-Belle Mohr) and NC State's Rajecki. 

"Like what the hell," said Lopata, who won the Bulldogs only match in their 4-1 loss to Texas A&M in the final Sunday. "But it's super cool for me that I'll have a chance to compete for a National Championship. That I was in the final of the team and am in the final of the individuals, that's really cool."

As the ninth alternate when the selections were announced last month, Lopata needed plenty of withdrawals just to get into the tournament, but that good fortune has helped her cope, as she earned win after win following the disappointment in the team final.

"I don't think I'm going to go to the next round, and I just go," said Lopata, who is currently No. 70 in the ITA national rankings. "I don't know how it works, but I know I've already done a lot and I'm just playing free."

In 2011, Stacey Tan, who played No. 5 for a Stanford team that lost in the team final, reached the singles final, losing to top seed Jana Juricova of Cal. She was ranked 43rd, substantially higher than Lopata, who is adding to the storied Georgia tennis history with an unprecedented performance of her own.

Lopata isn't the only Bulldog seeking more glory on Saturday, with teammates Dasha Vidmanova and Aysegul Mert reaching the women's doubles final, the first time in program history that Georgia has competed in the team, singles and doubles finals in the same year. Vidmanova and Mert defeated Vanderbilt's Celia-Belle Mohr and Anessa Lee 6-4, 6-4 to earn a meeting with top seeds Janice Tjen and Savannah Broadus of Pepperdine.  

Broadus, who won the Wimbledon girls doubles title the same year that Noel made the singles final, and partner Janice Tjen defeated Elza Tomase and Sofia Cabezas of Tennessee 6-2, 6-1.

In the men's doubles final, Ohio State's Robert Cash and JJ Tracy saved two match points to claim a 6-2, 4-6, 12-10 victory over Etienne Donnet and Natan Rodrigues of Louisville. Trailing 9-7, Louisville couldn't execute volleys on either match point and after another volley error gave Cash the opportunity to convert a match point on serve, Louisville netted a second serve return to end the historic run for their program.

Cash and Tracy, last fall's ITA All-American champions, will face another opponent on a historic run, Florida State's Antoine Cornut-Chauvinc and Joshua Dous Karpenschif, who defeated 2023 finalists Cleeve Harper and Eliot Spizzirri of Texas 6-4, 6-3. FSU had not had a team reach the NCAA semifinals; for the second day in a row, they will face another former NCAA runnerup in Cash, who lost in the 2022 final with Matej Vocel as his partner. Harper won the doubles title with Richard Ciamarra in 2022.

The singles finals, which will be played concurrently, will begin at 11 a.m. Central, followed by the doubles finals not before 12:30 p.m.

Cracked Racquets will have coverage of both finals at ESPN+. Live scoring is here, draws can be found here.

Three Americans juniors have advanced to the semifinals of the ITF J500 Trofeo Bonfiglio in Milan Italy, with No. 14 seed Iva Jovic facing No. 2 seed and longtime friend and doubles partner Tyra Grant for a place in Sunday's final. Kaylan Bigun, the No. 6 seed, is also through to the semifinals. Grant and Jovic, seeded No. 2, are in the doubles semifinals, as are No. 2 seeds and Australian Open champions Maxwell Exsted and Cooper Woestendick.

The University of Chicago added the men's Division III title to the women's title they won Thursday, beating Claremont-Mudd-Scripps 5-4 to earn their second NCAA team title. For more on their comeback win, see this article from the Chicago website.