©Colette Lewis 2015--
I'm back home after a day and a half at the $50,000 Champaign Challenger, which has produced multiple story lines as the final tournament in the Challenger portion of the USTA Pro Circuit. The USTA's Australian Open wild card will be decided this week, and unlike last year, when only two Americans reached the quarterfinals, this year six US players are in the quarterfinals, with five still in the running for the wild card.
One of those is 18-year-old Taylor Fritz, who defeated last week's champion in Knoxville, Dan Evans of Great Britain 6-2, 3-6, 6-4 in the first match of the day.
Fritz, who did not play Charlottesville, the first tournament in the USTA's Australian Open Wild Card Challenge, and lost in the first round of Knoxville, needs to win the tournament to tie current race leader Noah Rubin, the Charlottesville champion. The tiebreaker is ATP ranking, and Fritz has moved into the Top 200, while Rubin is at 339.
In his run to two Challenger titles in October, Fritz beat a raft of players ranked ahead of him, he said that Evans presents one of the worst match ups for him.
"A guy like that is someone I don't think I could have ever beaten a couple of months ago," said Fritz. "That's just the worst possible match up for me--someone who slices every ball, keeps it low, doesn't make too many mistakes, is fast. He doesn't give me much to work with; it's tough to generate power against him, he keeps everything low."
The first set certainly didn't indicate Fritz was having any trouble, with his serve producing five aces despite a low percentage of first serves. He broke Evans to take a 4-2 lead, then broke again for the set, with a great return sealing it.
The second set produced a different vibe. Fritz led 40-0 in the opening game, but was eventually broken. Lacking in energy and tired from some of the long points, Fritz said he was having difficulty breathing, a sensation new to him. He got the first break back, but Evans got another at 3-all, and a third to close out the set.
In the third game of the third set, Evans could not buy a first serve and after three deuces, Fritz broke. Evans, who often vented his frustration with line calls missed and lets not called, sometimes profanely, kept fighting and had three break point chances to get back on serve with Fritz serving at 3-2. Fritz got his first serve in each time and held on. Fritz was relying on his one break to see him through the final set, and was only to happy to have Evans serving first.
"It was good that he served first, because after the changeover, I got to serve rested and not tired at all," Fritz said. "If I got an easy enough hold, I could focus on breaking and that's what I did. I got that one break and I told myself not to kill myself trying to break him again, just conserve energy and focus on the service games to get it done."
Fritz is planning to train in Carson next month, with the USTA.
"Right after this tournament, I'm going to take a vacation," said Fritz. "Then I'm going to come back and train for a full month at Carson. They've got a really good program there for the off season I think, doing a lot of different things to make it good. I'm going to get a place in LA somewhere for the month and just train."
As for his schedule for the first few months of 2016, Fritz, who is assured of making the Australian Open men's qualifying, is still not sure whether he will try to qualify for some of the smaller ATP events prior to Australia, or play Challengers.
"Challengers might be a good play to get some more matches in, but there would be a lot of good practice at the ATPs," said Fritz, who will make those decisions with his agents at CAA and USTA coach David Nainkin during the off season.
Fritz is no longer being coached by his father Guy, who developed his game.
"If I need some advice on the serve, I'll go talk to him," said Fritz. "He knows what he's talking about. I feel at this point, I've been with him so long and he's done everything for me. Obviously I wouldn't be anywhere close to where I am without him. But I don't think there's anything he could tell me that I don't already know from him. I've just been with him for so long. I think I just need someone who is going to make me work hard and who I'm going to be motivated to work hard for."
Fritz will play top seed Malek Jaziri of Tunisia in the quarterfinals. Jaziri defeated Daniel Nguyen 7-5, 7-6(5), eliminating Nguyen from Australian Open wild card contention.
Also eliminated was Frances Tiafoe, who lost to Eric Quigley 6-3, 6-7(3), 6-4. Quigley, the 2012 NCAA singles finalist while at Kentucky, played outstanding tennis throughout most of the match, and Tiafoe was increasingly frustrated by Quigley's high level and what he considered the low level of the umpiring. His first racquet throw came early in the first set, and after Quigley got the only break of the third set with Tiafoe serving at 4-5, Tiafoe destroyed his racquet. Five minutes later, officials were still working to corral the shattered pieces, using a dustbuster for the final clean up.
Quigley, who can win the Australian Open wild card if he wins the title, plays unseeded Henri Laaksonen of Switzerland in the quarterfinals.
There are two all-American quarterfinal matches. Qualifier Mackenzie McDonald, a UCLA junior, will play Mitchell Krueger with the winner of that match retaining his shot at the wild card. McDonald advanced when No. 3 seed Ryan Harrison retired with a shoulder injury at 2-6, 6-1. Krueger defeated No. 6 seed JP Smith of Australia 7-5, 7-6(3).
No. 2 seed Austin Krajicek is likely to make the Australian Open on his own ranking, which was 101 coming into this tournament. If he wins the tournament, he will not need the wild card, but as of right now, he is still considered eligible for it. Krajicek, who I spoke to at length yesterday for an upcoming Tennis Recruiting article, advanced to the quarterfinals with a 7-6(3), 6-3 win over Adrien Bossel of Switzerland.
Krajicek's opponent will be qualifier Clay Thompson, who defeated No. 8 seed Blaz Rola of Slovenia 7-6(4), 6-3 in the last match of the evening. Former UCLA Bruin Thompson, who hadn't won a Challenger match until last night's 7-6 in the third win over Dennis Nevolo, is improving his ranking substantially with his impressive play this week, but his current ATP ranking of 603 would not rise enough with the title to put him ahead of Rubin.
Thompson, a free spirit with unpredictable vocal expressions and reactions, is adding a bit of levity, not to mention great tennis, to the final few days of Challenger tennis in the United States for 2015.
Complete results and the order of play for Thursday can be found at the ATP website.