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Monday, January 30, 2017

Sanford Saves Two Match Points to Advance to Final Round Qualifying at $100K Dow Tennis Classic; Cal Tops Men's 2017 Recruiting Class Rankings

©Colette Lewis 2017--
Midland, MI--

Alexandra Sanford reached the quarterfinals of the $100,000 Dow Tennis Classic last year, winning three qualifying matches and earning victories over Jennifer Brady and Alexa Glatch in the main draw.  The 18-year-old from Ohio is one match from returning to the main draw, thanks to saving two match points in her 3-6, 6-4, 7-6(8) win over 17-year-old Michaela Gordon.

Today's victory is 24 hours after Sanford defeated No. 3 seed Maria Sanchez 6-3, 2-6, 7-6(4) in the first round.

"I said to myself yesterday I can't recall playing a 7-6 in the third match, and now I have two in a row," Sanford said. "Maybe a long time ago, but I don't remember any recent ones."

Sanford did not face any match points again Sanchez, and in fact was up 5-2 in third set, but against Gordon, she needed every point.

Sanford broke Gordon serving at 4-5 to take the second set, and went up 3-1 in the third before Gordon fought back to even it 3-3 and 4-4. Serving at 4-5 in the third, Gordon fell behind 0-30, but she came up with a couple of winners and a good first serve to get out of that tight spot.

"She had a couple of good serves and a couple of good third-ball shots, so there wasn't much I could do there either," Sanford said. "From 3-all to 6-all we both just played pretty solid service games."

Sanford then put herself in the same position as Gordon, going down 0-30 at 5-5, but good serving and big forehands led to four straight points and a hold, followed by a love hold by Gordon.

The tiebreaker featured some big hitting and only three mini-breaks, one for each at 2-all and then the final one at 9-8.  Sanford saved her first match point serving at 5-6, with Gordon missing a backhand return on a second serve.  At 6-6 Sanford hit the baseline twice before her forehand forced an error to give her a match point, but Sanford couldn't convert, hitting a forehand wide after a lengthy rally to make it 7-7.  Gordon went up 8-7 when Sanford missed another forehand wide, but Sanford saved it with a good first serve.  She hit a forehand winner to earn her second match point, and then closed out the match with another blistering forehand winner.

The tendency to hit out in a tense point in the match does not come naturally to Sanford.

"It would definitely be my first nature to get tentative," Sanford said. "So I almost have to push myself to keep hitting the ball. Otherwise, it never works out for me. I have to stick to my shots and try to go for it, play my game even in a tight situation. That takes some getting used to, but I feel I did a good job of it yesterday and today."

Sanford played two $25,000 tournaments on clay in Florida this month, but spent last week training on the indoor courts of the USTA's National Campus in Lake Nona to prepare for this event.

"Growing up in Ohio and obviously last year here, hard, fast indoor is my favorite," said Sanford, who has joined the recent surge in players to the Yonex racquet. "I live for this tournament."

Sanford hopes winning two third-set tiebreakers will help her relax a bit.

"I was a little bit nervous, just because of my result last year," said Sanford. "I wanted to get the win really bad, but when you have two close matches like that you put perspective on it, and it shows me I need to do what I did last year. When I just play and don't think about it too much, that's when I'm at my best. Hopefully two close matches can help me ease in and not put so much pressure on myself."

Sanford's opponent in the final round of qualifying will be Julia Elbaba, who defeated Alexandra Mueller 6-0, 7-6(8).

Elbaba, a 2016 Virginia graduate, was able to keep Mueller on defense most of the first set.

"I feel like she definitely struggled a little bit in the first set with my pace," said Elbaba, the No. 7 seed. "I was taking the balls nice and early and I felt she really didn't know what to do to counteract those shots."

Mueller began hitting bigger and deeper in the second set, and took a 4-2 lead, only to see Elbaba win the next four games.  Mueller had a chance to serve for the second set at 6-5, but Elbaba dug in, denying Mueller a set point and forced a tiebreaker.

"When you play such big players that have such strong serves, going down 4-2 is a little bit scarier than going down 4-2 against someone my height," Elbaba said. "I knew it was going to take a lot, but it reminded me of the Federer - Nadal fifth set, when Federer went down a break. I said, you know what, if Federer can do it, then maybe I can do it too. Watching these pro matches does help you in your own match."

Also down 4-2 in the tiebreaker, Elbaba again was able to keep herself calm.

"I told myself if it goes to a third set, that's fine," said the 22-year-old New Yorker. "But let's just free up and hit. Let's keep the balls deep, let's try to get ahead in the point from the start.  Because whenever she was ahead in the point it was hard to beat her. I took it, like literally, one point at a time, and the crowd was really nice."

Mueller came up with a couple of winners to deny Elbaba victory at 7-6 and 8-7, but at 9-8 Mueller hit a forehand long to put Elbaba one match from the main draw.

Sanford and Elbaba have never played before, and Sanford said she will figure out her strategy early on.

"I don't know much about her and today's the first time I've seen her play," Sanford said. "I'll try to just play the ball, focus on what I'm doing and use the first couple games to try and figure out if I need a strategy or what I need to do from then on in the match."

The only other Americans to reach the final round of qualifying are 15-year-old Amanda Anisimova and 18-year-old Nicole Frenkel.  Anisimova defeated No. 8 seed Hanna Chang 6-0, 7-5 and will play 18-year-old Canadian Katherine Sebov.  Frenkel beat Anca Craciun 6-2, 7-5 and will face Katarzyna Kawa of Poland, the No. 5 seed.  Kawa defeated local teenager Alyvia Jones, a Michigan recruit, 6-3, 6-1.

In addition to the four final round qualifying matches, four main draw matches will be played on Tuesday.  I'll be watching US Open girls doubles finalists Caroline Dolehide and Kayla Day face off in a first round singles match, which should be streamed at usta.com

Jennifer Brady, who reached the round of 16 at the Australian Open, withdrew, so one of the losers in qualifying will get in.  Draws and Tuesday's order of play is available at dowtennisclassic.com.

The Tennis Recruiting Network revealed its 2017 men's recruiting class rankings today, with Cal edging Florida by one point for the top spot, the closest finish in the 12 years TRNet has been providing these lists. I am one of the 19 voters who participated in these January rankings. A second and final ranking for 2017 will come out in May.