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Monday, February 3, 2020

January Aces; Future Collegians Stearns and Miller Advance to Final Round of Qualifying at $100K Dow Tennis Classic

©Colette Lewis 2020--
Midland Michigan--

I'm at the $100,000 Dow Tennis Classic in Midland Michigan for a few days, making my annual trip to one of the oldest and best events on the women's ITF calendar. Before I get to my coverage of today's first round of qualifying, here's the link to my monthly Aces column for the Tennis Recruiting Network, which includes the first junior slam champions of the year, as well as the many former and two current collegians who captured titles last month.

Midland always gives me an opportunity to catch up with players I followed throughout their junior careers but don't see as much now that they are on the Pro Circuit. After the opening press conference, which featured defending champion Caty McNally, who had her breakout tournament here last year, Shelby Rogers, French Open finalist Sara Errani and local wild card Ellie Coleman, I watched several college recruits test their games in the qualifying against players in the 300s and 400s in the WTA rankings.

Wild card Peyton Stearns, who made her college decision just a couple of weeks ago, was particularly impressive in a 6-1, 6-3 won over No. 14 seed Olivia Tjandramulia of Australia. The 18-year-old from Mason Ohio was just too powerful for the WTA No. 421, using her serve and her forehand to extricate herself from any trouble she encountered. Stearns was able to get an early break in both sets, crediting her training regimen and her experience last year on the Pro Circuit for her improvement.

"I've been training a lot with Cary Rubin, he's from Lexington (Kentucky), and I go out and hit balls all day, getting depth, just being positive," said Stearns, a senior who recently committed to joining the Texas Longhorns this coming fall. "I felt like on court today it was natural; I didn't have to force anything. I told myself to just go out there, swing at the ball and if it goes in, it goes in. You've practiced it so many times, and that's what I did. I'm starting out the year strong. Out in Malibu ($25k) I did the same and I'm having some good results."

Stearns, who didn't play a junior event last year after the Easter Bowl, went 12-9 in the main draw of Pro Circuit events last year, which helped her see what she needed to pursue a pro career.

"Here these girls are playing the whole match strong, they are not letting you in, they're playing for their money, their life, so it's a little different playing pros," Stearns said. "I feel you have to be a little stronger a little quicker, the ball comes back a little bit more than in juniors."

Stearns admitted that it took her some time to feel comfortable on the court against a professional.

"At first it was a little intimidating for me," said Stearns, who grew up going to the Western and Southern Open, one of the major US Open Series events held every August in her home town. "I'm just coming up, no one knew me, they thought I was just nobody. But now, people know who I am. They know I have a big forehand, that I'm going to keep fighting the whole match, you have to stay on it, so I think my name's kind of gotten out there a little bit more now."

With the word out on her forehand now, Stearns has learned to how to increase its impact by reining it in a bit.

"I used to make a lot of unforced errors," Stearns said. "I feel like I've cut down on that. Like today, maybe that would have been a closer match a few months ago, because of how many unforced errors I would hit going after balls. I've taken some pace off, added some more spin and hit to bigger targets. That's improved my game a lot. So it's just repetition, doing that over and over. When I hit a good shot, praise it, and when I don't do something good, you need to do this better. My footwork could be a little quicker to the ball. I'm fast and I get to the ball, but then it's like, what am I supposed to do now? I'm missing them because I'm not set up in position, so I'm working on that."

Stearns' parents and coach encouraged her to consider college for her life after tennis, and she believes it will provide benefits in her training as well.

"My parents are huge on the education part," said Stearns, who is planning to stay in school for just one year. "They said you have to have a Plan B for your life, if tennis doesn't work out, something could happen. And I'm going to have structure, which is kind of what I'm missing back home. I feel like I'm still developing things and my ranking's still not quite there. I don't have those kinds of hits back home. I hit with my younger brother (Preston), and he's good, really good, but I have to hit with girls. It's a different kind of game, he can ace me, girls don't ace as much, they're going to spin it in. I just feel playing with girls on the team, having a practice every day at a set time, everything's going to be there for me, I don't have to set up anything, it's going to huge for me."

Stearns says she admires Maria Sharapova, as much for her mental game as her strokes.

"I like her attitude," said Stearns, who hopes to receive a qualifying wild card to this year's Western and Southern Open. "In between points, she calms herself down, restarts every point; you can see her not get rattled and I really like that. I'm trying to be more like that on court."

Stearns also is a fan of Novak Djokovic, but has a special connection with Feliciano Lopez of Spain, who became a family friend after a random encounter with her father in a Spanish bar.

"We went to Spain for a wedding and my dad went to the bar and there was this guy watching tennis," Stearns said. "They were the only two people there watching tennis. I forget his name, but he was the head coach of the Spanish federation, and my dad mentioned that we lived in Mason and said if they needed any help--the tournament was the next month--to call. They exchanged numbers and they reached out, to see if we had a car, and we said sure. And ever since then Feli has come over to our house; he has invited my parents to Indian Wells, New York. He's a great guy."

On Tuesday, Stearns will play No. 3 seed Shilin Xu of China for a place in the main draw.

The Tennis Recruiting Network will have more on Stearns' commitment to Texas soon.

University of Michigan recruit Kari Miller also took out a seed, beating No. 16 seed Yuxuan Zhang of China 7-6(5), 6-4 after trailing 3-1 in the first set and 3-0 in the second set. Zhang took a medical timeout at 3-2 in the second set for treatment on her ankle, but that didn't seem to be a factor in the late stages of the match, and it was Miller who won the big points in the final game. Miller's opponent in the final qualifying round is No. 6 seed Aldila Sutjiadi(Kentucky) of Indonesia.

The other Michigan recruit on the court this afternoon was Julia Fliegner, also from southeastern Michigan, who lost to No. 10 seed Sophie Chang 6-3, 6-3.

The eight final round qualifying matches are scheduled for Tuesday, along with six main draw matches.  Ellie Coleman, the 16-year-old from Midland, will face No. 5 seed Yanina Wickmayer of Belgium and will also play a first round doubles match with Miller against Quinn Gleason(Notre Dame) and Catherine Harrison(UCLA).

Tuesday's schedule is here. The qualifying results and draw is here and the main draw is here.

Live streaming is available here.

The men's events in the United States this week are the ATP 100 in Dallas and the $25,000 tournament in Palm Coast Florida.

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