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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 Therona nd 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.

Thursday, May 23, 2024

NCAA D-I Team Championships Recap; Five Americans Advance to NCAA Singles Semifinals; Ninth Alternate Lopata Reaches Final Four; Chicago Women Claim First NCAA D-III Title; Grant, Jovic and Bigun Advance to Quarterfinals at ITF J500 Milan

©Colette Lewis 2024--

Stillwater OK--

First time champions are the theme of my NCAA Division I Team Championships recap, up today at the Tennis Recruiting Network, and that trend in continuing in the singles championships, with all four of the men's semifinalists the first from their programs to ever reach the Final Four.

It's also been a stellar tournament for players from the United States, with five American men and two American women through to Friday's semifinals of the NCAA Division I Tennis Championships, after taking a variety of paths to victory Thursday on the courts of the Michael and Anne Greenwood Tennis Center.

Unseeded Colton Smith of Arizona earned the most dramatic win, coming from 4-2 down in the third set to defeat No. 9 seed Murphy Cassone, a 2023 semifinalist, 6-4, 2-6, 7-6(3) in one of three all-US men's quarterfinals.

Smith again had the support of the Arizona women's softball team, in Stillwater for Super Regional competition this weekend, but unlike yesterday, their presence seemed to less benefical to the junior from Washington. They saw Smith close out the first set, and take a 2-0 lead in the second, but then the wheels came off. After being denied entrance to the facility with the signs they had made to support Smith, the team was warned by the chair umpire for their comments to Cassone and their "Bear Down" gestures, and once they went quiet, Smith proceeded to lose six games and the set.

"I wasn't aware of what they were doing or what was happening, but I know the ref was getting upset at some things," Smith said. "It was unfortunate that it transpired the way it did, but I mean, it's college tennis. When you're in a dual match, people are doing that stuff all the time and I don't think it's any different here. It's disappointing it went down how it did and there where some things that changed the match around a little bit, but I don't think it affected me too, too much and I was able to get back on track there."

The softball team left before the conclusion, missing the best stretch of Smith's performance, when he broke Cassone serving at 4-2 and held from behind to force the deciding tiebreaker. Two winners, one a monster down-the-line backhand and the second on the forehand side, seemed to rattle Cassone, who made two backhand errors to go down 5-0. Although Smith was unable to get a first serve in, he executed well on his second and took a 6-0 lead. A couple of errors gave Cassone hope, but the junior from Kansas gave Smith a generous call on the baseline on the fourth match point and Smith was through.

"It was kind of clear that I had to change some things around and really commit to what I wanted to do in that third set," Smith said. "You're aware you need to raise the level (in the tiebreaker); it's seven points and you have to get it now or you ain't going to get it. I had to trust what I had done to get to that point."

Smith is on somthing of a revenge tour in this event, having posted three wins over players who beat him the last time they played a completed match: No. 6 seed Oliver Tarvet of San Diego, No. 9 seed Nishesh Basavareddy of Stanford and today, Cassone.

Smith is hoping to make it four in a row when he takes on unseeded Michael Zheng of Columbia, who beat him 6-4, 6-1 at line 1 in the Wildcats 4-3 loss to the Lions in the Super Regional earlier this month.

Zheng came back to beat JJ Tracy of Ohio State 2-6, 7-5, 6-3, with Tracy reduced to underhand serves and frequent drop shots after he began cramping in the third set, up 3-2. He received a medical timeout then, which comes with a point penalty in men's college tennis, and he was broken in the next game. When Zheng held on a deciding point to go up 5-3, the die was cast, and he closed out his first match point with a forehand winner with Tracy serving at 30-40.

"Whenever your opponent is cramping or injured, it's never easy to put the match away," said Zheng, a sophomore from New Jersey, who reached the round of 16 last year. "I was just trying to focus on what I could control. I got a little bit tight at the end, missing some balls I don't usually miss, but credit to JJ, he toughed it out and finished the match."

As for meeting Smith again, Zheng said surprises will be few.  "The first set was very close, I was a little bit lucky to get the first, I saved a lot of break points," Zheng said. "I kind of got it going in the second, but he's a tough player, well coached, so they'll make some adjustments and I'll be ready for that."

No. 8 seed Ozan Baris of Michigan State won the most straightforward match in the men's quarterfinals, beating unseeded Jack Anthrop of Ohio State 6-4, 6-1.

"For most of the match I played very well," said the sophomore from Michigan. "There were times when I got a little too passive, didn't exactly play the way I intended to, but other than that I played great."

The first player from Michigan State to reach an NCAA semifinal, Baris was confident coming into the tournament.

"I came in knowing that I can win the whole thing, and as long as I have that chance, I'm very confident when I go out there," Baris said. "It doesn't mean it's going to happen....but I believe in myself to the fullest, every time I step on court. I've had that mentality for every match and I'm going to keep it until the end of the tournament."

Baris will face the only international player remaining in the field after the round of 16: Filip Planinsek of Alabama. Planinsek,  just the second quarterfinalist in the NCAAs, with Mazen Osama, is now the first semifinalist in program history, beating Harvard freshman Cooper Williams, a No. 9 seed, 6-4, 1-6, 6-4.

"I don't know what's happening, I'm just playing my best tennis right now, I guess," said the junior from Slovenia, who has defeating three seeds in succession to advance to the semifinals.  "I'm enjoying myself so much in Stillwater, I'm in love with this place I guess. But jokes aside, it was a great match, great battle. Cooper's a great guy, a great competitor, a freshman, has a lot in front of him. But I just don't want to stop, I just want to keep winning."

Both the men's singles semifinals are scheduled to begin at 10:00 Central time Friday.

Unlike the men's draw, which lost top seed Johannus Monday of Tennessee to injury before the event began and No. 2 seed Eliot Spizzirri of Texas in the first round, the women's field still has its top two seeds in contention.

Mary Stoiana of Texas A&M is trying to add a singles title to the team title she won Sunday, and the junior from Connecticut is one step closer after a tight 7-5, 6-4, win over unseeded Amelia Honer of UC-Santa Barbara.

"I thought she was a really talented player," Stoiana said. "We'd never played, she's in a totally different conference with me, but she's an amazing player. I was in a battle there and she made me work for every point, very few unforced errors and we complemented each other with the cat and mouse game. She can slice really well, played good drop shots, good volleys, a little bit like myself, so it was a really fun, entertaining match."

Stoiana will face No. 8 seed Alexa Noel from Miami, who defeated unseeded Alexandra Yepifanova of Stanford in the other all-US quarterfinal in the top half 6-2, 6-3. 

Noel, who has not had the best of luck or health in the NCAA individual championships, was happy with her level of play.

"I think I played really well today, the first set was everything I wanted it to be," said the recent graduate, who still has a year of eligibility remaining. "I went up early in the second set and she fought harder, as any good competitor does, but I stayed with it to kind of pull away at 3-all, and I'm super happy to get through."

Noel and Stoiana have played twice this season, with Stoiana winning the ITA All-American championships with a 3-6, 7-6(5), 6-1 victory over Noel last fall, and Noel beating Stoiana 6-2, 6-7(3), 6-3 in a February dual match in Coral Gables.

On the international side of the draw, No. 2 seed Amelia Rajecki of North Carolina State defeated Georgia's Dasha Vidmanova, a No. 9 seed, 7-6(5), 6-2 to reach her second straight NCAA singles semifinal. It's not the same however, according to the senior from Great Britain.

"I think it's different because I haven't played 15 matches before," said Rajecki, who played in the team final last year, while the Wolfpack was eliminated in the Super Regionals this year at Stanford. "I feel a little fresher than last year, mentally. Last year, I was so tired at this point. I was also surprised, every match I was just glad to play again. Obviously this time it's a bit different,  because the match could be the last match of my college career. It does feel different, there's a finite end to it, but I'm really enjoying this year and feel I have a more to give as well."

The surprise finalist is Georgia sophomore Anastasiia Lopata, the ninth alternate in singles playing No. 4 for the Bulldogs throughout the season. In a match well over three hours in duration, Lopata survived the big hitting and serving of No. 9 seed Celia-Belle Mohr of Vanderbilt, 4-6, 6-4, 7-5.

Lopata looked and sounded tired in her press conference, but there was never a doubt that she would give her best in her seventh straight day of top level Division I competition.

"I was just telling myself keep fighting, fight, I don't know that helps I guess," said Lopata, from Kiev Ukraine. "That's all I told myself, all that was in my head."

Lopata saved two break points to hold for 5-4 and put the pressure on Mohr, who was unable to summon her usually effective serve in the final game, double faulting twice and missing a forehand volley to send Lopata to the semifinals.

With all the tennis she has played, Lopata cited the recovery method she has used during the past eight days.

"I'm going to do our special secret thing that recovers our legs, that nobody knows about," Lopata said. "I'm going to work on the part of my body that hurts, ice, heat and some compression. We've really found the thing that helps us recover our legs, so it's good, it's not that sore."

The doubles semifinals are also set for Friday, after the women's singles semifinals, which are not before 11:30 central.

The top seeds in the women's draw, Pepperdine's Savannah Broadus and Janice Tjen, defeated the defending NCAA champions Fiona Crawley and Carson Tanguilig of North Carolina 6-2, 6-2 and will face Tennessee's Sofia Cabezas and Elza Tomase, who ended the Triple Crown hopes of Stoiana with a 6-3, 6-2 win over her and partner Mia Kupres, the No. 4 seeds.

Georgia's Aysegul Mert and Vidmanova will play Mohr and Anessa Lee of Vanderbilt in the other semifinals, after they took out No. 2 seeds and local favorites Anastasiia Komar and Ange Oby Kajuru of Oklahoma State 7-6(4), 4-6, 10-7. Mert and Vidmanova beat No. 5 seeds Metka Komac and Avelina Sayfetdinova of Texas Tech 3-6, 6-4, 11-9.

JJ Tracy managed to recover from his cramps in the singles quarterfinal in the three hours before doubles, and he and Robert Cash looked in top form in a 6-3, 6-1 win over the Arkansas team of Bozo Borun and Jared Horwood. Tracy and Cash, the No. 4 seeds, will play Etienne Donnet and Natan Rodrigues of Louisville, the No. 5 seeds, who beat top seeds Pedro Rodenas and Garrett Johns of Duke 6-4, 6-7(0), 10-7. 

2023 finalists Cleeve Harper and Eliot Spizzirri of Texas, 6-3, 6-3 winners over Mississippi State's Petar Jovanovic and Benito Sanchez Martinez will face Florida State's Antoine Cornut-Chauvinc and Joshua Dous Karpenschif, who beat Cassone and Jacob Bullard of Arizona State 7-6(5), 4-6, 10-6.

Cracked Racquets will have coverage of Friday's semifinals via ESPN+. Live scoring is here and draws are here.

The University of Chicago women, finalists the last two years in the Division III team championships, earned their first title in program history today in St. Louis, beating Wesleyan 5-3. For the bracket and replay, see ncaa.com. Tennis Recruiting Network will have a recap in the next day or two.

The Chicago men will face Claremont-Mudd-Scripps in the men's final Friday.

Three Americans are through to the quarterfinals of the ITF J500 Trofeo Bonfiglio in Milan: No. 6 seed Kaylan Bigun, No. 2 seed Tyra Grant and No. 14 seed Iva Jovic. Jovic and Grant will meet in the semifinals if both win Friday.