Sunny skies and breezy, but pleasant conditions were the order of the day at the Kiwi Club in Indian Harbour Beach, Florida today as the 2014 Audi Melbourne Pro Tennis Classic, a $50,000 USTA Pro Circuit clay court event on the ITF calendar, got underway with first round qualifying today.
Play started promptly at 10 AM, but not a lot was going on around the grounds prior to that when I arrived at 9:15. Only a couple of players were out practicing, Maria-Fernanda Alves among them, as the play courts were being groomed for the first matches. I also saw Jan Abaza walking off the court after finishing up her morning hit.
The crowd slowly filtered in between 9:30 and 10 or 10:30, and for most of the day, attendance was pretty heavy for qualifying Sunday. Obviously a substantial number of those present were parents and coaches, but even so, turnout was excellent on “Kids’ Day.”
Abaza and Nicole Melichar played first on court 6, with Abaza taking the win without difficulty, 6-3 6-3. While Jan is small of stature and slight of build, she is a crafty and artful player and clay suits her game and her strokes well. She also has a better than decent serve and when she plays within herself, as she did today, and does not force the issue, or have to force the issue, she is a tough little nut to crack. Melichar was forced into overhitting on a number of occasions and her lack of consistency was what did her in today.
Alexandra Stevenson warmed up on an adjacent court while this match was going on, and I saw Natalie Pluskota walk past three or four times as more and more of the late arriving players were showing up by this point.
While watching the Abaza-Melichar match, I overheard an interesting nugget from the coach of Louisa Chirico and Samantha Crawford. Chirico withdrew from this event just a few days ago, and today I found out the reason–age restrictions. According to her coach, by playing the last two weeks, she hit the maximum number of tournaments a player under the age of eighteen is allowed to play in a year. Consequently, she was forced to withdraw from the Audi Melbourne Pro Tennis Classic, and everything else until she turns 18 in two weeks.
Next was the tail end of the two setter between Ulrikke Eikeri and Maria-Fernanda Alves, from 3-2 Eikeri in set 2, and it seemed neither player could hold serve until Eikeri broke for a 5-4 lead and finally held to close it out. It didn’t look pretty, but she wheezed across the finish line for the win.
As Alexandra Stevenson and Danielle Lao began warming up, a group that included Pluskota, Samantha Crawford and several others were sitting around on the balcony looking at their phones, telling jokes, swapping tales, catching up, and giggling about something or other.
A few minutes later, just as Stevenson’s match was starting on Stadium Court, Sam Crawford was stenciling the strings on her Wilson racquets and jamming to some tunes. At least I am guessing that’s what she was listening to. A couple of minutes later, and she was heading on court for her match with Jessica Lawrence.
Stevenson did not start well, losing her first two serve games en route to a 0-3 deficit in the first set. Shots were flying everywhere, and it looked like Alexandra’s day was going to be over in short order. As Samantha’s match against Jessica Lawrence was starting, I moved over to court 4 to watch her. Good decision!
I will say this about Sam–if she could consistently bring the game she brought today, there’s no doubt she is a top 50 player right now, with much higher potential. Her inconsistent results are admittedly perplexing, though anyone who saw her today would have to have been impressed. I lost count of the number of winners she hit, particularly off of her forehand, which was absolutely enormous. The fact that she hit so many on clay was even more impressive. A couple of meaningless blips on serve when the match was not in serious jeopardy, otherwise she was ruthlessly efficient, both on serve and returning. Service returns that were punishing, deep, pinning Lawrence behind the baseline and giving her almost no initiative in the points on her serve. It was a very, very impressive performance from Crawford. One most fans of U.S. tennis should be pining for more of, because she has all of the tools to be a major force in the game if it all comes together like this more often.
Peggy Porter knocked out Brooke Austin in a battle of young American prospects, on court 6, and I was impressed with her ability to balance her aggression and point construction. She had a clearly bigger game than Austin, one she took every opportunity to impose, and used it effectively and to her great advantage in this match, winning 6-2 6-2. But for a couple of loose swings from Porter, it would have been a really ugly scoreline from the Austin vantage point.
I hardly expected to see Lexy Stevenson still alive on Stadium Court, but different dress and all, she was actually out in front by the time I made it back over to see this one conclude, Stevenson winning the third set 6-1. Obviously a huge turnaround from a disastrous start, but she looked like she was swinging much better in the third set. Still a picture pretty backhand, even after all these years.
Natalie Pluskota fought back a stiff challenge from Andie Danielle in the first set, 6-3, looking as though she might be suffering from a bit of a back injury, before taking command and running away in set two on Stadium Court, 6-1.
I watched Jacqueline Cako take a set from Emily Harman, 6-1, before calling it quits for today, even with plenty of matches still left on the card.
As I was leaving, Sanaz Marand came bounding downstairs from the clubhouse and I waved at her and said “Congratulations on last week! Great playing!”, obviously referring to her semifinal in Charlottesville. She smiled and said “Thanks!” and that, as we say, is a wrap from day one.
Photos from today: https://www.flickr.com/photos/28300821@N05/sets/72157644363945232/