My mission yesterday at the Fayez Sarofim & Co. U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship was simple: gather as much information as I could about what is starting to look like a very promising group of ATP teenagers. Four of them had made the trip to Houston to play the qualies: Germany’s Alexander Zverev (will turn 18 years old in a little over two weeks), South Korean Chung Hyeon (18 years old), Yoshihito Nishioka from Japan (19 years old), and American Jared Donaldson (18 years old).
The Order of Play was my ally: Zverev was up first on Court 3, Nishioka was up second on Court 4, Chung was third up on Court 3, and Donaldson was last on Court 4. A perfect set-up.
The Zverev Experience
Due to mental unforced errors caused by lack of proper sleep and sheer excitement for the day’s activities, I arrived to Court 3 in the middle of the second game of Alexander Zverev’s opening match with former US Open semifinalist Robby Ginepri. Oddly enough, Ginepri was also first up on Court 3 for a first round qualifying match in 2013. Didn’t Nietzsche write something about everything repeating itself forever and ever? More on this later.
Since the second game of the first set was taking place, I couldn’t go find a seat in the bleachers. I was a standing spectator while Zverev got broken to go down 2-0, and shortly after, 3-0. The young German looked cranky and uncomfortable. The conditions weren’t helping: it was windy and overcast, and surprisingly, a bit brisk. This was in stark contrast to Friday, when Houston was hot and humid (a.k.a the status quo around here for at least half the year). Zverev looked exasperated, frequently looked over to his camp after something went wrong, and it didn’t take long for him to bounce his racquet on the ground in disgust.
Ginepri, who I imagined being older than 32 years old, given that he made his US Open semifinal 10 years ago, was playing the perfect veteran match. He quickly figured out when and how to attack Zverev, and he drove the kid nuts by not giving anything away. Zverev’s biggest issue was his forehand: he wasn’t hitting through that shot, and as a consequence, he was getting no depth whatsoever. What’s worse, since he wasn’t really powering through the ball, his shots tended to bounce around the service line and sit up perfectly for Ginepri’s strike zone. So after pushing the young guy around for a bit, Robby would go for a dropper Zverev rarely could get to.
Zverev’s backhand is quite nice, and he does fully commit to that two-hander. He leans on it, and drives through the ball with quite a bit of ferocity. But Ginepri was being quite crafty at making Zverev hit backhands from tricky positions on the court, or simply staying away from that side and drawing the inevitable short ball from Alexander’s forehand.
Still, there was a glimmer of hope for the teen. Down 4-1, he recovered from a 0-40 hole on his serve by playing aggressive, committed tennis, and followed that up with a break of serve. His body language, which had been so poor beforehand, improved. He suddenly looked like fearless, confident youth.
Alas, it did not last.
Ginepri took advantage of more sloppiness and short forehands from Zverev, broke for 5-3, and never really looked back. The kid bounced his racquet a few more times, and launched a tirade in a language that wasn’t German (my high school diploma is from a school named Colegio Alemán, a.k.a. the German School in Quito, Ecuador). A guy sitting next to me said “that’s Czech.” My guess is that it actually was Russian: that’s where his family is from, though they moved to Germany in 1991 – six years before Alexander was born. At any rate, I kept talking with the man next to me, an older British gentleman who has lived in Houston since he was 17 (his TexaBrit accent was phenomenal). He even gave me tips for my ball toss (“keep your arm straight” and “practice holding two balls in your hand”). But before we knew it, Zverev had lost, 6-3, 6-2.
It’s tempting to conclude that Zverev disappointed and to be a bit sceptical about the kid. However, one should always remember that he is an 18 year old. There’s clearly quite a bit of talent there, even if he didn’t rise up to the challenge of taking out a seasoned veteran like Ginepri. Zverev was bad-tempered in ways that seem commonplace in tennis, and we’ve often seen players like him learn how to control their negative tendencies and fully embrace a tough challenge. Alexander is obviously one to watch, but more information is needed before even attempting to make any projections.
Court 4 at the River Oaks Country Club has no seating available. If you want to watch a match there, you need to stand in the narrow walkway between it and Court 5. I made my way to that corridor just as Yoshihito Nishioka had taken a commanding set and break lead over Greg Ouellette, a 28 year-old journeyman ranked No. 761. In related time-is-an-illusion-and-everything-keeps-repeating-itself news, I also saw Ouellette play in Day 1 of the 2013 qualies. In fact, I could swear that he was wearing the same clothes on both occasions.
Nishioka is fun to watch. He’s listed at 5’7, and there’s a small chance that he’s inch taller than that. Maybe. Or it might be that his hair gives the impression. He’s a crafty lefty who tries to play coherent lefty tennis: lots of cross-court forehands were involved. I really liked his backhand – a short, super quick swing that seemed very consistent. I liked his patience working the points and waiting for good chances to attack. You could tell that he was looking for specific patterns, and he was not letting them go.
@jjvallejoa Little Nishi and his great on court speed and pretty pretty lefty forehand 🙂
— René Denfeld (@Renestance) April 4, 2015
I agree with René – Nishioka flies on the court, and the way he whips the forehand is indeed enjoyable. The second set ended up being quite fun; even though Yoshihito seemed to be controlling the match without issue, Yoshihito couldn’t keep his break lead for long. Indeed, the second set seemed to get “on break” until Nishioka was able to finally hold and take the match 6-3, 6-4. Up next for the Japanese teen is the subject of the next section.
The Unexpected Guest
After Ginepri dispatched Zverev, American Ryan Harrison entered Court 3 to play someone I had never heard of before: Thiago Monteiro. Turns out he’s not just some random Brazilian:
@jjvallejoa You saw him play… he was junior #2, but didn't made a good transition… maybe this result will give some confidence to him.
— GK Tennis (@GKTennis21) April 4, 2015
I had left Court 3 thinking Harrison would take care of business. To my surprise, I heard a very loud scream from my spot in the Court 4/Court 5 corridor, followed by the words “second set, Monteiro.” Harrison had won the first, so the pair were heading to a decider. So after watching poor Tatsuma Ito waste 3 match points and shortly after a 4-0 lead in the third set tiebreaker to Rogerio Dutra Silva (who looks like he’s 21 but is actually 31 years old), I headed over to Court 3.
By that point Monteiro was already in control of the match, up 4-2 in the decider. The Brazilian is 20 years old, and Wikipedia (in Portuguese) says he’s 6’0. He’s not an imposing guy, yet my brief observation of his tennis gave me the feeling that this was a fierce, physical player. Monteiro was firing on all cylinders at the end of his match, and took the decider 6-2 after an emphatic lefty forehand winner. I did not see much, but I did see quite a bit of those violent lefty haymakers. He seemed to have the ability to put so much pace and spin on the ball that for once the little yellow thing was exploding a bit off the ground. This is not easy to do in the Houston red clay, since it’s a low-bouncing surface. Monteiro is up against Nishioka tomorrow, and I couldn’t be more excited to see those two very lefties play.
Chung Hyeon, An Impressive Young Man
On the surface, beating Michael Russell in 2015 shouldn’t be super noteworthy: Iron Mike is playing his final season on tour, and he’s 36 years old. However:
@jjvallejoa Keep in mind, this will be Chung's *2nd* professional match on clay. Never played a Futures on clay.
— Josh Meiseles (@jmeistennis) April 4, 2015
There’s also the fact that Russell is super familiar with the surroundings, and the crowd assembled on Court 3 was *mostly* on his side. There was a small pocket of very excited South Koreans – a lady even held up a small-ish South Korean flag whenever Chung did something remarkable. Still, a tricky scenario was set: a young kid with little experience on the surface was facing off against a tricky veteran playing his last event in his hometown. Not an easy task.
The first set was very even. Chung had a few more chances to break than Russell, but went 0-3. Russell capitalized on a sloppy service game by Chung at 5-4, and took the set. It felt like a soccer-esque counter-attack goal, really. The kind that typically demoralizes a young player that hadn’t been playing badly up to that point.
However, Chung didn’t show much more frustration than a few shakes of his head, and proceeded to quickly go up 4-0 in the second set. Now that’s what I call a positive reaction to adversity. Hyeon held the lead and forced a decider. Once there, he once again failed to convert some break points in the first Russell service game, which ended up being a protracted battle – one of those that feel more important than they are. One would think an 18 year-old would grow frustrated at his failure to take that opening break after investing so much energy. Not Chung: he held at love and proceeded to break Russell at 30 soon after. Yet another positive reaction to adversity.
But there was more.
At 4-3, Chung played a poor game and got broken. The pro-Russell crowd got excited, and it seemed inevitable that the veteran would hold and put Chung in a situation where he would have to hold to stay in the tournament. But Hyeon had other plans. Playing composed tennis, he broke serve once again, and comfortably served out the match. Some reaction, huh.
Chung didn’t celebrate much. In fact, he walked out of the court almost as fast as I did. On the way out he got approached by some of the Koreans for pictures. But he took care of those so efficiently that I couldn’t even get my own phone out quickly enough to take a picture of the scene. Soon he was gone, walking by himself.
Chung Hyung is an odd player, like Ricky Dimon says. His strokes are definitely funky. On the forehand side he barely takes back the racquet at all, yet he finds ways to place the ball more or less where he wants it and with whatever spin he needs. His backhand is hilarious: the first step in his prep involves using his left hand to force the head of his racquet to point towards the net, for no real reason.
But those are all aesthetics, and the kid finds ways to anticipate and cover the court in ways that allow for his stroke quirkiness. His shot quality is already pretty solid: he gets very good depth off both wings. Of course, the time you have to hit the ball tends to diminish when you start playing the elite, and that’s where unnecessary prep work might be detrimental. But I really like how this kid thinks on the court. The ball goes where he wants it to go, and it goes there for a reason. And I think I already covered the part about being impressed by his composure in a tricky situation.
More than anything, Chung seems like a natural tennis player who will have to keep developing into an elite athlete, not the other way around. And given the way he moved out there (and in Miami), as well as how strong he looked at the end of the match, I’d say the signs are very promising.
Up next for Chung is Ryan Sweeting, a.k.a Mr. Kaley Cuoco, a.k.a former champion at this tournament. He’s only 27, and seemed to dispatch Tennys Sandgren rather easily, so it should be fun to watch Chung deal with this new challenge. Can you tell how impressed I am by this kid?
Jared the Intense
After the Chung high was gone, I just felt tired. The early overcast and windy conditions had given way to a mostly sunny morning, and even though I was wearing this:
— Juan José Vallejo (@jjvallejoa) April 4, 2015
I just felt like the sun got the better of me. I wanted to go check out Jared Donaldson, but I also did not want to move from my seat in the press room. The 18 year old was playing Gastao Elias, who I also thought was older than his 24 years. However, I saw that Elias took the second set from Donaldson on the scoreboard, so out I went to find a spot in the corridor between Courts 4 and 5.
I kept thinking that Donaldson looked like someone I knew. He’s a long-limbed kid with very solid strokes. He was also a mixture of Zverev’s earlier body language (the ranting, the frequent looking to his camp) and Madeira’s intense positivity. Naturally, whichever side Donaldson chose to display depended on the outcome of a given point. Soon after I arrived to Court 4, Elias broke serve and confirmed the break. Donaldson seemed way too cantankerous to mount a comeback, but that he did. However, after getting the break back initially, he gave the edge right back. Once again, I thought the kid was toast, and walked towards the part of the walkway where his team was. Who knows, maybe I could listen to some of the stuff he was saying to them. However, Donaldson somehow found it in himself to stay in the match, and force Elias’ hand. Jared even overcame a calamitous short forehand on break point that he sent into the net when half the court was open for him. At any rate, the kid from Rhode Island not only got the break back, but held, and ended up converting a match point on Elias’ serve later. It was an impressive win.
One thing I really liked about Donaldson was his return stance: he’s one of the few people out there who use Djokovic’s technique. Jared bends his knees, and crouches forward just as he starts bouncing in place while the toss is going up. And then the split-step comes right when the server connects with the ball. Of course, we’re talking about an 18 year old, so sometimes he did things that Djokovic never does, like bounce forward and then go backwards at the very last second. But the foundation is solid.
I was curious about Donaldson because Jim Courier kept bringing him up during Indian Wells. I think the attention is deserved, and I’m quite curious about his match-up with Denis Kudla, a young American who’s still looking to establish himself inside the Top 100.
Here’s the order of play for tomorrow. Free, exciting tennis is available! So if you’re in Houston, drop by. And even if it’s not sunny, bring a hat.
Previous posts from the 2015 US Men’s Clay Court Championship: