Friday, March 30, 2012

USPTA National Clay Court Recap

Note: Photo recovery process underway. Sorry for inconvenience! 

The 2012 USPTA National Clay Court Championships made its transition from one splendid venue, Ibis Country Club in West Palm Beach, to another, BallenIsles in Palm Beach Gardens. As with most transitions, there were some challenges, but fortunately Trish Faulkner, Frank Swope, Diane Wilkinson and the rest of BallenIsles' staff met the challenge about as well as one could expect.  I suspect Trish might want to officially solicit Mike Baldwin's assistance for next year. Nice work team!

Diane Wilkinson, Trish Faulkner, Mike Baldwin
That said, players who have been patronizing the event (previously run by Chuck Gill at Ibis) for years couldn't help but experience the effects of the transition. Hopefully, most focused on the opportunity to participate in one of our organization's premiere events, on the marvelous facility, and on the gracious hosting BallenIsles provided. 

When all was said and done, it was a great event for some (your's truly included) and not quite as terrific for some others (Sorry about the elbow Greg). As with all competition, some competitors leave happier than others. Bottom line for me was that I had the opportunity to compete and interact with folks I see only a few times per year. See below for my overall recap, and click here for my take on the Men's 50 Singles.

Men’s Open Singles
Open Champ Paolo Barros
The Men’s Open Draw was the largest of the Championships with 19 participants. The usual cast of characters was on hand, but the results weren’t typical.

Julien Link
The first atypical result was Julien Link, seeded second, bowing out of the event in his first match. Unseeded Johannes Brink, in his second match, out-dueled the still dangerous Link. Link took the first set 6-2, and appeared to be on the brink (couldn’t resist that) of his customary march to the Final, but Brink threw a fly into that ointment and broke Julien’s link to past glory (couldn’t resist that either, LOL).  

Johannes Brink
Brink took the second set 7-5, and the third 6-1, then earned a semifinal date with third-seeded Paolo Barros, a perennial semifinalist and finalist in USPTA Men’s Opens, by downing Jeff Zenisek, 6-0, 6-1. Paolo had minimal trouble reaching the semis, losing just five games in two matches.

Tye Myers
At the top of the Open Draw, No.1 Seed, Tye Myers had overcome stiffer tests, but still posted a couple of straight-set wins (6-3, 6-4, and 6-2, 7-5) over some worthy opponents to earn his spot in the semis. Fifth-seeded Diego Brunicardi had notched a gritty 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 victory over No.4 Seed Michael Birzon in the quarters to reach a semifinal matchup with Myers.

Paolo Barros
Both Myers and Barros had to go three to reach the final. Myers dropped the first set 2-6 to Brunicardi before he got rolling and took the final two sets 6-2, 6-1. Barros took the first set from Brink 6-3, and was up 4-2, 40-0, before Brink rallied and took the set 6-4. Really? Paolo himself didn’t have an explanation; however, he rallied in the third to take it 6-2.

Tye Myers
On paper it looked like we would have another three-set thriller on our hands. I only saw the end of the first set and first few games of the second, but Paolo reminded me a bit of David Ferrer in the Final. Myers threw everything, including the kitchen sink, at Barros, but Paolo caught everything and threw it right back.

Paolo Barros
Frustration set it pretty early in the second, as Barros went up 3-0, and Myers wasn’t able to wrest control from the impenetrable Barros. Paolo took it 6-4, 6-2. In the locker room, Barros expressed his elation: “Finally, after seven years!” Nice to get past a nemesis, isn’t it Paolo? I suspect these two will do battle again before long.

Women’s Open Singles
Women's Open Champ Marina McCollom &
Finalist Marine Spiegel
No one could fault Marina McCollom for calling the Women’s Open Clay Court title her own, because she successfully defended her title for the fifth time! With only three women in the draw, it was like the good ole days when the Defending Champion just waited to see who would reach the Final. 

Her opponent in the Final, Marine Spiegel, made it there with a gut-check win over Ioana Paun in the semis. Paun edged Spiegel 7-4 in a first set tiebreak, but Spiegel rebounded to take the next two sets 6-3, 6-4.

In the Final, Spiegel fought gamely, but McCollom played much like Men’s Open Champ, Paolo Barros, taking everything Spiegel threw at her and responding with just a little more than Spiegel could handle. From what I saw, the 6-3, 6-2 score was not at all indicative of the tussle that McCollom withstood to defend her title.

Men’s 35 Singles
Men's 35 Champ Kam Kuchta
The Men’s 35s marched true to form as No.1 Seed Andy Lake met No.2 Seed Kam Kuchta in the final. Both players had proved that they were the class of the field, Lake having lost just four games in his two previous matches, while Kuchta had lost two, posting three bagels in four sets. Nice work if you can get it…

Men's 35 Finalist Andy Lake
In any event, as is often the case in a Kam Kuchta match, there was some yelling, some controversy, etc… and of course, it was a grind. Lake took the first set in a breaker (7-4) and Kuchta returned the favor, winning the second with the identical score, 7-4 in the breaker.

Along with Open Winner Barros, Kuchta and Lake played perhaps the highest quality tennis I witnessed over the weekend. Although involved in the 50 Dubs Final across the aisle, I couldn’t help watching what was transpiring on their court. In the end, Kuchta prevailed 6-4 in the third, and earned a second consecutive USPTA National Championship (he won the Men's 40 Singles in 2011) the hard way.  

Men’s 45 Singles
Men's 45 Champ Horacio Rearte
I don’t suppose anyone would be surprised that No.1 Seed, Horacio Rearte won yet another clay court championship. However, garnering titles seems to be getting a bit tougher for the wily veteran.

Steve Bucar
Horacio had a slight test in the first set of his semifinal match against Steve Bucar (2011's Men's 50 National Clay Court Champ), winning that match 6-4, 6-1, but had cruised 0, 2 over Richard Waterfall in his first match.

Men's 45 Finalist Frank Vermeer
Third seed Frank Vermeer had posted relatively trouble–free wins in his first two matches, posting a 6-2, 6-1 victory over Jack Steyn of Bradenton in the semis. Johann Saurbier of Naples did give Vermeer a good tussle in the first set of his first match, which Vermeer won 6-4, 6-1.

Horacio Rearte
As it was in the Men’s 35 Final, these two appeared evenly matched. Vermeer took the first set tiebreak 7-4, but Rearte posted a dominant 6-2 second set and edged the third 6-4 to notch his Men’s 45-belt one more time.

Women’s 45 Singles
Women's 45 Champ Julie Farina
I hope Julie Farina doesn’t mind, but I absolutely must give the Women’s 45 Champion a nickname. Tough to decide though: Sponge? Trampoline? Wall? Hmmm…How about Julie “Forever” Farina? I mean, from what I saw, you could hit balls at her forever and they would just keep coming back!

Caroline Franca
I watched, in absolute amazement, some of her semifinal match against Caroline Franca. Granted, Caroline wasn’t ripping balls, but she was certainly placing them nicely to the corners, attempting to vary spins, etc. “Forever Farina” seemed to effortlessly glide to wherever the ball was, returning it with grace and apparent ease. I think I want to go train with her!

Robin Keener & Julie Farina
Later, when I saw the score she posted against Robin Keener in the Final, I thought to myself in disbelief, “Robin Keener just doesn’t get beaten 0 and 1!” True, I haven’t seen Robin play in a while, but I know she has consistently been a quality player with numerous accolades, including USPTA Player of the Year numerous times, and multiple USTA National Championships. I can only guess that Julie did the same to Robin as she did to Caroline. Wish I could have seen it.

Men’s 55 Singles
Men's 55 Champ Craig Wittus
No.1 Seed Craig Wittus was dominant in his claiming of the Men’s 55 Singles. Wittus lost just four games in three matches, with all four coming in the Final against No.2 Seed Frank Swope. In the semis, Frank had posted a tough 7-6 (10-8), 6-4 win over Bill Frost in the semis, but Wittus proved too strong, taking the Final 6-2, 6-2. 
Men's 55 Finalist Frank Swope chats
with members before match

Men’s 60 Singles
Men's 60 Champ Gewan Maharaj
Men's 60 Finalist Joe Bouquin
The top two seeds, Joe Boquin (1) and Gewan Maharaj (2), met in the Men’s 60 Final, with both coming off comfortable wins in the semis. In the final, it was classic tennis at its very best with graceful strokes and strategic ploys employed by both. Again, I had a tough time focusing on my match as I watched these two ageless veterans battle next to me. In the end, Maharaj won 6-4, 6-2, but it certainly looked more difficult than the score indicates.

Men’s 65 Singles
The story was pretty much the same in the 65s, with the finalists cruising through semifinal matches and facing a stiff test in the Final. Coming into the Final, No.1 Seed Jimmy Parker had lost one game in the semis, and Geoffrey Moore had lost none. The match-up between these very fit and crafty veterans proved to be a good one, with Moore taking the Final 6-3, 7-6 (7-5).

Women’s Open Doubles
There was one match in the Women’s Open Draw, and it was all that anyone could ask for! Once again, McCollom and Spiegel squared off, of course this time with partners. McCollom partnered with Julie Farina and Spiegel with Ioana Paun.

After the first set, it appeared as though Spiegel would get revenge for her singles loss against McCollom, as she and Paun took the set 6-4. But Spiegel and Paun were facing champions, and McCollom and Farina rallied to take the second set in a tiebreak (7-5). The third-set super-tiebreak also went McCollom and Farina’s way, giving each her second title of the Championships.

Men’s Open Doubles
Open Doubles Champs
Diego Brunicardi & Erik Turnquist
Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise for Paolo, but the top-seeded team of Paolo Barros and John Bougon, last year’s Finalists, lost a tough first-round match to eventual Champs, Diego Brunicardi and Erik Turnquist, 4-6, 7-6, 1-0 (10-4).  It was the toughest test of the event for Brunicardi and Turnquist, as they didn’t drop another set throughout. 

Men’s 40 Doubles
Horacio Rearte
Horacio Rearte and Kam Kuchta each picked up his second National Championship when Mark Palus and Mark Harrison chose not to play the Doubles Final. Rearte and Kuchta really earned the title in the battle they had in the semifinal, a match characterized by play and drama that was worthy of a final. 

Al Hernandez
In the semis, Rearte and Kuchta faced Al “Iron Man” Hernandez and Andy Lake. It was Hernandez’s third match of the day, having already played almost six hours of singles, and still Rearte and Kuchta had to struggle to put Lake and Hernandez away. The score of the match that went well into the night was 6-4, 3-6, 1-0 (12-10). 

Men’s 50 Doubles
Paul Cole, Jim Katterfield, T. A. Niles, 
& Frank Swope
Walkovers best characterized the 50 Doubles, as No.1 Seed, Greg Neuhart and Mark Woldmoe withdrew before playing a match. That match would have been a semifinal match against Jim Katterfield and Paul Cole, who had won their previous round, 6-0, 6-3.

50 Dubs Finalists Jim Katterfield & Paul Cole
At least Katterfield and Cole had earned their way into the Final with one win. My partner, Frank Swope, and I, didn’t play a match, as our semifinal opponents, Joe Bouquin and Bob Grossman pulled out as well.

In the first set of the Final, it appeared as though Frank and I (mostly I) were ungrateful for the gift we received, and we dropped the set 1-6. It didn’t hurt their cause that Paul served and returned like he was auditioning for the Sony Ericsson, and Katman was volleying demon.

Paul Cole & Jim Katterfield
Yet, Frank and I battled and managed one break in the second set to take it 6-4. We got off to a great start in the third-set super-tiebreak, and hung on to win it 10-5. I owe Chuck Gill a note of thanks for lending me his partner, Frank Swope, and one to Jim Katterfield and Paul Cole for letting us back in that doubles match. It turned into a fun match once I stopped stinking up the least from my perspective.

Women’s 40 Doubles
Cindy LeProvost and Susie Brown claimed the Women's 40 Doubles title by edging past the game team of Elizabeth Burger and Kim Franklin.  LeProvost and Brown dropped the first set 4-6, before rebounding to take the second 6-3. The third-set super-tiebreak was dramatic, with LeProvost and Brown taking it 10-8.

Mixed 40 Doubles
Trish Faulkner & Frank Swope
BallenIsles own Trish Faulkner and Frank Swope teamed up in the Mixed 40 Doubles, and Frank tried to claim his second national title of the weekend. The two had a major hurdle to clear in first set of their first match, when Cindy LeProvost and Jason Gilbert took them to 7-5 in the first set tiebreak before succumbing. 

Frank and Trish didn't lose another game in the match, nor did they lose one in the first set of their following match. In the Final they faced Robin Keener and Mark Harrison, who had not given up a single game in their semifinal match-up with Susie Brown and Bob Grossman. I'll provide info on the Final when I have it. 

Mixed Open Doubles
I'm not sure whether one would consider this good fortune or not, but from one perspective, the tennis gods smiled on Andy Lake and Ioana Paun, who became Champions when 
Tye Myers and Marine Spiegel withdrew. Lake and Paun's semifinal opponents also withdrew, so without striking a ball, they claimed the Championship. I'm sure they will look forward to defending next year.

Linesman & Todd Ruedisili

Congratulations to all the champions and finalists, and thanks to the tournament staff, and officials for their efforts in making the 2012 USPTA National Clay Court Championships an experience to remember. And I think it's important to remember that event sponsors play as important a role as anyone in making the event what it is. In addition to BallenIsles Country Club, those sponsors include: USPTA, Courtside USA, Welch Tennis Courts, Fast-Dry Courts, 10-S Supply, Aer-flo, Stan Oley's Tennis Equipment, and Drs. Howard and Joanne Green.   

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