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The IX: Tennis Tuesday with Joey Dillon, January 25, 2022

Happy Tuesday, y’all! Even though action at the Australian Open is hotter than the Melbourne heat, I decided to preview one of my absolute loves of tennis — college. In my opinion, college tennis is the sport’s hidden gem and perhaps the best catalyst for grassroots efforts. If you have a local university, I highly encourage you check out the teams.

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I got my start with college by attending a #1 Georgia Tech vs. #4 Georgia matchup in high school that went down to the wire and I was hooked ever since. A 4-3 collegiate epic is unlike any other and the fact you can see such high-level action up close is even more impactful. Who knows, you may see a future professional in your backyard! Want an example of the energy college tennis creates? Look no further than Danimal Collins:

January kicks off the collegiate dual season, where each match consists of seven points. Doubles begins the dual with three matches of a single set, no-ad scoring. Two out of three wins claims the lone doubles point before six singles matches are played — each worth one point. Matches are two out of three sets, no-ad scoring and usually if a match is clinched (first to four) and a match splits sets, a match tiebreaker is played in lieu of a final set.

The most recent rankings were done by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association’s National Committee, which is made up of 12 ITA Region Chairs. In March, the ITA will then move to a computer system to determine the rankings, using an algorithm that weighs in wins, location, etc. Right now, of course, the University of Texas is No. 1, claiming 11 of the 12 first-place votes. The reigning NCAA champions didn’t play their full lineup in a 7-0 rout of Texas State this past weekend, with WTA No. 778 Kylie Collins sitting out. The Longhorns will be missing Lulu Sun, who turned professional after her freshman season and currently sits at No. 297 after claiming a W25 title and reaching another final on the ITF World Tour. However, they gain twins Allura and Bella Zamarripa, who have claimed four ITF World Tour titles, and Top 10 blue chip recruit Vivian Ovrootsky. I didn’t even mention that they have Peyton Stearns returning, who scalped a win over Coco Vandeweghe at the WTA 1000 in Indian Wells and holds a Top 400 WTA ranking.

Pepperdine stormed to their first-ever NCAA Championship match last year, nearly taking it all before barely losing to Texas. They lost two key seniors in Jessica Failla and Five at The IX alum Ashley Lahey, but do welcome All-American transfers Janice Tjen and Victoria Flores, as well as 2019 Wimbledon doubles champion Savannah Broadus. The Waves were edged out by No. 9 Cal to kick of their season, 4-3, but I still think they’re among the teams that can win in May. They’re mighty strong in doubles and have a really solid core of singles players in their lineup. Give them a month or so to figure out where everyone is playing and I wouldn’t be surprised to see this team do one better than 2021. Right now, I give the slight edge to Texas.

The only other team to get a first-place vote last week were the University of North Carolina Tar Heels. Brian Kalbas’ 2021 team was as good as you could get, going 30-0 before their big upset by Pepperdine. They are the most hard hit in terms of key players leaving, with three Top 50 starters graduating. They’ve already amassed a 4-0 record thanks to two 7-0 double header victories, but they didn’t need the padding in their schedule. They have four players in the Top 25 and five overall in the singles rankings, as well as six ranked doubles pairs including No. 1 Fiona Crawley/Elizabeth Scotty. The Tar Heels do have decent depth, but I can see a few teams with the right matchups taking four points from them.

There are plenty of teams who are chronic mainstays at the top of the college game that can make some damage. No. 6 Duke captured two gritty wins over Ohio State and Princeton, while No. 4 Georgia and No. 5 UCLA both have yet to begin their season campaigns. Ohio State begins 2022 ranked No. 10 and is already 0-2, losing to both Duke and No. 8 NC State 4-3. My heart aches because I love that program, but these close matches build great armor come May. One team that is severely underrated right now is No. 16 Stanford. The winningest women’s program in NCAA tennis history welcome two of the best freshmen in Connie Ma and Alexandra Yepifanova, who have a combined 27-6 singles record this season. Lele Forood does an impeccable job coaching, so if there’s any wildcard to bet on right now, it’s certainly the Card.

The biggest upcoming test for the top programs is the ITA Kickoff Weekend, which comes up this weekend. 15 programs are hosting three other teams for a spot in the ITA Division 1 National Women’s Team Indoor Championship, hosted by Wisconsin February 11-14. Last year, North Carolina blasted UCLA 4-0, but don’t be too alarmed if neither team makes a return to the finals.

Individually, a few players stand out most to me. Obviously the first is reigning NCAA champion Emma Navarro. She currently sits at No. 243, which would have guaranteed the University of Virginia sophomore a berth in the Australian Open qualifying tournament. Instead, she’s helped lead the No. 7 Cavaliers to a 3-0 start. Navarro is the best player in college tennis — period. She’s all but a guaranteed point in every match, which lessens the pressure on the rest of the team. She has an agreement where she can train with her private coach and play professional tournaments throughout the season, so I’m curious on how much she actually plays in the spring.

The next player is Carson Branstine, who FINALLY made her long-awaited collegiate debut for No. 13 Texas A&M. The Canadian began her collegiate career at USC before she transferred to UVA. She struggled with injuries and subsequent surgeries before settling on the Aggies, but safe to say, there’s more to her UVA story according to an Instagram story she just posted last night:

The two-time Grand Slam junior doubles champion comes in with only two years of eligibility, but she’s coming in fine form after capturing a W15 ITF title late last year.

Eryn Cayetano of USC, Sarah Hamner of South Carolina and Alexa Noel of Illinois are currently ranked Nos. 1-3 from the December ITA rankings. They all had really strong Fall campaigns and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them continue their momentum into dual season. I’m most curious on how Noel will do in her final season at Iowa after it’s already been announced she’s transferring next year to the University of Miami. Speaking of the Hurricanes, Andy Katz makes a valid point about the NCAA champion/US Open wildcard scenario. I say give it to the winner, regardless of nationality. He is mistaken about 2021 since Navarro did win, but Perez Somarriba should’ve had her seat in New York.

If there’s anything to take away from me rambling about college tennis, please check out Cracked Racquets and their podcasts on college tennis. Alex Gruskin is amazing and has made it his mission to chat with every Power 5 coach. He’s a huge tennis nerd and brings out some great bits from coaches. CR contributor John Parsons is also another fantastic follow as he gives the women’s side of the game the coverage and recognition it deserves.

Lastly, make sure to scroll down and check out my Five at The IX with Sabrina Santamaria, a graduate of the University of Southern California. It’s our third consecutive Five from the Australian Open, so don’t miss out!

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This Week in Women’s Tennis

The Australian Open quarterfinals are set and I wasn’t entirely too terrible at my predictions entering the Round of 16, guessing nine. Then, it fell apart. Here we are before the Elite Eight begins:

(1) Ashleigh Barty vs. (21) Jessica Pegula
(4) Barbora Krejcikova vs. Madison Keys
(27) Danielle Collins vs. Alize Cornet
(7) Iga Swiatek vs. Kaia Kanepi

Alize Cornet’s maiden Grand Slam quarterfinal is perhaps the most heart-warming story, as the Frenchwoman is participating in her 63rd consecutive Grand Slam main draw appearance. She admits clinching the all-time record at the US Open is among her goals before potentially retiring this year. She’s also been a delight at the podium, putting Rod Laver — and emcee Jelena Dokic — in our feels:

It’s a party in the USA in Melbourne apparently, with three Americans headlining the quarterfinals. 2015 semifinalist Madison Keys was eager to put 2021 behind her and her new mentality was rewarded with a third quarterfinal appearance. Jessica Pegula makes her second consecutive quarterfinal in Melbourne and is hoping to ignore the pressures of her breakout season last year. Keys and Pegula could meet for a spot in the final should they win their quarterfinal matches. 2019 semifinalist Danielle Collins, who shared her endometriosis struggles after having surgery nearly a year ago, is also making her second appearance this far at the Happy Slam. Collins also gave us the best press conference bit this week:

Both WTA Insider and Peter Bodo compiled their favorite quotes of the first week, but kudos to @tennisstans2 on Twitter for compiling this clip:

Having trouble catching all of the Australian Open coverage on ESPN? You’re not alone. Tennis needs to do better at television coverage if they want to continue reeling in fans.

Though not women’s tennis related, a must-read is Jon Wertheim’s feature on former University of Texas men’s tennis coach Michael Center, who was arrested and jailed for his role in Operation Varsity Blues. Center makes a valid point that many in these Athletic Departments were complicit and created the culture of major fundraising/boosters.

The Australian Open is known as the “Grand Slam of the Asia-Pacific,” which makes the news of fans being told to remove their “Where is Peng Shaui?” shirts even more frustrating.

In sad news, Cici Bellis, who made headlines when she won a round at the 2014 US Open as a 14 year old before becoming a No. 1 ITF junior, announced her retirement due to persistent elbow injuries and surgeries at the age of 22. Bellis, who reached No. 35 in the world and was the 2017 WTA Newcomer of the Year, plans to graduate college this year and pursue her MBA alongside working for venture capital firm Lead Sports:

In other retirement news, Sania Mirza shared that 2022 will be her final season. The former Doubles No. 1 first left the tour in 2018 for maternity leave and came back right before COVID shut down the tour. Noted as India’s greatest female athlete, she’s captured 1 singles and 43 titles on the WTA Tour, while also claiming three mixed doubles Grand Slams.

Five at The IX alums Giuliana Olmos and Kaitlyn Christian have played together at the University of Southern California and on the professional circuit, but they can add TV stars to their resume. The former Trojans teamed up to partake in an episode of TBS’ Wipeout, where they made it to the final course before just missing out on the $25k prize.

Honestly, put this picture of Coco Gauff in the Lourve:

Tweet of the Week

Representation matters, especially for small countries with little to no resources in tennis. Two countries — Iran and Kenya — had their first-ever female wins at the Junior Grand Slam level. Continue to break those glass ceilings, Meshkatolzahra Safi and Angella Okutoyi!

Five at The IX: Sabrina Santamaria

Sabrina Santamaria rejoins for our third consecutive Five at The IX from the Australian Open. She’s currently ranked No. 55 in the WTA doubles rankings. In 2021, she captured her first WTA-level title at the WTA 125 in Saint-Malo, France and also reached the finals at the WTA 700 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. She tells us about non-bubble life in Australia, thoughts on the Novak Djokovic saga and more. Be sure to follow her on both Twitter and Instagram.

Joey: Last year, you discussed the bubble and the quarantine needed to participate in Australia. How has this year been with the mandatory vaccinations, but much less restrictions?
Sabrina: This year has been awesome without restrictions or a bubble. We’ve had the freedom to roam around the city, eat where we want, shop where we want, and do all the activities! Melbourne itself is still very cognizant of rising COVID-19 cases and as such they do have contact tracing in places/restaurants/shopping. When going to places, you have to check-in, where they take all of your contact information. It’s been great and I much prefer living a somewhat normal life with mandatory vaccinations, instead of another bubble/quarantine. 

Joey: I’m curious on your opinion regarding the Novak Djokovic saga, but also about fellow doubles specialist Renata Voracova. Can you also give us some insight into the visa process when you’re playing abroad?
Sabrina: I still don’t have all the information (because at the time it seemed there was misinformation/contradicting information at the state/federal levels of the Australian Government), but it was a terrible situation that everyone involved had to go through. I am a huge advocate for getting vaccinated and believe in science/vaccines, but at the same time I believe everyone has a choice. The rules were quite clear that to enter Australia, you had to be vaccinated, but in the beginning of December, Tennis Australia allowed players to apply for medical exemptions which would be reviewed by medical professionals. I feel for everyone involved, and it was very unfortunate what had happened, especially for Renata Voracova (who seemed to have a legit medical exemption and was already in Melbourne for a week). 

Joey: Last year, you captured your first WTA-level title and currently sit at No. 55, two spots under your career-high. Do you have any 2022-specific goals in mind as you begin the season and what’s your schedule looking like post-Australia?
Sabrina: I have both short-term and long-term goals for 2022. This year I’m changing my mindset around goals, and they aren’t super performance-based like they have been in the past. Rather, they are goals based around how I want to feel on the court and the game I want to play (for example, being more aggressive at the net). My schedule post-Australia has me globe-trotting around the world– St. Petersburg, Doha/Dubai, and maybe even Mexico. 

Joey: With the announcement of the Netflix docuseries, what are you hoping is showcased from the players and tour?
Sabrina: I’m ecstatic that there will be a new Netflix docuseries that is showcasing professional tennis, and super glad it’s both men and women. I hope the docuseries highlights how tremendously difficult it is to rise to the top of rankings, the financial stress and burden of being a pro tennis player that’s not in the top 100, and how lonely/isolating life on the road can be without friends and family. 

Joey: Because it’s our third interview from Australia, I’ll ask you a future question this time. What would you like to tell Sabrina ahead of the 2023 Australian Open?

Ahead of the 2023 AO, I’d like to tell myself that: “You’re doing amazing, sweetie!” *Kris Jenner voice*. I love words of affirmation and that’s definitely one of my favorite phrases!

Joey: Who is one player, either a doubles specialist or a singles player not well-known, that you have your eyes set on having a strong 2022?
Sabrina: I think Madison Keys will have a strong 2022! She’s been on a roll since Adelaide and I think she’ll be back at the top this year.

Joey: For our readers that are recreational players, what is a tip they can practice with to improve their doubles game?
Sabrina: One tip to improve volleys for recreational players (and it doesn’t even require a tennis court!) is doing volleys against a wall. Pick the side of your garage or any sturdy wall, stand a couple feet from the wall and try to hit 50-100 volleys in a row. Start with forehand volleys 50-100, then switch to backhand volleys 50-100 and then try to do a mixture of forehand and backhand volleys. This is a great drill for any type of player looking to improve their volleys!

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson, AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By: Joey Dillon, @JoeyDillon, Freelance Tennis Writer
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal, The Next
Thursdays: Golf
By: Addie Parker, @addie_parker, The IX
Fridays: Hockey
By: @TheIceGarden, The Ice Garden
Saturdays: Gymnastics
By: Lela Moore, @runlelarun, Freelance Writer

Written by Joey Dillon