The IX: Tennis Tuesday with Joey Dillon, May 4, 2021

Let the NCAA Tournament begin! — Best Bytes from Madrid — Must-click women's tennis links

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#MarchMadness, who? It’s all about #MayMadness here!

If you haven’t figured out by now from my Five at The IXs, I’m a massive college tennis fan. There really isn’t anything like it, especially since tennis is such an individual sport. I urge you to go to your local university and watch a match. I still remember my first one that had me hooked — a Top 5 battle between Georgia Tech and UGA in 2008 that went down to the final match in the bitter cold as I wore shorts and no jacket.

Anyways, I digress. Last night, the NCAA tournament field was announced, as well as the host sites for the first two rounds. The final 16 teams will head to the USTA National Campus in Lake Nona, Florida, to battle it out for the team trophy.

I shared last week how the NCAA would make manual adjustments to the field rather than use the ITA rankings due to COVID-19 wreaking havoc on non-conference play across the board. However, they went by the rankings and only one women’s team, No. 10 Texas A&M will have to travel to Northwestern instead of hosting at their facility.

Now tickets are available, but limited if you were wanting to travel to Florida. However, some fantastic news is that Tennis Channel will be covering select matches from the quarterfinals through the championship. On top of that, streaming will be offered for non-televised team and individual matches.

With that said, I quickly created my bracket and have some thoughts:

  • This is North Carolina’s time to shine. To say Brian Kalbas and his Tar Heel program is overdue for a team title is an understatement. They deliver year after year at the ITA National Team Indoor Championships and go deep in the NCAA tournament, but this current squad is special. Five of their six singles starters are ranked in the Top 40 of the latest ITA rankings, while they have the Nos. 3 and 4 doubles teams in the country, basically securing the doubles point alone. They are 26-0 this year and stand lightyears ahead of the pack, but there is one team that can knock them out.

  • No. 2 Texas Longhorns is one of two teams this year to take three points from the Tar Heels, which came in the final of the ITA Team Indoors. In fact, Texas, who last claimed NCAA glory in 1995, was up 6-4, 4-0 in the match that decided the title. The Longhorns have freshman Peyton Stearns leading the squad, but right below her are Lulu Sun, a three-time singles titlist on the ITF World Tour and Anna Turati, a former ITA No. 4 and four-time ITF singles winner. Coach Harold Joffe is one of the best and maximizes his players’ talents, but the grittiness and competitiveness from Texas is what stands out the most. They will griiiiind out matches, so if they face off against UNC, do not expect a quick match.

  • The other team to bring UNC to the brink of defeat are the No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs. If you want to get specific, UGA is the closest team to beating the Tar Heels, losing in a third-set tiebreaker in the deciding match. 2019 NCAA runner-up Katarina Jokic is one of, if not the best player in college tennis with only one loss the entire season. While the rest of their lineup is solid, I don’t know if their depth is enough at the tail end of the collegiate season. Their projected 5 and 6 in former All-Americans Marta Gonzalez and Elena Christofi is certainly a choice. I won’t say a stack, but it’s a choice. If a doubles point is critical for some of the top teams, it’s probably most influential for UGA. They will for sure need that to have any chance of capturing their first team title since 2000.

  • No. 5 Pepperdine may be from the small WCC conference, but they are deep. Former NCAA finalist and ITA No. 1 Ashley Lahey is back in the lineup and they also have No. 26 Jessica Failla and former All-American Shiori Fukuda. They are devastatingly talented and have reached the Elite Eight seven times in program history, going 0-7. Now, should they face off against No. 4 UCLA in the Elite Eight, that could possibly be the showdown of the tournament. UCLA gave the Waves two of their three losses, including a 5-2 in April. It boils down to 1. the health of Lahey. If she’s strong, she’s near a guaranteed point and 2. the nerves of the Waves. Their postseason record will be sure to be in the back of their minds, but they have the talent to make their first Final Four.

  • You can view the projected lineups the teams submitted here. I compared them on the Universal Tennis website to compile my bracket.

  • A few Twitter accounts to follow: Cracked Racquets, their editor-in-chief Alex Gruskin, College Tennis Today, College Tennis Ranks, the ITA, the NCAA Tennis tournament account and Colette Lewis. An honorable mention goes to fan jwilsontennis, who usually attends in person and has fantastic scoop throughout the tournament. Parsa Nemati also has all of the transfer and commit tea your heart desires.

Tweet me if you follow college tennis like I do and have some thoughts of your own. I’d love to discuss!

Oh, and selfishly, GO BUCKS!

This Week in Women’s Tennis

Please, please, please read WTA Insider’s catch-up with Carla Suarez Navarro, who is training this week at the Mutua Madrid Open. The former World No. 6 is cancer-free and aims to play the big events this year with her farewell aimed at the US Open.

Iga Swiatek may have seen her clay-court winning streak end to World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty yesterday in Madrid, but the reigning French Open champion is enjoying the surface that brought the Pole Grand Slam glory. WTA Insider also caught up with her coach, Piotr Sierzputowski, who was named the 2020 WTA Coach of the Year to discuss their journey and their sights on the future.

I’ve mentioned the online hate that players, especially those on the ITF World Tour, face. The ITF and the International Tennis Integrity Agency joined other sporting organizations, including Roland Garros, in a weekend social media boycott to raise awareness. I appreciate the initiative, but I’d rather see more resources put into training, protecting and supporting players.

Naomi Osaka is continuing to expand her Play Academy across the globe. The initiative, through Nike and Laureus Sport for Good, aims to improve the number of girls in organized sport and the four-time Grand Slam champion is bringing the academy to Los Angeles and Haiti. Osaka was also named a co-chair of this year’s Met Gala, alongside Timothée Chalamet, Amanda Gorman and Billie Eilish. However, it was the World No. 2’s reaction on Twitter that was *chefs kiss*

Though Sada Nahimana hails from one of the world’s poorest countries, the Burundi native is thriving on the ITF World Tour. Please read Jamie Renton’s interview with the emerging African star, who has reaped many benefits from ITF-centered training and grants.

David Kane caught up with Elena Vesnina ahead of her singles return at the Mutua Madrid Open. The former World No. 13 had a training block with Vera Zvonareva and other rising Russian juniors in Turkey before the event.

World No. 31 Dayana Yastremska applied a second time for her provisional doping suspension to be lifted and the Court of Arbitration for Sport denied it. It certainly doesn’t bode well for the 20-year-old, who faces up to a 4-year ban if found guilty of deliberately taking mesterolone.

I could watch this clip of Serena Williams training on loop for days. The angle shows how good the GOAT, who also partnered with Walt Disney World, is:

Bianca Andreescu, who missed out on Madrid due to a positive COVID-19 diagnosis, has signed up for the WTA 250 in Strasbourg, France the week before Roland Garros.

USTA developmental coach Debbie Graham, a former Top 30 player in her own right, spoke with Matt Cronin about the rising crop of American talent that include Sofia Kenin, Jennifer Brady and “veterans” Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys.

The Junior Billie Jean King Cup by BNP Paribas will be held this September in Antalya, Turkey. 16 countries will be on-site following regional competitions throughout the year.

Welcome back to my first Five at The IX guest, Vicky Duval. Though she won her UTR tournament in her professional comeback, she is back on the ITF World Tour this week at the $100k event in Charleston. She won her opening qualifying match over another injury-prone American, Alexa Glatch. Vicky’s overcome cancer, numerous injuries and procedures. She really is worth rooting for.

Victoria Azarenka is the latest former No. 1 on the WTA series, One on One with Chris Evert.

Tweet of the Week

Rennae Stubbs had me on the floor to this response when an account asked if Rafael Nadal should try out the crop top.

Five at The IX: Madrid Week 1

Q. You had some strapping on your right shoulder. I wondered if it’s just precautionary, if that’s going to impact on your future schedule leading into Roland Garros?

ASHLEIGH BARTY: I’m an old body now, mate. Old and got to look after myself (smiling).

No, just a little bit of support. A bit of WD-40 and we’re fine, we’re all good.

Q. I just wanted to ask you, you’re having the opportunity to play your matches in front of fans in Madrid this week, and I wanted to find out from you how important it is to be able to play with the crowd, and especially, you know, to have a crowd to celebrate your victories with.
SIMONA HALEP: It’s very important for everybody, I think, not just for me, to feel the energy, to feel the people. The atmosphere was really good even if it’s not packed. We have many fans, and it’s really nice. I miss them so much.

So hopefully after this week we have confidence that it’s gonna be back to normal soon. You know, I really liked always playing with the fans and having their support, because everywhere I go, I feel like they share with me the positive thoughts and they are supporting me. So it’s always a nice feeling to have crowd.

Q. What can you learn from your match today, especially one that ended in a defeat for you?
NAOMI OSAKA: Yeah, I think today for me it was quite different from the last time I lost in Miami, and I actually think I played much better here so I’m very happy about that.

I think what I can take away from this is that I tried my best throughout the entire match, and usually I feel like, I don’t know, I have dips sometimes but I think I was quite neutral and I can be positive about that.

I think tennis-wise for me I felt I was too defensive in the first set. I think halfway through the second set I was able to adjust that, and then the third set honestly I feel I just started off really bad and I couldn’t afford to do that.

Then the last three games I think she was just serving really well, and unfortunately I couldn’t hold my serve. I wouldn’t say I’m happy that I lost, but I think I learned a lot. So that’s all I can hope for.

Q. Recently ITF announced they joined social media boycott because of disgusting abuse messages you guys receive via social media. Do you have a personal experiences on that kind of social media?
IGA SWIATEK: Well, probably I get messages like that, but I’m not reading them because I don’t usually go to the other inbox that you have on Instagram, Facebook, where you can read some of the messages you basically didn’t accept earlier. Personally I’m not bothered with that.

I know that the problem exists. I think it’s really good that they’re showing everybody that the problem exists, that we should change that. But I think it takes more to actually make a change, a lot of learning. Also the thing my psychologist is doing, like webinars, showing people how it affects people.

It is sometimes unnecessary, the hating, the negative comments because people are not aware what we’re dealing with, how hard actually it is to be on tour, how much pressure we deal with.

But, yeah, it’s just the matter of if their comments are, like, constructive, if they can actually explain what they mean, or if they’re just aggressive. Yeah, I think it’s good to be involved in that and to educate people, that it’s not that easy.

Q. The couple of events you pulled out of, is that because you had fears about COVID? Was that fear of contracting the virus or with the mentally draining aspect of being in the bubble?
JOHANNA KONTA: I think it’s more of a combination. I think it’s more the logistical side of it. It’s the feeling of kind of how much stress of it am I willing to take on, how I feel about the environment I’m going in. I think it’s a combination.

It’s very different playing under these circumstances compared to what our old normal used to be. I think it’s just about for me managing kind of where I feel like I’m able to really put myself out there to perform the best that I can.

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 Sarah Kellam @sarahkellam, The IX
Fridays: Hockey
By: Erica Ayala, @ELindsay08 NWHL Broadcaster
Saturdays: Gymnastics
By Jessica Taylor Price, @jesstaylorprice, Freelance Gymnastics Writer

Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.