Thursday, December 27, 2012

Sad but memorable year: Top 10 stories of 2012

Milos Raonic of Canada serves to Denis Istomin of Uzbekistan in the 2012
SAP Open final in San Jose. Raonic won his second straight title in the
tournament, which will be held for the 125th and last time in 2013.
Photo by Paul Bauman
   It was a bittersweet year in Northern California tennis. 
   Officials announced that the second-oldest tennis tournament in the United States will leave after 2013, and a legend died at 76. But two former Stanford All-Americans, who happen to be twins, tied an all-time record and won an Olympic gold medal.
   Following are the top 10 stories of 2012, plus five honorable mentions:
   1. Bay Area to lose SAP Open -- Northern California fans suffered a crushing blow when it was announced that next February's SAP Open will be the last after 125 years.
   Rio de Janeiro, the site of the 2016 Summer Olympics and a co-host of the 2014 World Cup soccer tournament, will replace San Jose on the ATP World Tour calendar beginning in 2014.
   Past champions include legends Don Budge, Jack Kramer, Rod Laver, Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. But the tournament has struggled to attract top players and big crowds in recent years.
   2. Bryans tie Newcombe-Roche -- Bob and Mike Bryan won the U.S. Open for their 12th Grand Slam men's doubles title, tying the all-time record of Australians John Newcombe and Tony Roche.
   The 34-year-old sons of longtime Sacramento Capitals coach Wayne Bryan have won five Australian Opens, four U.S. Opens, two Wimbledons and one French Open. And they easily could play another five years.
   3. Bryans win Olympic gold -- The Bryans earned their first Olympic gold medal, the only significant men's doubles honor to have eluded them, in London. They took the bronze medal in the 2008 Beijing Games.
   4. MacKay dies -- Barry MacKay, a Northern California legend, died in San Francisco after a long illness.
   MacKay left an indelible mark as a player, tournament director, promoter and commentator. Nicknamed "The Bear," he was among the friendliest and best-liked members of the tennis community.
Top-seeded Serena Williams won the Bank of the West Classic
at Stanford for the second year in a row. Photo by Paul Bauman
   5. Serena repeats -- Top-seeded Serena Williams saved a set point and beat lucky loser CoCo Vandeweghe 7-5, 6-3 to win the Bank of the West Classic at Stanford for the second straight year.
   It was the first all-American final on the WTA tour in the United States since Lindsay Davenport routed Williams 6-1, 6-3 in Los Angeles eight years ago.
   6. Raonic repeats -- Dropping only four points on his serve, third-seeded Milos Raonic of Canada wore down unseeded Denis Istomin of Uzbekistan 7-6 (3), 6-2 in San Jose for his second consecutive SAP Open title.
   The 6-foot-5 Raonic won 28 of 31 points, including 17 straight, on his serve in the first set and 16 of 17 in the second set. He never surrendered more than one point in a service game.
   7. Ex-Capitals among top 100 players ever -- Tennis Channel's list of the top 100 players of all time included three ex-Capitals: No. 12 Agassi, No. 43 Lindsay Davenport and No. 100 Michael Chang.
   The top 10 in the rankings, chosen by an international panel of experts, were Roger Federer, Laver, Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova, Sampras, Rafael Nadal, Bjorn Borg, Margaret Court, Chris Evert and Billie Jean King.
Mark Knowles, right, of the Bahamas won the 55th and last ATP World Tour
doubles title of his career with Xavier Malisse, left, of Belgium in the SAP Open.
Knowles was 40 at the time. Photo by Paul Bauman
   8. Knowles retires -- The longtime Capital retired from the ATP World Tour just before his 41st birthday with 55 men's doubles titles, fourth among active players and tied for 15th in the Open Era (since 1968).
   The Bahamas native won three Grand Slam crowns in men's doubles and one in mixed doubles. He reached No. 1 in the world in men's doubles in 2002 and 2004.
   9. Gibbs sweeps NCAA titles -- Stanford sophomore Nicole Gibbs became the first woman to sweep the NCAA singles and doubles titles in 17 years and the first Cardinal woman to do it in 27 years.
Stanford's Nicole Gibbs, losing to Serena Williams in the second
round of the Bank of the West Classic on Gibbs' home court,
became the first woman in 17 years to sweep the NCAA singles
and doubles crowns. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Gibbs, seeded third, outlasted doubles partner Mallory Burdette, seeded fifth, 2-6, 7-6 (5), 6-3 in Athens, Ga., after trailing 4-1 and 5-2 in the second set. Then, in a match moved indoors because of rain, second-seeded Burdette and Gibbs defeated unseeded Nadja Gilchrist and Chelsey Gullickson of host Georgia 6-2, 6-4.
   10. McDonald wins Easter Bowl -- After sitting out for eight months last year with a blood disorder, Mackenzie McDonald of Piedmont won the boys 18 singles title at the prestigious Easter Bowl in the Palm Springs suburb of Rancho Mirage.
   McDonald, seeded third, beat No. 4 Alexios Halebian of Glendale in the Los Angeles area 6-4, 6-1 for his second singles title in the tournament. He also won the singles title in the 14s three years ago. McDonald will be a freshman at UCLA next fall.
   Honorable mention -- The Capitals came within a tiebreaker of extending their record to seven World TeamTennis titles as Venus Williams edged Vandeweghe 5-4, giving the Washington Kastles a 20-19 victory in Charleston, S.C. It was Washington's 32nd consecutive triumph, the fourth-longest streak in the history of U.S. team sports. ...
   Mardy Fish, a former top-10 player, was plagued throughout the year by an accelerated heartbeat but reached the round of 16 at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and played two matches for the Capitals. ... 
   Raquel Kops-Jones, a San Jose resident and former NCAA doubles champion from Cal, climbed to a career-high No. 13 in women's doubles. ...  
   Sam Querrey, a San Francisco native and part-time Capital this year, defeated Novak Djokovic en route to the quarterfinals of the Paris Masters. ...  
   Maria Sanchez of Modesto won the inaugural Gold River Women's Challenger in the Sacramento area.  

Friday, December 21, 2012

Top Sacramento seeds recall epics vs. Agassi

James Blake, the reigning Sacramento Challenger champion,
lost to Andre Agassi in one of the greatest matches in U.S.
Open history. Photo by Paul Bauman
   For James Blake, it was one of the two most memorable matches of his career. For Benjamin Becker, it was perhaps the most-hyped match he has ever played.
   The top two seeds in October's $100,000 RelyAid Natomas Challenger in Sacramento are in the twilight of their careers, but they will always be linked to Andre Agassi.
   Both Blake and Becker were 25 when they faced Agassi in career-defining encounters at Arthur Ashe Stadium in the U.S. Open. Agassi was 35 and 36, respectively. Each match was played in front of almost 24,000 fans and a national television audience.
   Blake, a wild card, lost in a weeknight epic. Becker, a qualifier, won in a Labor Day matinee. Both players had mixed feelings afterward.
   In one of the greatest matches in U.S. Open history, Blake lost to the seventh-seeded Agassi 3-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (6) in an All-American quarterfinal in 2005. One year later, Germany's Becker ended the unseeded Agassi's legendary career with a 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-4, 7-5 triumph in the third round.
   San Francisco Chronicle columnist Bruce Jenkins covered the Agassi-Blake battle and wrote: "The people wanted neon, fireworks and memories, all of which they got, three times over. Many points were immediately preceded by thunderous standing ovations. There were so many astonishing shots, from both men, they could not possibly be recounted here."
Benjamin Becker, the top seed in this year's Sacramento Challenger, ended
Agassi's career in the 2006 U.S. Open. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Blake was coming back from a nightmarish 2004. He broke his neck when he slipped on a wet clay court chasing a drop shot during practice in Rome and hit his head on the net post. His father died two months later. Then he developed zoster, a viral disease often caused by stress that temporarily paralyzed the left side of his face and affected his balance. Blake rebounded to earn the ATP World Tour Comeback Player of the Year award in 2005.
   Blake served for the match against Agassi at 5-4 in the fifth set, but Agassi broke back with the help of two crushing returns. Agassi, playing in his 20th straight U.S. Open, was extended to a fifth-set tiebreaker in the tournament for the first time. After 2 hours, 51 minutes, he converted his second match point at 1:09 a.m.      
   "It couldn't have been more fun to lose," Blake told Agassi as they embraced at the net amid a long standing ovation in the still-packed stadium.
   "For 20,000 people to still be here, I wasn't the winner; tennis was," Agassi, the 1994 and 1999 U.S. Open champion and oldest man to reach the semifinals there since Jimmy Connors in 1991, told the crowd. "I don't know if I've ever felt this good here before."
   Blake, who will turn 33 on Dec. 28, won the Sacramento Challenger as the second seed. During the tournament, he was asked if the Agassi showdown was the most memorable match of his career.
   "Probably," Blake replied. "Either that one or the Davis Cup match were we won (the title) in Portland (Ore.). I beat (Russia's Mikhail) Youzhny in three tiebreakers. They're both pretty memorable."
   Blake outlasted Youzhny 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-7 (3), 7-6 (3) to give the United States a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five Davis Cup final in 2007. The U.S. went on to defeat Russia 4-1 and end a 12-year Davis Cup title drought, the Americans' longest since the prestigious competition began in 1900. The U.S., which has won a record 32 Davis Cup championships, has not won the Cup since 2007.
   Blake most remembers the match point he saved against Agassi.
   "I hit a forehand inside in that he actually wrote about in his book ('Open,' published in 2009)," Blake said. "He said it was (10) feet from anywhere he thought I had a chance of going with that ball. ... I'm going to take my rips. I've practiced it a million times, so I might as well go for it now."
   But Agassi promptly closed out the match. He dispatched another American, Robby Ginepri, in the semifinals before losing to Roger Federer in four sets in the last Grand Slam final of Agassi's career. Blake, who climbed to a career-high No. 4 in the world in 2006, also reached the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open that year and the Australian Open in 2008. But Blake, now ranked No. 127, has never gone further in a Grand Slam tournament.
   Naturally, Agassi also wrote in his book about facing Becker, the 2004 NCAA singles champion from Baylor in Waco, Texas. Agassi, who was born with one vertebra out of alignment, was wracked by back pain at the time.
   "Thirty minutes before the match," Agassi wrote, "I get an anti-inflammatory injection, but it's different from the cortisone. Less effective. Against my third-round opponent, Benjamin Becker, I'm barely able to remain standing.
   "I look at the scoreboard. I shake my head. I ask myself over and over, How is it possible that my final opponent is a guy named B. Becker? I told (my coach, Darren Cahill) earlier this year that I wanted to go out against somebody I like and respect, or else against somebody I don't know.                        
   "And so I get the latter."
   Becker, who's not related to countryman and Hall of Famer Boris Becker, lost to Daniel Kosakowski, a 20-year-old wild card from the Los Angeles area, in the first round of the Sacramento Challenger. Becker was still recovering from a torn groin muscle. He said later in the week that the Agassi encounter was not the most memorable match of his career. But it's up there.
   "The most memorable was when I won my only title (on grass in s'Hertogenbosch, Netherlands, in 2009) because I felt it was a bigger achievement than beating Agassi, who obviously was not at his best.
   "It was my first time (in the) U.S. Open and first time on center court, Arthur Ashe (Stadium), in front of so many people. It was maybe the most hyped match I've ever played," said Becker, 31.
   The matchup featured two players under 6 feet, a rarity in men's professional tennis. Agassi was listed at 5-11 (180 centimeters) and 177 pounds (80 kilograms) and Becker at 5-10 (178 cm) and 158 pounds (72 kg).
   Despite the hype, Becker said the match wasn't difficult to play.
   "I had nothing to lose," he explained. "I knew I had a chance. I knew I was playing well because I went through qualifying, I won two (main-draw) matches, I felt good about myself, I was confident, I was still young, I just came from college.
   "I enjoyed it. I really just focused on the match. I had no distractions from the crowd or who I was playing. Obviously, I was nervous at the beginning. It wasn't as tough as maybe afterward, trying to play the tournament after you beat Agassi (with) the big hype and media attention I had."
   Andy Roddick, the ninth seed and 2003 U.S. Open champion, dismissed Becker 6-3, 6-4, 6-3 in 95 minutes the next day.
   "I was so tired," Becker recalled. "I had maybe 2 1/2 hours of media (after beating Agassi), and obviously we played maybe three hours (actually 3 hours, 1 minute), and I had maybe less than 24 hours to prepare for the Roddick match. Obviously, he was way too good, so I had no chance."
   Becker admitted harboring mixed feelings about beating Agassi. As a junior, Becker idolized Boris Becker and Agassi.
   "It was tough to accept that I deserved to be the one that finishes his big career because I was just a kid coming from college ranked a hundred something (actually No. 112)," Becker said. "So I felt a little bit bad, obviously. As a fan, I would be pissed at myself to think that I was the guy. It would be maybe more appropriate for Roddick to do it, but that's how it was. I just wanted to win the tennis match. That's how I looked at it. I didn't want to beat Agassi -- I just wanted to win the tennis match."
   Becker went on to reach a career-high No. 38 in 2007, but the right-hander has dropped to No. 65 after undergoing two operations on his left elbow last year. He is 1-5 at the U.S. Open since 2006.    
CALENDAR
   Jan. 14-27, 2013 -- AUSTRALIAN OPEN, www.australianopen.org. 2012 champions: Novak Djokovic, Victoria Azarenka, Leander Paes-Radek Stepanek, Svetlana Kuznetsova-Vera Zvonareva.
   Jan. 15 -- Sacramento State men at Stanford in spring season opener for both teams, 1:30 p.m, www.hornetsports.com, www.gostanford.com.
   Jan. 18 -- Stanford women open spring season at Freeman Invitational in Las Vegas and at NCTC Classic in Indian Wells, Calif., times TBA, www.gostanford.com. UC Davis women open spring season vs. Northern Arizona in Tempe, Ariz., 1 p.m., www.ucdavisaggies.com.
   Jan. 19 -- UC Davis men at Santa Clara in spring season opener for both teams, 10 a.m., www.ucdavisaggies.com, www.santaclarabroncos.com.
   Feb. 1 -- Sacramento State women open spring season at Arizona, 12:30 p.m., www.hornetsports.com.
   Feb. 1-3, 2013 -- Davis Cup, first round, United States vs. Brazil in Jacksonville, Fla., www.daviscup.com.
   Feb. 9-10, 2013 -- Fed Cup, first round, United States at Italy, www.fedcup.com.
   Feb. 11-17, 2013 -- SAP Open, HP Pavilion in San Jose, www.sapopentennis.com. 2012 champions: Milos Raonic, Mark Knowles-Xavier Malisse.
   March 4-17, 2013 -- BNP Paribas Open, Indian Wells, Calif., www.bnpparibasopen.com. 2012 champions: Roger Federer, Victoria Azarenka, Marc Lopez-Rafael Nadal, Liezel Huber-Lisa Raymond.
   April 26-28 -- Big Sky Conference men's and women's tournament, Gold River Racquet Club, Gold River, Calif., www.bigskyconf.com.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Querrey, Fish added to SAP Open in San Jose

Sam Querrey, a native of nearby San Francisco,
will play in the SAP Open in San Jose for the
eighth straight year. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Two more American stars, both with Northern California ties, entered the SAP Open.
   San Francisco native Sam Querrey and Mardy Fish, both of whom played part-time for the Sacramento Capitals of World TeamTennis this season, committed to the Feb. 11-17 tournament at HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif., organizers announced Wednesday.
   It will be the 125th and last SAP Open. The second-oldest tournament in the United States will be replaced on the calendar by Rio de Janeiro beginning in 2014.
   The demise of the SAP Open and move of the Farmers Classic in Los Angeles to Bogota, Colombia, beginning next year will leave California with only the popular BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells on the ATP World Tour. The women's tour has Indian Wells, Stanford in the San Francisco Bay Area and Carlsbad in the San Diego region.
  The addition of the 22nd-ranked Querrey and No. 27 Fish gives the SAP Open the top three Americans. They will join No. 14 John Isner.
Mardy Fish plans to end a 5 1/2-month layoff
in February in San Jose. Photo
by Paul Bauman
   Also entered are two-time defending champion Milos Raonic of Canada, No. 18 Alexandr Dolgopolov of Ukraine, past SAP Open champions Lleyton Hewitt (2002) of Australia and Fernando Verdasco (2010) of Spain, and reigning Olympic men's doubles gold medalists Bob and Mike Bryan of the United States.
   The 6-foot-6 Querrey, 25, will play in the SAP Open for the eighth straight year. He reached the 2010 semifinals -- losing to Andy Roddick 2-6, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (4) -- and 2009 quarterfinals and won the 2010 doubles title with Fish. However, Querrey has lost in the first round of singles for the past two years.
   Fish, who has battled a heart problem since last spring, plans to end a 5 1/2-month layoff in San Jose. He has been sidelined since defaulting a fourth-round match against Roger Federer in the U.S. Open in early September.
   Fish, who will turn 31 on Sunday, advanced to the singles final at San Jose in 2004 (losing to his close friend Roddick) and 2009 (falling to Radek Stepanek) and won the doubles title in 2004 (with James Blake) in addition to 2010.
   Ticket packages and group tickets for the SAP Open are available by calling (408) ACE-2121. Individual session tickets will go on sale in January. For more information, visit www.sapopentennis.com.  
CALENDAR
   Jan. 14-27, 2013 -- AUSTRALIAN OPEN, www.australianopen.org. 2012 champions: Novak Djokovic, Victoria Azarenka, Leander Paes-Radek Stepanek, Svetlana Kuznetsova-Vera Zvonareva.
   Jan. 15 -- Sacramento State men at Stanford in spring season opener for both teams, 1:30 p.m, www.hornetsports.com, www.gostanford.com.
   Jan. 18 -- Stanford women open spring season at Freeman Invitational in Las Vegas and at NCTC Classic in Indian Wells, Calif., times TBA, www.gostanford.com. UC Davis women open spring season vs. Northern Arizona in Tempe, Ariz., 1 p.m., www.ucdavisaggies.com.
   Jan. 19 -- UC Davis men at Santa Clara in spring season opener for both teams, 10 a.m., www.ucdavisaggies.com, www.santaclarabroncos.com.
   Feb. 1 -- Sacramento State women open spring season at Arizona, 12:30 p.m., www.hornetsports.com.
   Feb. 1-3, 2013 -- Davis Cup, first round, United States vs. Brazil in Jacksonville, Fla., www.daviscup.com.
   Feb. 9-10, 2013 -- Fed Cup, first round, United States at Italy, www.fedcup.com.
   Feb. 11-17, 2013 -- SAP Open, HP Pavilion in San Jose, www.sapopentennis.com. 2012 champions: Milos Raonic, Mark Knowles-Xavier Malisse.
   March 4-17, 2013 -- BNP Paribas Open, Indian Wells, Calif., www.bnpparibasopen.com. 2012 champions: Roger Federer, Victoria Azarenka, Marc Lopez-Rafael Nadal, Liezel Huber-Lisa Raymond.
   April 26-28 -- Big Sky Conference men's and women's tournament, Gold River Racquet Club, Gold River, Calif., www.bigskyconf.com.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

SATA offers alternative to USTA

   Want to play in a Sacramento-area league for as little as $8 a season?
   The Sacramento Area Tennis Association (SATA) might be for you.
   SATA was founded more than 60 years ago as a non-profit organization to promote the sport in the region. Its membership include 29 private clubs and parks within 40 miles of the State Capitol. About 3,000 tennis enthusiasts regularly participate in SATA leagues, tournaments and tennis-related events throughout the year, according to president Carol Rose.
   Clubs and public parks pay $75 a year to join SATA. Participants must be club or park members, and teams pay $80 per season.
   "If there are 10 players, that's $8 apiece," Rose said. "There are five to eight matches per season. It's pretty cheap entertainment."
   Rose noted that a one-year adult membership to the USTA costs $44 (three-year and five-year memberships are discounted) and that total fees per player, including team costs, "can easily be $100 a year."
   She also cited less travel and most consistent scheduling as advantages of SATA over the USTA. SATA participants travel no more than 40 miles from the Capitol and play on the same night each week, except during the winter flex season.
   "In USTA, they say, 'You have to play within this week,' " Rose said.
   One disadvantage, Rose said, is that "teams can go further in USTA. There are no sections in SATA. Some people like that. Sections means traveling, which gets to be expensive."
   Also, most tournaments require USTA membership. Rose said SATA probably will not offer tournaments next year because of insufficient interest.
   SATA isn't just for adults. The Junior Grand Prix offers tournaments for boys and girls 10 through 18, and standings are compiled.
   "It's an opportunity for kids just getting started to play competitively," Rose said.
   SATA participants, Rose added, donate used equipment and clothing to needy high schools and hit with their players.
   For more information on SATA, visit www.sactennis.org.