Thursday, July 30, 2015

Skupski, Medina Garrigues form unlikely Dream team


Neal Skupski, a last-minute substitute this season, and Anabel Medina Garri-
gues, a two-time major champion (2008-09), of the California Dream led World
TeamTennis in mixed doubles. Photo courtesy of Phil Kemp/California Dream
   They weren't supposed to play together, had never met on or off the court and got off to a rocky start.
   Just over two weeks later, Neal Skupski and Anabel Medina Garrigues finished the World TeamTennis regular season as the top mixed doubles team in the league and helped the California Dream reach the playoffs with a 9-5 record in its inaugural season.
   Both players earned WTT season awards. Medina Garrigues (pronounced Ga-REE-gus), who will turn 33 on Friday, was named the co-Female MVP with Anastasia Rodionova of the Washington Kastles after being named last year's Female Rookie of the Year. Skupski, 25, was honored as the Male Rookie of the Year.
   California coach David Macpherson, a former Sacramento Capital in WTT who reached No. 11 in the world in doubles in 1992, said Skupski has been "sensational. He's been so clutch. He's stepped up night after night. Anabel the same thing. Most nights, I played I've played them fifth as a mixed doubles team because they've been so clutch. They've made a great team. Hopefully, they'll get to come back for years to come."
   Skupski was contacted only three days before the season began on July 12 after fellow doubles specialist Aisam Qureshi withdrew from the league because of a "technicality," Macpherson said without elaborating.
   "I didn't know any of the rules, so I had to learn them coming over on the plane," said Skupski of Liverpool, England, best known as the home of The Beatles. "Our first match was in San Diego; I had to fly straight there and meet up with the team. ... "
   Although Skupski lacks the credentials of Qureshi, who's 10 years older, he's no slouch, either.
   The 6-foot (1.84-meter) Skupski is ranked No. 119 in men's doubles, down from a career-high No. 69 early last year. He and his older brother, Ken, have reached one final on the ATP World Tour (the major leagues of men's tennis), in Moscow in 2013, and won seven titles on the Challenger circuit (equivalent to Triple A in baseball).
   Qureshi is No. 48 after climbing as high as No. 8 in 2011. He has won 11 ATP doubles titles and reached the 2010 U.S. Open doubles final with Rohan Bopanna of India.
   Playing for California attracted Skupski for several reasons. For one, Bob and Mike Bryan, who have won a record 16 Grand Slam men's doubles titles, would join the team for three of the Dream's 14 regular-season matches. In addition, Macpherson has coached the 37-year-old Bryan twins for the past 10 years.    
   "I thought it would be a great opportunity for me to be around Dave and pick his brain and to be around Bob and Mike," said Skupski, a former three-time All-American at LSU. "They're the best doubles team of all time. Also, I heard California is an unbelievable state. I (had) been here a couple of times with LSU, but never for a long period of time like this."
   In addition, WTT gives Skupski the chance to play more.
   "Sometimes you don't play as many matches on the tour," noted Skupski, who also played men's doubles with Tennys Sandgren, a former Southeastern Conference rival at Tennessee who turned 24 on July 22. "You could get one a week if you lose (in the) first round. It's not ideal for confidence or for match play. But playing World TeamTennis, if you lose, there's another match probably the next night. You can get back on it and try and build your confidence."
   Skupski sat out while the Bryans played for the Dream but practiced with them every day.
   "It was a really good three intense days," Skupski said. "They train at a high level every day. There are no minutes that they don't perform. If it's an hour, it's a full, intense hour. That's what I need to work to because sometimes I can drop my level for five minutes in practice, which maybe is why I'm not at the level they are.
   "Also, they said my level is good enough to be in the top 50 in the world. That gives me a lot of confidence coming from the best team that's ever played doubles. I'll take that onboard, and hopefully that'll pay off."
   There has been one drawback to playing for the Dream for Skupski, though.
   "It's the stifling heat that's been a killer," he said. "It's definitely not like this in England. I'm used to about high 70s, low 80s in the summers, but not into the 100s.
   "That's been the biggest problem for me. It's a lot of fluids, a lot of eating the right foods because it can be tough out here playing in such heat."
   Skupski also initially felt heat playing with Medina Garrigues, who won French Open women's doubles titles in 2008 and 2009 and the Olympic silver medal in doubles at Beijing in 2008, all with fellow Spaniard Virginia Ruano Pascual.     
   "Anabel is a feisty character," Skupski observed. "She's a Grand Slam winner, she's experienced, and my level's gone up since I started playing with her. There's no time not to concentrate or to miss any balls. She's always on my case. The first couple of matches I played with her, she kind of shouted at me because I had missed a ball I shouldn't have. I remember that ever since, and we've grown, and it's gone really well.
   "The first couple of matches, she didn't even understand what I was saying to her because she doesn't speak that much English. She didn't understand the signals I was giving to her in doubles, like what 'poach' means. Sometimes we were all over the place at the start, but now we're on the same wavelength."
   Indeed, Garrigues and Skupski beat Martina Hingis and Leander Paes 5-3 in a 19-17 loss to Washington, which has won the last four WTT titles and five of the last six, on Monday in Washington, D.C. Hingis, a 34-year-old International Tennis Hall of Famer, and Paes, a 42-year-old future Hall of Famer, won the Wimbledon mixed doubles title one day before the WTT season started.
   Skupski said playing WTT "is probably one of the best decisions I've ever made. I've made a lot of friends here, and hopefully I can come back next year if they want me in the draft. Hopefully, I've put on a good show here."
Skupski, from England, and Medina Garrigues,
a Spaniard, overcame initial communication
problems. Photo by Darryl Henick
   Medina Garrigues played for the Texas Wild last season before the team relocated to the Sacramento area and became the California Dream.
   "I saw team tennis on TV when I was playing Indian Wells and Miami," said Medina Garrigues, who now specializes in doubles. "I was really interested in how the rules are, so I told my manager, 'Look, I'm almost at the end of my career. I'm not playing singles anymore, so my schedule is relaxed. It's not that pressure from singles, and in the time that team tennis is playing there (are) no big tournaments for doubles.'  So I said, 'OK, let's try.' "
   The 5-foot-6 (1.69-meter) Medina Garrigues is another in a long line of Spanish stars. She has reached career highs of No. 16 in singles (2009) and No. 3 in doubles (2008), won 11 singles and 25 career WTA doubles titles, and earned $5.74 million in prize money.
   "She's got a lot of things going for her," Macpherson explained. "She's got an incredible backhand, and I think her forehand is really going well now. She's so confident with her forehand as well as her backhand. She's got great instincts at the net. She's one of the premier net women -- reflex volleys and making poaches and interceptions.
   "And she's able to produce her best tennis at the most important times. That's an intangible that all great champions have. You don't win two French Opens without that."
   Jarka Gajdosova, Medina Garrigues' doubles partner on the Dream, lost to her in the third round of mixed doubles at Wimbledon.
   "I'd rather play with her than against her," Gajdosova confessed. " ... She reads the game well. She knows what shots to use and when. She lobs very well. She's not afraid at the net, so she doesn't mind crossing and hitting volleys."
    Spain's success, Medina Garrigues said, starts with tradition.
   "We have very good history. We always have very good players since 15 years ago from (Carlos) Moya, (Juan-Carlos) Ferrero, Carlos Costa, Albert Costa. All these players (were) top 10, so kids saw them on TV. They really like the sport.
   "Girls also (saw) Arantxa Sanchez and Conchita Martinez. They were top 10 and won Grand Slams. It's very (popular) in Spain, the tennis. It makes all the young people (want) to play," Medina Garrigues said.
   She added that "the conditions (in Spain are) very good. Is good weather. We can play outside all the year. We have very good coaches. They know how to teach the (winning) style of tennis. Also the Latin mentality is very (good). We are always positive and fighting until the end of the match."
   Medina Garrigues has been unable to recapture the magic she had with Ruano Pascual, who retired in 2010. The closest Medina Garrigues has come is reaching the women's doubles semis in the 2012 U.S. Open with Su-Wei Hsieh of Taiwan and the mixed doubles semis at Wimbledon this year with Robert Lindstedt of Sweden. 
   "I didn't really find the best (women's doubles) partner to try to be in the top rounds of the Grand Slams," said Medina Garrigues, who recently began playing with Arantxa Parra Santonja, another 32-year-old Spaniard. "I keep trying. I didn't win (another) Grand Slam, but I win 25 doubles titles, so I think it's a good record."
    Medina Garrigues plans to play at least through next year's Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
    "After that, I will see if I continue to play or I just decide to stop," she said. "I have a new partner, and we won this year one tournament. We know each other, we are very good friends, and I feel very good with her."
   And with Skupski.

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