Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Top seed Gibbs survives test in Stockton opener

Nicole Gibbs, a former Stanford standout, outlasted Aleksandra
Wozniak, a former top-25 player, 5-7, 6-4, 7-5 in the first round
of the Stockton Challenger. Photo by Paul Bauman
   STOCKTON, Calif. -- When you're 5-foot-6 (1.68 meters) and petite, as Nicole Gibbs is, you had better be in tremendous shape and have a positive attitude if you're going to survive in an era of what television commentator Mary Carillo calls "Big Babe" tennis.
   Check and check for Gibbs, a former Stanford standout who has parlayed those assets and a formidable forehand into a world ranking of No. 72. That's an impressive achievement for anyone, but especially an undersized player.
   A nearly three-hour battle in the first round of the University of the Pacific $50,000 USTA Pro Circuit Challenger? No problemo.
   The heat? Bring it on.
   Coming off six losses in seven matches on clay or grass in Europe? Good experience.
   Going from Wimbledon, the center of the tennis universe, to sleepy Stockton? Chance to get back on track.
   The top-seeded Gibbs outlasted Canadian Aleksandra Wozniak, a former top-25 player rebounding from shoulder surgery and a foot injury, 5-7, 6-4, 7-5 today at the new $4 million Eve Zimmerman Tennis Center.
   Gibbs trailed 2-0 and 3-1 in the third set but fought back for 3-3. She served for the match at 5-4 but was broken. Gibbs then broke Wozniak to lead 6-5, hitting a high lob at 15-30 that Wozniak let fall just inside the baseline for a winner, and held serve to end the 2-hour, 59-minute match played in 86-degree (30.0 Celsius) heat.
   So much for easing into the Challenger, comparable to Triple A in baseball.
   "Yeah, I guess that's the hope that you get a couple rounds under your belt before you really get a challenge," conceded Gibbs, a 23-year-old resident of Marina del Rey in the Los Angeles area. "But honestly, I think that was a huge blessing for me to have such a tough challenge in the first round.
   "It really tested me mentally and emotionally as well as how I've been transitioning my game back to the hardcourts. So now I'm really optimistic about the level I need to bring the rest of the tournament having that one under my belt."
   Even with the heat, Gibbs was happy to return to the hardcourts that she grew up on in Southern California.
   "Yeah, absolutely, and I love the heat," chirped Gibbs, who won three NCAA singles titles (two in singles and one in doubles) while at Stanford from 2011 to 2013. "It brings a whole different kind of challenge and element to it, but I know my fitness is really good, and I think that showed today."
   Wozniak, playing in her first tournament since late May because of a ligament strain in her right foot, admitted she tired late in the match. Gibbs, though, had a different impression.
   "Honestly, I was hoping to see her get a little more tired than she did," Gibbs said. "She maintained her level, actually, very well. You never know with someone coming back from an injury if their hours on the court are going to be 100 percent, but she definitely looked fully fit and ready to go throughout the third set.
   "That said, I would take me against almost anyone in terms of fitness. I really do think I'm one of the fittest players on the court."
   Smaller players, lacking a big serve with which to win "free" points, must be in phenomenal shape so they can win long rallies.
   "Oh, absolutely," Gibbs asserted. "I have no choice, but I don't mind it. I like the work, so this (marathon against Wozniak) is good. I'll be even fitter for my match on Thursday."
   Gibbs excelled on hardcourts at the top level of women's tennis in the first three months of the year under new coach Roger Smith, a former top-100 player from the Bahamas.
   As a qualifier, Gibbs reached the second round of Shenzhen and the Australian Open, the quarterfinals in Monterrey and the fourth round in Indian Wells. Then she advanced to the third round in Miami as a wild card before losing to 6-foot (1.82-meter) Garbine Muguruza 6-1, 6-0. Just over two months later, Muguruza won the French Open for her first Grand Slam title.
   "I received a huge boost bringing Roger onto my team," said Gibbs,  said. "He was such an immediate spark to my game. He gave me that extra edge, gave me new ways of looking at the game. The spike in my game was definitely a result of that.
   "Now, there's always an up-and-down process where you reach a new level and get to a position where you have to prove yourself. For me, it came on my least-favorite surfaces -- anything other than hardcourts (laughs).
   "That was a challenge for me over in Europe, but honestly, my attitude is eons better than it was last year in terms of dealing with the adversity. I've been through six-match losing streaks; I've been through not winning a match in months. Having that experience has been really valuable."
   Still, Gibbs is emotional on the court. She often grunted in frustration after losing a point against Wozniak, and she slammed a ball against the low concrete wall behind the baseline after losing the first set.
   And let's face it. Playing a Challenger after Wimbledon is a letdown.
   "It can be (tough), but I really feel I came into this event with the right mindset," Gibbs said. "I had lost six out of my last seven matches -- Europe is always very challenging for me. Honestly, I just wanted to come here and have a good look at winning some matches. Even if I didn't win today, I would have had my first really competitive match since the French Open, and that's a while. My attitude was just, strap on the blue-collar shirt and try to make people suffer in the heat."
   Mission accomplished, but Wozniak administered her own punishment, running Gibbs from side to side with precise groundstrokes.
Aleksandra Wozniak won the 2008 Bank of the West Classic as a 20-year-old
qualifier and underwent major shoulder surgery in 2014. Photo by Paul Bauman
   As a qualifier in the 2008 Bank of the West Classic at Stanford, Wozniak became the first Canadian woman in 20 years to win a WTA title and the first ever from Quebec. She climbed to a career-high No. 21 the following year and in 2012 became the first Canadian to play singles in the Olympics.
   A month after the 2012 London Olympics, Wozniak was warming up for a second-round night match in Quebec City when she hit a forehand and her right shoulder almost popped out of its socket.
   "(Doctors) said it was (caused by) repetitition, a lot of practice and overuse with time," said Wozniak, a 28-year-old Montreal native who speaks with her Polish parents' accent. "And me, I've always had a problem -- I'm almost double-jointed. I could be a gymnast. I'm too flexible. Some people are too stiff in their joints, and I'm very loose."
   Wozniak did three months of physiotherapy and tried to resume playing but finally underwent surgery in September 2014 and missed 11 months. During her layoff, she had physiotherapy almost daily.
   "(The doctor inserted) screws, did a lot of repairs, shaved bones, tightened the capsule," said Wozniak, who has improved from No. 844 at the end of 2015 to No. 471. "It was big surgery. That's why I needed so much physiotherapy and exercises. I was just glad to come back on the tennis court and slowly hit balls."
    Wozniak, 5-foot-9 (1.75 meters), now relies on placement more than power on her serve. Although her slice serve can be effective, at times today, it was a cream puff.
   Both players, in fact, struggled mightily with their serve, combining for 25 double faults (13 by Gibbs) and no aces in a slight breeze. In 17 service games each, Wozniak was broken nine times and Gibbs eight.
   "I knew the serving would come up (in a post-match interview)," Gibbs groaned. "That was ugly today. I'm not really known for throwing in a lot of double faults. ... That's ultra-unusual for me. I'm going to work on it this afternoon in doubles and try to come back a better player on Thursday."
   Gibbs attributed the rash of double faults to "radically different" conditions than those she came from in Europe.
   "The balls are way lighter, and the atmosphere feels like there's no air," Gibbs explained. "The ball just goes and goes, which is true of L.A. as well, but I think it's even more here with the heat and wind.
   "The conditions were just really tough to feel solid in. At the end of that match, it was kind of whoever was braver and willing to work through the tough things was going to win the majority of the points."                
   If Wozniak's serve was shaky, her groundstrokes were another story.
   "I was definitely hoping to get a few more errors out of her," Gibbs admitted. "The scouting report I received was basically, 'She's a really good hitter, but it's going to be a little bit hit and miss,' and I felt like it was a little bit hit and hit today.
   "I had to work really hard on defense to kind of bail myself out. I felt lucky on a few points here and there, and that was really the difference. She easily could have taken that (match) from me today."
UNIVERSITY OF THE PACIFIC
$50,000 USTA PRO CIRCUIT CHALLENGER 
In Stockton, Calif.
Singles
Final-round qualifying
   Chanel Simmonds, South Africa, def. Brynn Boren, United States, 6-1, 4-6, 6-2.
   Caitlin Whoriskey, United States, def. Gabriela Ce (2), Brazil, 6-1, 6-3.
   Desirae Krawczyk, United States, def. Elizaveta Ianchuk (3), Ukraine, 6-3, 6-2.
   Jennifer Elie (6), United States, def. Priscilla Hon (4), Australia, 6-4, 6-3.
First round
   Mayo Hibi, Japan, def. Taylor Townsend (6), United States, 6-4, 6-4.
   Robin Anderson, United States, def. Sanaz Marand, United States, 6-2, 7-6 (1).
   Nicole Gibbs (1), United States, def. Aleksandra Wozniak, Canada, 5-7, 6-4, 7-5.
   Riko Sawayanagi, Japan, def. Kristie Ahn, United States, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4.
   Michelle Larcher de Brito, Portugal, def. Sabina Sharipova, Uzbekistan, 6-2, 4-6, 6-0.
   Storm Sanders, Australia, def. Michaela Gordon, Saratoga, 3-6, 6-2, 6-1.
   Arina Rodionova, Australia, def. Victoria Kan, Russia, 6-4, 7-5.
Doubles
First round
   Greet Minnen, Belgium, and Riko Sawayanagi, Japan, def. Jacqueline Cako, United States, and Gabriela Ce, Brazil, 7-5, 6-4.
   Kristyna Pliskova, Czech Republic, and Alison Van Uytvanck (4), Belgium, def. Alexandra Facey and Kat Facey, Cameron Park, 6-3, 6-2.
   Asia Muhammad and Taylor Townsend (1), United States, def. Chanel Simmonds, South Africa, and Renata Zarazua, Mexico, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (4).
   Yuki Kristina Chiang, United States, and Elizaveta Ianchuk, Ukraine, def. CiCi Bellis, Atherton, and Jamie Loeb, United States, 6-3, 7-5.
   Sanaz Marand and Melanie Oudin, United States, def. Kristie Ahn and Nicole Gibbs, United States, 6-2, 3-6 [10-6].
Wednesday's schedule
(Starting at 10 a.m.)
Court 1
   Sachia Vickery (8), United States, vs. Desirae Krawczyk, United States.
   CiCi Bellis, Atherton, vs. Zhaoxuan Yang, China (not before 11:30 a.m.).
   Desirae Krawczyk and Ena Shibahara, United States, vs. Priscilla Hon and Storm Sanders, Australia (not before 1 p.m.).
Court 2 
   Urszula Radwanska (4), Poland, vs. Kayla Day, United States.
   Grace Min (5), United States, vs. Jamie Loeb, United States (not before 11:30 a.m.).
   Jennifer Elie, United States, vs. Ashley Kratzer, United States (not before 1 p.m.).
Court 3
   Alison Van Uytvanck (3), Belgium, vs. Melanie Oudin, United States.
   Kristyna Pliskova (2), Czech Republic, vs. Chanel Simmonds, South Africa (not before 11:30 a.m.).
   Robin Anderson and Maegan Manasse, United States, vs. Kaitlyn Christian and Sabrina Santamaria, United States (not before 1 p.m.).
Court 4
   Lin Zhu (7), China, vs. Caitlin Whoriskey, United States.
   Asia Muhammad, United States, vs. Anastasia Pivovarova, Russia (not before 11:30 a.m.).
   Ashley Weinhold and Caitlin Whoriskey (2), United States, vs. Victoria Kan and Sabina Sharipova, Uzbekistan.

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