Monday, May 21, 2012 5:46pm
2012 US Open National Playoffs: Southwest Section
Familiarity on a tennis court, of the surroundings, of your opponent's game and tendencies are all usually key factors that help players slip into comfort zones, ease the nerves, and allow them to play the kind of free-flowing tennis that lets them win big matches.
That familiarity proved extra beneficial for Scottsdale's Stephanie Vlad (right), as the 18-year-old snagged one of the biggest titles of her young career on Monday, winning the US Open National Playoffs women's singles title.
Not only did Vlad win, she cruised to an easier-than-expected 6-2, 6-2 victory over world No. 432 and fellow 18-year-old Nicole Melichar (Stuart, Fla.).
The two girls had played several times before in local women's open events in Phoenix, with Melichar always getting the better of their tussles. But Vlad flipped the script on Monday.
The opening game was a microcosm of the match, with Vlad winning a lengthy, multiple deuce game that took almost 20 minutes. It was certainly not the ideal start for Melichar, who appeared a bit under the weather.
But it was absolutely perfect for Vlad, whose relentless, almost annoyingly steady baseline game tends to grind down opponents mentally and physically. Even though the match was only a mere one-game old, it already felt like a tremendous body blow.
Vlad ran off the first set 6-2, but it took more than an hour. Both men's semifinals in the tournament - matches that had gone on at the same time as Vlad-Melichar - had completed before they had even wrapped up their opening set.
"I think she was a bit under the weather today a bit and just struggling to find her form," said an obviously elated Vlad after the match. "That first game was really big for me just to settle in. As the match wore on, I felt like I was getting more consistent and she wasn't. At one point I heard her say to herself, 'Just make two balls in a row.' Hearing her say that just made me stick in there that much harder because I knew she was having some trouble."
Vlad ran off the first set 6-2, but it still took more than an hour. Both men's semifinals in the tournament - matches that had gone on at the same time as the women's final - had been completed and over before the two girls had even wrapped up their opening set.
In a much quicker second set, Vlad showed the kind of rugged tenacity and grit that should make her a great player at Arizona State University starting this fall. With the first set in her pocket, Vlad opened her shoulders and went for more forceful groundstrokes to start the second. She controlled all the rallies and even passed Melichar at will in her few net ventures, including a sweet backhand crosscourt to break for a 5-2 lead. Vlad served the match out comfortably, and with no nerves, letting out a sheepish grin when she won.
"I felt really comfortable and just went for it today," said Vlad, who has overcome two right knee surgeries, including a torn ACL in 2009.
"I played controlled but pretty aggressive from start to finish. I just love playing here (at Scottsdale Ranch Park), these courts are perfect for me. I've been here so much, and I'd even played Nicole a lot. I'd never beaten her, but I felt going in like I at least knew what to expect out there."
As the Southwest champion, Vlad will now move on to the US Open National Playoffs in New Haven, Connecticut, held August 17-20 at Yale University, concurrent with the combined New Haven Open ATP/WTA Tour event. There, Vlad will be one of 13 national winners competing for a chance to play in the US Open Qualifying Tournament a week later.
"I'm so excited about winning our tournament." said Vlad, who has played the event all three years it's been in existence. "Just being a local girl from right here in Phoenix and USTA Central Arizona is really cool. I mean it's a big dream of mine to maybe go to the US Open or a Grand Slam and play, so I'll just give it my best."
OTHER TOURNAMENT NOTES
Youth Served: The average age of the men's and women's final four was just under 20 years old, proving the power of young legs and recovery. The youngest competitor (and youngest-ever semifinalist in the three years of the Southwest event) was Vince Salas from Las Vegas, at 14 years old. The one pulling up the average of course was 32-year-old Brian Battistone, who did happen to win the men's singles tournament as well as the mixed doubles event with Melichar.
We Meet Again: Men's singles finalist Patrick Kawka of Las Vegas was a familiar face to US Open National Playoffs tournament director Sally Grabham. The 19-year old Kawka played the USTA Winter Nationals a couple of times, a tournament Grabham also runs, and had the banter going back and forth regularly with Grabham and tournament folks. Kawka, a soon-to-be junior at Brigham Young University, said he always loves playing in Arizona, and plans a return trip.
Suggestion Box: The consensus among several players at the event was that the USTA really needs to consider adding gender doubles competitions (men's and women's doubles events) in the coming years. Several players mentioned it repeately, and mentioned they'd have signed up for it had it been offered.
---Jeff Sikes, USTA Southwest
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