Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Players try to get a grip in tennis' minor leagues

Philip Bester of Canada advanced to the second round
of the $15,000 Sacramento Futures when second-seeded
Gregory Ouellette retired while trailing 6-4, 4-2
Wednesday. Photo by Paul Bauman
   The match served as a microcosm of the hard life in tennis' minor leagues.
   Second-seeded Gregory Ouellette retired with a hip strain while trailing Philip Bester 6-4, 4-2  Wednesday in the first round of the $15,000 Tennis Town Pro Tennis at Park Terrace tournament in Sacramento.
   Ouellette joined top-seeded Tennys Sandgren on the sideline after Sandgren squandered two match points and lost to wild card Jeff Dadamo in a third-set tiebreaker Tuesday at the Park Terrace Swim & Tennis Club.
   Aside from the fact that Ouellette and Bester are both accomplished veterans of the Futures tour, comparable to Class A in baseball, with five singles titles each, they have little in common.
   Ouellette, a 26-year-old American, ascended to No. 2 in the nation as a senior at Florida before tuning pro in 2008. Bester, 23, became the first Canadian to reach a Grand Slam singles final, in the 2006 French Open juniors, and skipped college to turn pro that year.
   Ouellette is undersized at 5-foot-10 and 158 pounds. Bester is protypically tall and lean at 6-foot-2 and 170 pounds.
   Ironically, the left-handed Ouellette has the more modern game. He uses a two-handed backhand and prefers to slug it out on the baseline. The right-handed Bester is a throwback with a one-handed backhand and a crisp volley.
   And their outlooks, at least Wednesday, could not have contrasted more. Whereas Ouellette threatened during the match to quit tennis, Bester said afterward that he "cherishes every moment on the court." 
   If Bester hadn't been coming back from his own injury, Wednesday's match easily could have been a final. In fact, Bester will defend his title next week in Chico, which he won with a broken right hand. Ouellette was the runner-up in Chico two years ago. Both players reached the quarterfinals at Park Terrace last year.
Ouellette walks to his chair on a changeover shortly
before retiring from the match with a hip strain.
Photo by Paul Bauman
   But constant pounding on hardcourts and slugging balls take their toll. So there they were, two world-class players, on an outside court at a small club next to an elementary school.
   Only a handful of people watched the match. The court is bordered on three sides by a fence and 10-foot-high shrubs and on the other by another court being used for the tournament. The only way to observe was from  chairs set up one court away or through one of the gaps between the shrubs.
   On the other side of the clubhouse, in which players glanced enviously at the French Open on the big-screen TV mounted above the fireplace, two sets of covered stands seating about 60 fans each were set up on one side of the primary court. So far, though, only a few fans have ventured to the court.
   Nearby, kids scurrying around the swimming pool and their mothers were oblivious to the professional tennis players in their midst and the spectacular shotmaking on the courts.
  Prize money doesn't even cover expenses for most players, who pay for their travel. To cut costs, many stay with host families at tournaments. First-round losers in singles earned all of $176.25, and Sunday's champion will pocket $1,950. Opening-round losers in doubles received zilch, and the champs will split a whopping $945. 
  In short, this is not exactly Wimbledon.   
  Ouellette's hip has been bothering him for two months. It was healing, but a new pair of shoes caused a blister to start developing on his left heel Tuesday during his first-round doubles match. Ouellette subconsciously compensated for it in singles, aggravating the hip injury.
   After Ouellette, ranked No. 354 in the world after reaching a career-high No. 269 last September, lost the first set and trailed 1-0 in the second in 83-degree heat, his frustration boiled over. Between two points, the boyish-looking resident of Ormond Beach, Fla., muttered: "I don't want to play this f---ing game anymore. Week after week ... it's so not worth it."
   At 2-3 in the second set, Ouellette received treatment from trainer Zsolt Hajdu for the blister during a medical timeout. One game later, Ouellette was finished.
   Bester knows all about injuries.
   "It's one of the things that limited me from getting where I wanted to," said the Vancouver, British Columbia, resident, who also has struggled with the mental side of tennis. "It seems like whenever I'm playing well, something comes up. I've been a little unlucky, but I hope the worst is behind me."
   In the past five years, Bester has suffered a stress fracture in his right hand, a joint displacement in his back, a bone bruise in his left heel and another stress fracture in his right hand. The first three injuries sidelined him for two to four months each. The last one knocked him out for seven months from August 2011 through February and is a story in itself.
   Bester played in pain for eight weeks in the spring and summer last year but didn't know what was wrong.
   "All the tests came back negative," he said. "I even had a bone scan with radiation dye. It showed nothing."
   Bester had one cortisone shot before Chico that wore off during the tournament and another before Canada's Davis Cup series on clay in Ecuador the following month. That one wore off the morning of the fifth and deciding match, which Bester also won.
   "I couldn't hold a toothbrush," he said.
   Finally, a CT scan in Toronto revealed the stress fracture.
   "It was a freak injury," Bester said. "The doctors said it's very unusual to have a stress fracture in an upper extremity. It was from overuse. It wasn't from punching anybody, if that's what you're thinking."
   Bester said that injury was his most frustrating.
   "I had reached a career high (at No. 229 in the rankings) and was playing some of my best tennis and really figuring things out. ... I thought I might never return to the court.
   "It has definitely been an emotional roller coaster," continued Bester, who has plummeted to No. 596. "I'd be lying if I said it has been easy, but I can definitely say I've learned some things. I take care of my body even more than I normally do. Facing that adversity, I cherish every moment on the court."
   Bester sympathizes with Ouellette, though, saying life in tennis' minor leagues is "very difficult. You're not making much money. You're probably losing money even if you do well, you get bad line calls, and you think you should be further along (in your career). It's very easy to get down on yourself. I can say that firsthand. At times, you do feel you don't want to play anymore because it does get frustrating.
   "But to put it in perspective, very few people get to do what they love. I enjoy the challenges I face. I know it's a cliche, but it's the only way to enjoy the game and have success. It's very easy to throw in the towel, which is why so many don't make it out of this level."
   Bester has no intention of doing that.
   "I love this game too much," he said. "I can't imagine myself doing anything else. I'm sure that subconsciously on a bad day, I tell myself, 'Why is this so difficult? I'm doing all the right things.' But when it comes to quitting? No, definitely not." 
   What does Bester love about tennis?
   "I'm very competitive," he said. "I love the fact that everything is on my own shoulders. I like being responsible for my successes.
   "I've learned over the years that tennis is more than hitting a ball over a net. It's like chess, which I used to play as a kid with my dad. A lot of players blast the ball, but you have to figure out how to beat your opponent, and it's a different one every day. When you do get that success, it's sweeter. Fifty percent of tennis players lose every day."
   Regarding the French Open on clay, Bester said: "You have to be incredibly strong to play. You need to be able to move and cover some miles on the court. The margin of error is very small. What separates the top 10 from the top 50 is they move incredibly well on the court and the amount of errors they make, which is not very many."
   What separates the top 50 from the top 150 or 200, Bester added, is the lower-ranked players "make one more error per game."
   And what separates the players on the ATP World Tour, tennis' major leagues, from those on the Futures circuit is "the amount of free points they give away," Bester said. "A lot of times, you see a lot more unforced errors at this level. It's also being mentally tough, being able to come up with the goods on the crucial points."
   Bester still dreams of winning a Grand Slam title, Wimbledon in particular, but he'd settle for more modest achievements.
   "Because of how difficult tennis is and how much (the level) has gone up, I'd be happy to get to the top 20," he said. "I believe I can get to the top 20 and make a living at something I love to do." 
   In the doubles quarterfinals, Nicolas Meister of Trabuco Canyon in the Los Angeles area and former Cal standout Pedro Zerbini of Brazil ousted top-seeded Daniel King-Turner of New Zealand and Kento Takeuchi of Japan 6-4, 6-2. 
   USTA Pro Women in El Paso, Texas -- Fourth-seeded Maria Sanchez of Modesto defeated qualifier Vojislava Lukic of Serbia 6-4, 6-0 in the first round of the $25,000 Hunt USTA Pro Women's Classic.
   Sanchez, a 22-year-old former USC All-American, was coming off her first professional singles title in the inaugural $50,000 Gold River Challenger in the Sacramento area.
   Fifth-seeded Adriana Perez of Venezuela downed qualifier Romana Tedjakusuma, a 35-year-old Indonesian living in Tracy, 6-4, 6-4. Tedjakusuma also lost in the first round of doubles.
   Yasmin Schnack of Elk Grove, a Sacramento suburb, withdrew after straining a chest muscle in the doubles semifinals at Gold River. Schnack and Asia Muhammed went on to win the title, but Schnack wrote in an e-mail that she "could barely serve" in the final.
   Aegon Trophy in Nottingham, Great Britain -- Qualifier CoCo Vandeweghe of the Sacramento Capitals in World TeamTennis upset fifth-seeded Anna Tatishvili of Georgia 7-6 (5), 7-5 to reach the quarterfinals of the Aegon Tophy, a grass-court tuneup for Wimbledon.
   Vandeweghe, a 20-year-old San Diego-area resident, will face the winner of the match between second-seeded Su-Wei Hsieh of Taiwan and Heather Watson of Great Britain.
   Men's matches were postponed by rain until Thursday. Fourth-seeded Dmitry Tursunov, a longtime Sacramento-area resident from Moscow, is scheduled to play qualifier Denis Matsukevitch of Russia in the first round.
   In the opening round of doubles, second-seeded Americans Scott Lipsky, a former Stanford All-American, and Rajeev Ram will face Josh Goodall and James Ward of Great Britain, and Igor Kunitsyn of Russia and Tursunov will meet ex-Cal All-American John Paul Fruttero of San Jose and Raven Klaasen of South Africa.
   Unicredit Czech Open in Prostejov, Czech Republic -- Jerzy Janowicz of Poland defeated Taiwan's Jimmy Wang 6-4, 6-1 in the first round of the Czech Open. Wang trains with Tursunov at the Gorin Tennis Academy in the Sacramento suburb of Granite Bay.
 $15,000 TENNIS TOWN PRO TENNIS AT PARK TERRACE
In Sacramento
At Park Terrace Swim & Tennis Club
First-round singles
   Keith-Patrick Crowley, South Africa, def. Roman Kislyanskiy, Russia, 6-1, 6-1.
   Jordan Cox, United States, def. Derek Siddiqui, United States, 6-4, 6-2.
   Michael McClune (3), United States, def. Nathaniel Gorham, United States, 6-2, 6-4.
   Ben McLachlan, Cal/New Zealand, def. Vahe Assadourian, Roseville, 6-0, 6-4.
   Philip Bester, Canada, def. Gregory Ouellette (2), United States, 6-4, 4-2, retired (hip).
   Nicolas Meister, United States,def. Mico Santiago, United States, 6-2, 4-6, 6-2.
   Phillip Simmonds, United States, def. Chris Wettengel, United States, 7-6 (4), 6-4.
   Kento Takeuchi (4), Japan, def. Thomas Shubert, United States, 6-4, 6-2.
   Fritz Wolmarans (5), South Africa, def. Vahid Mirzadeh, United States, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (5).
   Sebastian Fanselow, Germany, def. Riki McLachlan, Cal/New Zealand, 6-0, 7-6 (4).
First-round doubles
   Dennis Lajola, United States, and Olivier Sajous, Haiti, def. Vahe Assadourian, Roseville, and Roman Kislyanskiy, Russia, 6-0, 6-2.
   Denny Fafek and Xavier Smith, United States, def. Paul Kramberger, Australia, and Nick Papac, United States, 6-7 (4), 6-1, 10-8 tiebreak.
Doubles quarterfinals
  Nicolas Meister, United States, and Pedro Zerbini, Brazil, def. Daniel King-Turner, New Zealand, and Kento Takeuchi (1), Japan, 6-4, 6-2.
   Vahid Mirzadeh and Phillip Simmonds (4), United States, def. Philip Bester and Kamil Pajkowski, Canada, 2-6, 6-4, 10-3 tiebreak.   
Thursday's schedule
(Beginning at 10 a.m.)
Court 7
   Keith-Patrick Crowley, South Africa, vs. Jason Jung, United States.
   (Not before 11 a.m.) Jeff Dadamo, United States, vs. Ben McLachlan, Cal/New Zealand
   (Not before 3 p.m.) Jeff Dadamo and Gregory Ouellette, United States, vs. Denny Fafek and Xavier Smith, United States. 
Court 4
   Michael McClune (3), United States, vs. Jordan Cox, United States.
   (Not before 11 a.m.) Kento Takeuchi (4), Japan, vs. Nicolas Meister, United States.
   (Not before 1 p.m.) Fritz Wolmarans (5), South Africa, vs. Sebastian Fanselow, Germany. 
Court 3
   Devin Britton (7), United States, vs. Dennis Lajola, United States.
   (Not before 11 a.m.) Philip Bester, Canada, vs. Phillip Simmonds, United States.
   (Not before 1 p.m.) Daniel King-Turner (8), New Zealand, vs. Pedro Zerbini (ex-Cal star), Brazil.
   (Not before 3 p.m.) Devin Britton and Jordan Cox (2), United States, vs. Dennis Lajola, United States, and Olivier Sajous, Haiti. 
FRENCH OPEN TV SCHEDULE
(All times PDT)
   Thursday -- Women's semifinals, ESPN2, 5-10 a.m. (live); Tennis Channel, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. (repeat). French Open Tonight (daily wrapup), Tennis Channel, 4-7 p.m. (premiere), 7-10 p.m. (repeat). 
   Friday -- Men's semifinals, Tennis Channel, 4-8 a.m. (live); NBC, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. (taped), Tennis Channel, 2-9 p.m. (repeat). 
   Saturday -- Women's final, NBC, 6-9 a.m. (live).
   Sunday -- Men's final, NBC, 6-11 a.m. (live); Tennis Channel, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. (repeat), 5-9 p.m. (repeat). Women's final, Tennis Channel, 3-5 p.m. (repeat).
 CALENDAR
   THROUGH SUNDAY -- FRENCH OPEN, www.rolandgarros.com.
   Through Sunday -- $15,000 Tennis Town Pro Tennis at Park Terrace, Park Terrace Swim & Tennis Club, 5500 Parkfield Court, Sacramento, 10 a.m., www.parkterraceprotennis.org.
   Saturday-Sunday, June 16-18 -- NorCal 18 Junior Sectional Championships, Sacramento State, www.norcal.usta.com.
   Saturday-June 17 -- $15,000 Chico Futures, Chico Racquet Club & Resort, 1629 Manzanita Ave., Chico, www.chicoracquetclub.com.
   JUNE 25-JULY 8 -- WIMBLEDON, www.wimbledon.com.
   July 7-15 -- WTA, Bank of the West Classic, Stanford, www.bankofthewestclassic.com.
   July 9 -- World TeamTennis, Sacramento Capitals' season opener at Boston, 4 p.m., www.saccaps.com.
   July 12 -- World TeamTennis, Capitals' home opener (with Mardy Fish) vs. Kansas City, Sunrise Marketplace Stadium, Sunrise Mall in Citrus Heights, 7:35 p.m., www.saccaps.com.

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