Monday, July 27, 2015

Kalinina overcomes big deficit for Challenger title

No. 8 seed Anhelina Kalinina, right, of Ukraine toppled No. 1
An-Sophie Mestach of Belgium for the Sacramento Challenger
title after trailing by a set and two breaks. Photo by Paul Bauman
   GOLD RIVER, Calif. — An-Sophie Mestach was cruising.
   The Belgian, whose sculpted 5-foot-7 (1.70-meter) physique makes Jillian Michaels look like a couch potato, was scurrying around the court and outslugging lethargic Anhelina Kalinina on Sunday night.
   Leading by a set and two breaks, the top-seeded Mestach appeared to be minutes away from winning the $50,000 FSP Gold River Women's Challenger.
   "The crowd was even (getting bored)," groaned Kalinina, 18, of Ukraine. "I was just, 'Oh my God, c'mon, you have to play for them, for you, for everybody who's supporting me in my country. They're watching online.' " 
   Finally playing her trademark aggressive game, the eighth-seeded Kalinina rallied to stun Mestach 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 in 2 hours, 38 minutes at the Gold River Racquet Club in the Sacramento area.
   Kalinina earned $7,600 and Mestach $4,053 in the first final in the four-year history of the tournament without an American. Earlier, however, the U.S. team of Ashley Weinhold and Caitlin Whoriskey edged Nao Hibino of Japan and 16-year-old Rosie Johanson of Canada 6-4, 3-6 [14-12] for the doubles title in a matchup of unseeded teams.
   Weinhold and Whoriskey trailed 8-4 in the match tiebreaker and survived three championship points. They split $2,786.   
   There was more drama ahead in the singles final, although it took a while to materialize. Mestach, a 21-year-old Fed Cup veteran and former world No. 1 junior, served at 4-1 in the second set. As the lead slipped away, she put up a colassal fight in the epic last game of the set. Mestach saved six set points before Kalinina finally converted.
Kalinina's sensational backhand, along with her
excellent volley, helped her subdue Mestach.
Photo by Paul Bauman
   During the awards ceremony, Mestach's voice broke as she addressed an estimated crowd of 400.
   "It sucks to lose like this," lamented Mestach, drawing laughs from spectators. "I mean, 6-4, 4-1, so ... I'm not very happy at the moment, but OK. I want to congratulate her. She (had) a good week. ... "
   As if Sunday's loss wasn't agonizing enough, it was Mestach's second runner-up finish in two weeks. Also seeded first in the inaugural Stockton Challenger, she fell to the 20-year-old Hibino 6-1, 7-6 (6) in the final. In the second round, Mestach beat Kalinina 7-6 (3), 6-2.
   At least Mestach improved five spots in this week's world rankings to a career-high No. 99, surpassing her previous best by one notch.
   Kalinina also attained a career high, jumping 44 places to No. 148 with her third and biggest professional singles title. She won $25,000 Challengers in Jackson, Miss., and Pelham, Ala., both on clay, in consecutive weeks in April.
   The daughter of two teaching pros, Kalinina excelled in the juniors last year. She won the Australian Open doubles title with Elizaveta Kulichkova of Russia and reached the U.S. Open singles final, losing to Marie Bouzkova of the Czech Republic 6-4, 7-6 (5).
   Kalinina has a big upside -- literally. Like many top players, she's tall (5-foot-10 or 1.79 meters) with a strong serve and punishing groundstrokes.
Mestach lost a Challenger final for the second
consecutive week. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Kalinina, though, is unusual in several ways. She's very quick at her size, her two-handed backhand is even better than her forehand, she has an excellent volley, and she's not afraid to use it. At least she wasn't in the last half of Sunday's match.
   On the other hand, the final marked Kalinina's second mental lapse in three matches. She was the one who blew a big second-set lead in the quarterfinals against third-seeded CiCi Bellis, 16, of Atherton in the San Francisco Bay Area, but she recovered to dominate the third set. 
   Kalinina knew early against Mestach that something was amiss.
   "Even 3-all in the first set, I realized I'm not there; I'm not fighting," she said. "I was not even ready to beat her right there. It's impossible to win (that way) against top players.
   "I don't know why I started that bad. Maybe I was a little bit nervous because I really want to show that (after) last week I'm going to win this match. (I made) too many mistakes in the first set. Main thing is I was not that aggressive. I was just pushing balls, and of course she was beating me every rally."
   After Mestach jumped to a 4-1 lead in the second set, Kalinina took the advice of her coach, Dmitry Mazur. Sitting at courtside with Kalinina's mother, Halyna, he spoke to Anhelina in their native language. (Never mind that coaching is prohibited in Challenger tournaments, although it's allowed on the elite WTA tour.)
   "He said, 'Play your game; go to the net,' " Kalinina said. "Especially, 'Go to the net.' And, 'Be aggressive. You (have nothing to lose), so just play. Just try.' "
Americans Ashley Weinhold, left, and Caitlin Whoriskey
won the doubles title, surviving three championship points.
Photo by Paul Bauman
   Kalinina proceeded to reel off five straight games to steal the second set. But even after Kalinina pulled to 3-4 in the set, Mestach seemed to have the match in hand. She served at 40-0 in the next game but double-faulted on three of the next six points, including on break point.
   The last game of the second set was the highlight of the match — and probably the tournament. Back and forth it went on Mestach's serve. Kalinina would rifle a shot into the corner, follow it to the net and put away the volley for set point. Mestach then would play spectacular defense and eventually crack a passing shot to stay alive.
   Finally, from deuce, Kalinina spanked a backhand winner and a backhand passing shot, both down the line, for the set.
   Kalinina secured the only break of the third set on a reflex forehand volley to lead 5-3. Serving for the title, she hammered a service winner down the middle on her second championship point.
   Mestach said Kalinina was the fresher player in the third set.
   "Let's be honest — that's my 10th match in two weeks. I've been playing doubles as well," noted Mestach.
   Also, honestly, the singles final shouldn't have gone to three sets.  

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