Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Journeywoman stuns top seed in 25K Redding

Ana Veselinovic
Photo by Paul Bauman
   REDDING, Calif. -- It shaped up as a colossal mismatch.
   Sofya Zhuk, the Wimbledon junior girls champion two years ago at 15, faced Ana Veselinovic, a 29-year-old journeywoman, on Tuesday in the first round of the $25,000 Ascension Project Women's Challenger.
   Zhuk, a 17-year-old Russian based in Bradenton, Fla., was seeded first at No. 143 in the world. Veselinovic, a native of tiny Montenegro ("Black mountain" in English) across the Adriatic Sea from Italy, is ranked No. 441. She has never been higher than No. 329, and that was 10 years ago before she earned a college degree in the United States.
   Zhuk was coming off her first appearance in the main draw of a Grand Slam tournament, falling to 50th-ranked Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan in the first round of the U.S. Open as a qualifier. Veselinovic has never even played in the qualifying event at a Slam.
   None of it mattered. Veselinovic, a 5-foot-8 (1.73-meter) left-hander, outslugged Zhuk 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 in 2 hours, 13 minutes on a scorching afternoon at Sun Oaks Tennis & Fitness. Veselinovic overcame 10 double faults with clutch serving and pinpoint groundstrokes.
   "She's a great player, she's young, and it was my first time playing against her," Veselinovic said. "My ranking right now is low -- I had some injuries -- so I didn't really have the opportunity to show my potential and play a lot of matches.
   "But I believe that ranking doesn't tell all. Anybody can beat everybody. It's not about what's written on the paper. You go on the court, and you put your heart (into it), and it can only work out good for you."
   Indeed, Veselinovic exhibited much better body language than Zhuk, who was not available to comment on the match. While Zhuk moped around the court between points, Veselinovic ran in place despite the 100-degree (37.8 Celsius) heat.
   In the evening singles match, the second seed also lost. Ulrikke Eikeri of Norway fell to American Robin Anderson, a former UCLA star, 2-6, 6-4, 6-1 in a matchup of 24-year-olds. But unlike Veselinovic's victory, Anderson's was not a big surprise.
   First, Eikeri does not have Zhuk's credentials. Eikeri is ranked considerably lower at No. 279 (second in Norway behind No. 265 Melanie Stokke).
   Also, the 5-foot-3 (1.61-meter) Anderson was the singles runner-up and doubles champion four years ago in Redding.
   Finally, Anderson had beaten Eikeri in three sets in their only previous meeting. That came last year in the first round of a $25,000 clay-court tournament in Jackson, Miss.
   Fourth-seeded Jovana Jaksic of Serbia avoided an upset, topping Sandra Samir of Egypt 5-7, 6-2, 6-1 in a match featuring many long, grueling rallies. But the heat didn't faze Jaksic, who moved from Las Vegas to Sacramento last December. Shortly after her match, she practiced briefly under the guidance of her new coach, John Rodrigues of Sacramento. Jaksic's Serbian boyfriend, Vuja Jovic, is a real estate broker in Sacramento.
   In the longest match of the day, wild card Anna Bright, a Cal freshman, outlasted fellow American Shelby Talcott 6-4, 1-6, 7-5 in 2 hours, 56 minutes.
   When Veselinovic found out she had drawn the top seed, she took it in stride, according to her coach.
   "She was OK," Igor Tomasevic said. "She's been around. It's not like a little girl crying. She was thinking, bad luck, because there's such a big difference between the ranking of the first seed and all the other girls. But on the other side, the underdog always has a chance."
   A case of nerves cost Veselinovic the first set.
   "The first round is always tough," she said. "You want to (get going); you want to play. Your emotions carry you away, and you can't do that against good players because you lose a game or two, you lose a set, and that's what happened with me. You've got to be there from the beginning until the end because there are no easy points."
   Once Veselinovic calmed down, she took the second set. There were no service breaks in the third set until Zhuk served at 4-4. Then both players inevitably got tight, resulting in three consecutive breaks. Given a second chance to serve for the match, Veselinovic held at love.
   "It's great to get her confidence back because this year is not so great for her," Tomasevic said of the victory. "Her expectation was higher, her ranking was solid, but things didn't happen quite well this year. It's a great win to have a new start of the year practically in September. It can lift her up."
   Veselinovic hopes to crack the top 400 this year, eventually reach the top 100 and stay there for a couple of years.
   "I have my goals, and I'm motivated," she said. "Nothing has changed. I'm still the same as when I was just out of college. I haven't really showed all I can do, my potential. With everything I've been through, I still believe. I have my dream. I love this. I'll just keep going until my body gives up."
   Veselinovic has battled two herniated discs in her back since she led Auburn University-Montgomery (Ala.) to its eighth NAIA (small college) title in nine years in 2012.
   "I've been able to work around it," said Veselinovic, who has not had surgery. "It's not easy, but I've learned how to cope with the pain and with some limitations that I have. When you love what you do -- and love means everything -- you've got to ignore (the pain and limitations) and be positive."  
   It would be easy to consider Veselinovic the ultimate underdog, but she doesn't buy it.
   "I don't think being injured, (my) small country or the (college) division I played makes me an underdog," Veselinovic said. "I don't feel like that. I feel good where I am."
   Here are The Ascension Project singles and doubles draws and Wednesday's schedule.

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