Tuesday, October 3, 2017

How Swede it is: Ymer ousts top seed in Stockton

Elias Ymer serves during his 7-5, 6-3 victory over top-
seeded Ruben Bemelmans in the first round of the
$100,000 Stockton (Calif.) Challenger. Ymer needed
seven match points. Photo by Paul Bauman
   STOCKTON, Calif. -- You think the United States has fallen on hard times in men's pro tennis?
   That's nothing compared to Sweden.
   The nation that cranked out International Tennis Hall of Famers Bjorn Borg, Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg and a slew of other top players in the 1970s and '80s has no men in the top 200 in the world.
   All countries go through cycles. Also, Sweden has a population of only 9.9 million, about the same as the Chicago area, and a climate more suited to ice hockey and skiing.
   There is hope for Sweden, however, in the form of brothers Elias and Mikael Ymer. Elias, 21, is ranked No. 1 in Sweden at No. 208, down from his career high of No. 118 in May last year. Mikael, 19, is fourth at No. 385.
   Elias Ymer (pronounced EE-mer) needed seven match points today to oust top-seeded Ruben Bemelmans of Belgium 7-5, 6-3 in the first round of the $100,000 Stockton Challenger at the University of the Pacific's Eve Zimmerman Tennis Center.
   "I needed this one a lot," Ymer conceded. "I'm very happy to be through. I lost in the first round in Tiburon last week (to eighth seed and eventual champion Cameron Norrie 7-5, 3-6, 7-5) and was practicing very well. To get matches is always good (for) confidence." 
   All of the match points came with Ymer serving in the last game.
   "Ruben is a top-100 player, and it's always going to be difficult to beat those guys because they're very experienced," said Ymer, who struggled on his first serve while trying to close out the match. "That's why he's No. 90 in the world, because he fights all the time."
    Actually, Bemelmans, a 29-year-old left-hander. dropped from No. 92 to No. 101 on Monday after also losing in the first round at Tiburon as the top seed. Since reaching the third round at Wimbledon as a qualifier and the final of a $75,000 clay-court Challenger in the Netherlands in July, Bemelmans has won only one match in seven tournaments.
   Still, Bemelmans fearlessly went for his shots on the match points against Ymer.
   "That's how I should play the whole match," moaned Bemelmans, who sailed a forehand return of a second serve long on the last match point. "That's my strength, but today I wasn't solid enough to take my opportunities that I created. I must say he served well on the big points, but I should have played a bit more aggressive on (earlier) points that mattered."
   Bemelmans, who has helped Belgium reach the Davis Cup final for the second time in three years, admitted he has lost confidence.
Ruben Bemelmans lost as the top seed
in a Northern California Challenger for
the second consecutive week.
Photo by Paul Bauman
   "I haven't won too many matches, but I feel like I'm getting back slowly," he said. "My level is rising. It's just a matter of time, I think. I have to keep on working, be confident and, like I said, play my game even on the big points."
   Bemelmans became the second consecutive No. 1 seed to lose in the opening round in Stockton. Bjorn Fratangelo of Orlando, Fla., bowed out against Joris De Loore of Belgium in the inaugural tournament last year.
   Two other seeds lost today. No. 5 Ramkumar Ramanathan of India fell to Christian Harrison of Bradenton, Fla., 6-1, 6-2, and No. 7 Felix Auger-Aliassime, 17, of Canada succumbed to Dmitry Tursunov, a 34-year-old qualifier from Russia, 6-2, 6-2.
   Auger-Aliassime became the youngest player to win a match on the ATP Challenger Tour at 14 in 2015. Now 6-foot-3 (1.91 meters), he's ranked No. 161.
   "He doesn't really let you make any decisions (on the court)," said Tursunov, who trained in Northern California from age 12 into his 30s. "He either hits a winner or makes an error. There were quite a lot of mistakes coming from his end.
   "The older he gets, I think the more he's going to be able to judge when to go for his shots and when to pull off. Right now, he just has that one speed, and once he's in that drive mode, it doesn't matter if there's a turn coming up. He doesn't really have a brake pedal."
   Both Tiburon finalists, meanwhile, advanced in straight sets. No. 2 seed Tennys Sandgren of Gallatin, Tenn., topped Christopher O'Connell of Australia 7-5, 7-5, and No. 8 Norrie coasted past wild card Deiton Baughman of Carson in the Los Angeles area 6-3,
   Two Stockton semifinalists last year, Americans Michael Mmoh and Mackenzie McDonald, also moved into the second round.
   Mmoh, the 19-year-old son of former Nigerian player Tony Mmoh, met former top-70 player Tobias Kamke for the second consecutive week. After saving two match points in a 6-3, 2-6, 7-6 (7) victory in the second round at Tiburon, Mmoh breezed past the error-prone Kamke, a 31-year-old German, 6-2, 6-1 in one hour.
   "I don't think he played too hot today, to be honest," observed Mmoh, who was named after Michael Jordan. "I don't think his game was on. Tough conditions: very fast courts and a little windy. I just took advantage. I saw he was a little uncomfortable, so I made it as tough as possible. I was serving well, hitting my shots with good margins and making sure I made him play the extra ball. Considering how poorly he was playing, I thought that was the right strategy, and I executed it pretty well."
   McDonald, a 22-year-old product of Piedmont in the San Francisco Bay Area, overcame the serve-and-volleying of wild card Andre Goransson, a former Cal star from Sweden, 6-2, 4-6, 6-2. Goransson, 23, won the Tiburon doubles title with ex-Bears teammate Florian Lakat of France.
   Anyone expecting the Ymers to have blond hair and blue eyes is in for a surprise. They are the black, Swedish-born sons of Ethiopian emigrants.
   "I love Sweden," Elias Ymer crowed. "I've lived there my whole life. ... People respect me. Sweden is a multi-cultural country now."
   In Tiburon, Ymer led by a break in the third set against Norrie but cramped in his hand and legs. A notoriously hard worker, he practiced for five hours straight the next day, according to a tournament sponsor.
   "He went through three guys," Leif Haase marveled.
   Ymer was cautious when asked about possibly helping Sweden return to prominence.
   "We'll see. I have to start by winning Challengers," said Ymer, who has won three of them, all on clay. "One step at a time."
   Here are the Stockton singles and doubles draws and Wednesday's schedule. The tournament is being streamed live.

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