Sunday, July 22, 2018

California dreamin': Gibbs, Kenin to play for title

Second-seeded Nicole Gibbs attended high school and
lives in the Los Angeles area. She starred at Stanford.
Photo by Paul Bauman
   BERKELEY, Calif. -- Nicole Gibbs will have the home-court advantage when she faces Sofia Kenin for the first time today in the final of the $60,000 Berkeley Tennis Club Challenge.
   But not by much.
   Gibbs attended high school and lives in the Los Angeles area. She starred at Stanford, across San Francisco Bay from Berkeley.
   "Anytime I play in California, I feel like it's home for me," Gibbs, 25, said Saturday. "I'm just enjoying my time here and trying to savor it."
   Kenin was born in Moscow and grew up in Pembroke Pines, Fla. But the 19-year-old American will try to win a Northern California Challenger for the third consecutive year.
   Kenin captured the title in $50,000 Sacramento in 2016 and $60,000 Stockton last year. Her only other singles crown came in $25,000 Wesley Chapel, Fla., on clay in 2016.
   "I love California," said Kenin, who speaks Russian with her father and coach, Alex. "I love the atmosphere (at the tournaments), and the weather is great. I want to live somewhere in California after New York."
   Gibbs, seeded No. 2, beat another 19-year-old American, unseeded Ashley Kratzer, 6-4, 6-2 to avenge a hard-court loss to her. After Saturday's match, Gibbs said the Newport Beach resident has top-20 potential.
   Gibbs later won the doubles title with Asia Muhammad of Las Vegas. The unseeded team outclassed top-seeded Ellen Perez of Australia and Sabrina Santamaria of Los Angeles 6-4, 6-1 to split $3,344. Gibbs has not lost a set in eight singles and doubles matches in the tournament.
Top-seeded Sofia Kenin, 19, hopes to win a Northern
California Challenger for the third consecutive year.
Photo by Paul Bauman
   Kenin, seeded No. 1, downed No. 3 Nao Hibino 7-6 (6), 6-2 to snap the 23-year-old Japanese player's winning streak at eight matches.
   The 5-foot-4 (1.63-meter) Hibino, who won last week's $60,000 Honolulu Challenger, had two set points in the tiebreaker and took a medical timeout for strained groin and abdominal muscles at 1-4 in the second set.
   Today's singles final will be streamed live beginning at noon. Admission is free.
   On Saturday, Gibbs won six straight games from 4-4 in the opening set. That helped her reverse a 2-6, 7-5, 6-3 loss to Kratzer in the second round of an $80,000 hard-court tournament in Tyler, Texas, last November in their first meeting. Gibbs also beat Kratzer 6-4, 6-4 in the final of a $25,000 clay-court event in Naples, Fla., in early June.
    "I'm a much more confident player right now than I was last fall," proclaimed the 5-foot-6 (1.68-meter) Gibbs, who has dropped from a career-high No. 68 two years ago to No. 116. "I was in the middle of some stuff in terms of my career. There was some turnover. I had just stopped with my old coach (Roger Smith), so I was in a little bit of limbo. Now I feel like I have a really good direction.
   "I came out today not just hoping she would miss but also planning to take offense when I could, and I think that shows in the result."
   Gibbs began working with Chris Tontz of the USTA three months ago. Tontz also coaches 18-year-old sensation Claire Liu of Thousand Oaks, Sam Querrey's hometown, in the Los Angeles area.
   When Tontz took over in February 2017, Liu's confidence was shattered. Five months later, Liu became the first American in 25 years to win the Wimbledon girls title.
Unseeded Ashley Kratzer, 19, argues a line call during
her loss to Nicole Gibbs on Saturday in Berkeley, Calif.
Photo by Paul Bauman 
   Also, Liu reached the second round of the women's draw at Wimbledon this year, beating Gibbs in the final round of qualifying, and was the only player to win a set against champion Angelique Kerber.
   Tontz was not at Gibbs' match on Saturday, but her father was.
   "Chris Tontz is doing a really good job with Nicole," said Paul Gibbs, a high school English teacher who played at Ball State and was his daughter's first coach. "He knows the game really well, particularly the women's game. He's an excellent hitter of the ball, but he keeps it light. He's goofy and silly sometimes in addition to deadly serious.
   "He's got her moving up and back better, looking for chances to come in and also knowing when to drop back. That's one part of it. Then he's got her opening the court better and going to the open court."
   The 231st-ranked Kratzer, meanwhile, has all the physical tools for stardom. Not only is she 5-foot-11 (1.8 meters), she's left-handed. She can hammer her serve up the middle or slice it out wide. She has laser groundstrokes and, unlike the vast majority of male or female singles players, has an exquisite volley.
   Mentally, it's a different story. Kratzer argues seemingly every other line call. She was assessed a point penalty, for an audible obscenity, that nearly cost her the match in the quarterfinals. She was warned for unsportsmanlike conduct in the semifinals. All it takes is one unforced error for her to pound the bottom of her shoe with her racket frame in disgust.
   "She shows it on her sleeve as soon as she's frustrated, for sure," Gibbs said. "She's an emotional player. She definitely got frustrated. I just did my best to keep blinders on and not engage with that."
   Kratzer began playing pro tournaments at 14, bypassing the juniors and then college. She lost to Kenin in last year's Stockton final.
Third-seeded Nao Hibino's winning streak
ended at eight matches. Photo by Paul Bauman
   When asked if attitude is what Kratzer needs to work on the most, Gibbs blurted: "Absolutely. She's one of the most talented players out here. If she can pull it together a little bit more consistently mentally, I think she's going to be a really big threat on tour -- top 50 for sure, if not top 20, soon."
   Kenin could crack the top 50 this summer. She is ranked a career-high No. 64 after reaching the third round at the U.S. Open last summer, her first WTA tour semifinal at Mallorca on grass last month as a qualifier and the second round at Wimbledon. At Mallorca, Kenin stunned sixth-ranked Caroline Garcia for her first victory over a top-10 player.
   Hibino, 23, is ranked No. 113 after ascending to a career-high No. 56 in January 2016. She led 6-4 in the first-set tiebreaker on Saturday, but Kenin won the next four points on a service winner, two consecutive backhand winners and an unforced error.
   "(I was) just fighting," Kenin, who turned pro at the U.S. Open so she could pocket $144,000, said after facing Hibino for the first time. "She a tough player, and I knew I had to just play every point. She has a lot of experience and was a (highly ranked) player. I knew it was going to be tough. Obviously, that (tiebreaker) made the difference later. I started off well in the second (set)."
   Sort of. Kenin lost her serve to open the set but won the next four games to take control. Then Hibino, who won the inaugural $50,000 Stockton Challenger in 2015, took the medical timeout.
   "Since two days ago, I feel little bit pain in legs and abs, and it's getting worse," said Hibino, who nonetheless insisted she will play in next week's $60,000 Ashland (Ky.) Challenger and WTA tournaments the following two weeks in Washington, D.C., and Montreal.
   Here are the Berkeley singles and doubles draws.

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