Friday, July 20, 2018

Gibbs routs her college idol to reach Berkeley quarters

Ex-Stanford star Nicole Gibbs serves during her 6-1, 6-1 win over Modesto
product Maria Sanchez on Thursday in the second round of the $60,000
Berkeley Tennis Club Challenge. Photo by Paul Bauman
   BERKELEY, Calif. -- Cross-bay Cal will always be Stanford's biggest rival.
   But USC isn't far behind.
   That didn't stop Nicole Gibbs from idolizing Maria Sanchez in 2011. Gibbs was a Stanford freshman, and Sanchez was a USC senior on the way to earning Pacific-10 Conference Women's Player of the Year honors.
   "I think she beat me at SC at least once," recalled Gibbs, 25. "She was definitely like the player my freshman year, so I really looked up to her and saw her as an example of what I wanted to do with my tennis -- get more aggressive and adapt my game to her tennis."
   Much has changed since then. Gibbs is ranked No. 116, while Sanchez is No. 271.
   They met for the first time in five years on Thursday, and it wasn't close. Gibbs, seeded second, outclassed Sanchez 6-1, 6-1 in 66 minutes to reach the quarterfinals of the inaugural $60,000 Berkeley Tennis Club Challenge.
   The 5-foot-6 (1.68-meter) Gibbs pounded deep service returns and groundstrokes, putting the 5-foot-10 (1.78-meter) Sanchez, 28, on defense.
Maria Sanchez couldn't match Nicole Gibbs' consistency.
Photo by Paul Bauman
   "I think I played a really clean match today," gushed Gibbs, who reached a career-high No. 68 two years ago and extended then-No. 1 Karolina Pliskova to 6-4 in the third set in the second round of the U.S. Open last September. "I don't think my opponent played particularly poorly. I just thought I did a really good job of returning her serve early in the match and stayed in points that sometimes I didn't feel like I had much business staying in.
   "I was really pleased with the way I played. I stayed aggressive and didn't let her control the points."
   Sanchez, who was born and raised 82 miles (132 kilometers) east of Berkeley in Modesto, had no aces and four double faults. She hammered her groundstrokes but usually made the first mistake. The longer the points lasted, the better off Gibbs was with her movement and consistency.
   "I feel that way in almost every match I play, but Maria's a really good athlete," said Gibbs, who also routed Sanchez 6-2, 6-2 in the quarterfinals of a $50,000 tournament at New Braunfels, Texas, in 2013 in their only other meeting as pros. "She definitely was not giving me points for free once we were going the distance, so I had to earn them. I just feel like I'm doing a really good job of bringing that one extra ball back or finding offense late in the points."
   Gibbs, who lives in the Los Angeles suburb of Venice, will meet No. 5 seed Jamie Loeb today not before 1 p.m. in a matchup of former NCAA singles champions. Loeb, a 23-year-old product of the John McEnroe Tennis Academy in New York, defeated Chanel Simmonds, a 25-year-old left-hander from South Africa, 6-4, 6-1.
Top seed Sofia Kenin, ranked 64th at age 19, avenged a loss
to fellow American Emina Bektas. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Gibbs turned pro after winning the NCAA singles title for the second consecutive year in 2013 as a junior (in addition to capturing the 2012 NCAA doubles crown with Mallory Burdette). Loeb, also 5-foot-6 (1.68 meters), made the leap after capturing the 2015 title as a North Carolina sophomore.
   "I know her as a person," Gibbs said. "She's a lovely girl. I've never played her, though, so I'm looking forward to the matchup. I think she's an aggressive player. I think she's going to come out swinging, and she's going to be very feisty and competitive."
   No. 4 seed Kristie Ahn, who played with Gibbs on Stanford's 2013 NCAA championship team, beat wild card Maegan Manasse, the 2016 NCAA doubles runner-up from Cal with Denise Starr, 6-1, 4-6, 6-1.
   Ahn, 26, will play Ashley Kratzer, a 19-year-old left-hander from Newport Beach who turned pro out of high school, today at noon.
   Kratzer, the only unseeded player to reach the quarterfinals, saved a match point a 5-7, 6-4, 7-6 (7) victory over Danielle Lao, a 27-year-old former USC All-American, that lasted 3 hours, 9 minutes.
   "The Little Giant." as the 5-foot-3 (1.61-meter), 120-pound (54-kilogram) Lao is known, reached the semifinals of last week's $60,000 Honolulu Challenger, losing 7-5 in the third set to top seed and eventual champion Nao Hibino.
   Kratzer, last year's USTA girls 18 hard-court champion, served for the match at 5-4 in the third set but lost the game on a point penalty after uttering an audible obscenity. She had been warned earlier for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Emina Bektas couldn't convert a set point in the sec-
ond set against Sofia Kenin. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Another 19-year-old American, No. 1 seed Sofia Kenin, topped Emina Bektas, a 25-year-old former Michigan All-American who reached the singles and doubles semifinals in Honolulu, 6-3, 7-6 (3).
   Kenin, ranked a career-high No. 64 after reaching the second round at Wimbledon, saved a set point with Bektas serving at 5-4 in the second set and broke with her devastating passing shots. The players had to take a possum break before the tiebreaker while a critter was removed from the corner of the court.
   Kenin avenged a 6-4, 7-6 (5) loss to Bektas in the first round of the $80,000 Albuquerque Challenger last September. Bektas went on to win by far the biggest title of her career.
   The difference, Kenin asserted, was playing at sea level instead of at 5,312 feet (1,619 meters) in Albuquerque.
   "For sure, but that's no excuse," said the Moscow-born Kenin, who turned pro at the U.S. Open last summer so she could pocket $144,000 for advancing to the third round. "She obviously played well there. Obviously, the altitude didn't really help me. I felt like I didn't know where the ball was. I'm better without the altitude."
  No. 3 seed Nao Hibino of Japan extended her winning streak to seven matches with a 6-4, 6-4 victory over U.S. wild card Gail Brodsky. Hibino, 23, won the inaugural Stockton Challenger three years ago.
   In today's doubles semifinals, Gibbs and countrywoman Asia Muhammad will meet Francesca Di Lorenzo of the United States and Jovana Jaksic, a Serbian living in Sacramento, at about 6 p.m. Both teams are unseeded.
  Here are the Berkeley singles and doubles draws and today's schedule.

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