Saturday, August 10, 2019

Johnson back in Aptos final; Koepfer ends foe's streak

Steve Johnson has dropped from a career-high No. 21
in 2016 to No. 93, but he said that's deceiving. Photo
by Paul Bauman
   APTOS, Calif. – What today's Nordic Naturals Challenger semifinals lacked in drama, they made up for with significance.
   Steve Johnson returned to the final at the Seascape Sports Club after seven years, and Dominik Koepfer ended Ernesto Escobedo's winning streak at 10 matches.
   As fog rolled in from the nearby Pacific Ocean, the fourth-seeded Koepfer beat the unseeded Escobedo 6-4, 6-3 to improve to 2-1 in their head-to-head series, and the second-seeded Johnson dispatched sixth-seeded Egor Gerasimov 6-2, 6-1 in 55 minutes in their first career meeting.
   Johnson, the 2012 Aptos champion and a longtime regular on the ATP World Tour, is playing in his first Challenger since March 2018 and second since 2014.
   Koepfer will play in the final of a Northern California Challenger for the second straight year. He lost to Jason Jung, a Los Angeles-area native who plays for Taiwan, 7-6 in the third set indoors in San Francisco in early 2018.
   Neither Johnson nor Koepfer has lost a set in four matches this week. They will meet for the first time on Sunday after the noon doubles final, in which top-seeded Marcelo Arevelo of El Salvador and Miguel Angel Reyes-Varela of Mexico will play unseeded Nathan Pasha of Atlanta and Max Schnur of New York.
Dominik Koepfer ended Ernesto Escobedo's winning streak
at 10 matches. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Johnson and Koepfer wouldn't seem to have much in common. Johnson is four years older at 29 and three inches (7.6 centimeters) taller at 6-foot-2 (1.88 meters). Johnson, a right-hander, is a lifelong Southern Californian. Koepfer is a German left-hander based in Tampa, Fla.
   Both, however, are ex-college stars. Johnson had one of the most decorated careers in NCAA history, ending his stay at USC in 2012 with four NCAA team titles, NCAA singles crowns in his last two years and a 72-match winning streak in singles. He plans to finish his degree in human performance after retiring from tennis.
   Koepfer, a two-time All-American at Tulane in New Orleans, was ranked No. 1 nationally for most of his senior year in 2016. He graduated with a degree in finance.
  Johnson did not face a break point against Gerasimov, a 6-foot-5 (1.96-meter) Belarusian who ousted defending champion Thanasi Kokkinakis in the second round, and converted four of six break-point opportunities.
   "I thought I capitalized on break points well," said Johnson, who reached the third round at Wimbledon last month. "I served much better today than in the last two rounds. Whenever you can take care of business on your serve, it's always a plus."
Egor Gerasimov, who ousted defending champion Than-
asi Kokkinakis in the second round, fell to Steve Johnson
in 55 minutes. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Johnson, who would have had to qualify in the ATP Masters 1000 tournament in Montreal this week, was candid when asked if it was tough to play a Challenger after competing at the top level of men's tennis for so many years.
   "I'd be lying if I said no," he said. "I'd rather be in Montreal and Cincinnati (next week), but I won here, and everyone here has treated me incredibly well over the years (2011-13). It's California, so it's kind of close to home. I've had a lot of luck here, so I'd like to get one more here tomorrow. Anytime you enter a tournament and come out the winner, that's the goal."
   Johnson, a Davis Cup veteran and an Olympic bronze medalist in doubles with Jack Sock in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, has dropped from a career-high No. 21 in 2016 to No. 93. He was devastated when his father, mentor and confidant, also Steve, died of a heart attack at 58 in May 2017. Steve Jr. was hospitalized with exhaustion that summer, and anxiety attacks have led him to consult a psychologist when he's at home in Redondo Beach in the Los Angeles area. Still, he began the year at No. 33.
   "Tennis hasn't been easy the last couple of years with everything that's gone on, but I'm doing my best to put my best foot forward every day," Johnson said. "If you look at this year, if I could change (fewer) than 10 points, I think I'm top 30 in the world. I lost six matches 7-6 in the third, I think (actually four, including last week to former world No. 3 Grigor Dimitrov in Los Cabos), and four other matches where I had match points. It's been a bummer of a year from that standpoint, but you can't hang your head and feel sorry for yourself. You've got to get better and go out and try to win."
Ernesto Escobedo won a Challenger in Granby, Quebec,
two weeks ago and was coming off two tough matches
in Aptos. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Koepfer won his first Challenger singles title in June, on grass in Ilkey, England, and advanced to the second round at Wimbledon last month as a wild card in his Grand Slam main-draw debut. He will achieve a career-high ranking of at least No. 113 on Monday.
   Despite – or perhaps because of – Escobedo's winning streak, Koepfer said he had an edge in the matchup of hard hitters. Whereas Koepfer was fresh, Escobedo won a Challenger in Granby, Quebec, two weeks ago and was coming off two tough matches in Aptos. He saved two match points in a 7-6 (2), 6-7 (5), 7-6 (12) victory over fifth-seeded Bjorn Fratangelo that lasted 2 hours, 47 minutes on Thursday and outlasted top-seeded Damir Dzumhur 6-1, 3-6, 7-5 on Friday.
   "Yeah, for sure," said Koepfer, who won the last four games of the match. "(Escobedo) was struggling a little bit, especially toward the end of the second set. You could see he wasn't as physical anymore. He couldn't go after his serve as much. It always helps playing quicker matches in early rounds to be fresh when it counts in the semis and finals."
   Escobedo, a 23-year-old resident of West Covina in the Los Angeles area, hedged when asked if his previous two matches took a toll on him against Koepfer.
   "Maybe in a way, but at the same time, I still had to prepare myself for this match," said Escobedo, ranked No. 214 after reaching a career-high No. 67 in 2017. "It's been a long two weeks. I went through the whole summer and won a Challenger. It kind of did (take a toll), but it's not an excuse."
Bernardo Saraiva, a former University of
San Francisco standout, lost in the doubles
semifinals. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Escobedo had his left thigh taped after the first set and re-taped after he broke serve to lead 2-1 in the second set.
   "I pulled a quad a little bit," said Escobedo, who clinched the U.S. Open Wild Card Challenge with his victory over Fratangelo to earn a main-draw berth in the year's last Grand Slam tournament. "It's nothing major. I just need some rest, and I'll be fine for the Open. I felt it a little bit this morning."
   Pasha and Schnur are playing in the tournament only because third-seeded Leander Paes of India and Max Purcell of Australia withdrew after Paes strained a calf muscle.
   Paes, 46, has won 18 major titles, eight in men's doubles and 10 in mixed doubles with a career Grand Slam in each event.
   Pasha and Schnur – who starred at the University of Georgia and Columbia, respectively – beat unseeded Evan Hoyt of Great Britain and Bernardo Saraiva, a former University of San Francisco standout from Portugal, 6-3, 6-4.
   Saraiva, 26, attended Albany High School in the East Bay as a senior when his father, Antonio, was a visiting scholar for a year at Cal as a professor of anthropology and geography.
   Bernardo is based in San Francisco and Lisbon. He said the cities have "a lot of similarities – the hills, the cable cars, the bridge. The weather is better in Lisbon, and San Francisco is quite more expensive," Saraiva added with a laugh.
   Here are the updated Aptos singles and doubles draws and Sunday's scheduleLive streaming is available.

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