Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Game, set, match: Czar says so long after 10 1/2 years

Australian Christopher O'Connell and his coach, David Moore, encountered a wall
of flames 200 yards (183 meters) ahead while evacuating during qualifying for the
2017 Fairfield (Calif.) Challenger. They quickly turned around and were shaken but
unharmed. Photo courtesy of Christopher O'Connell
   After 10 1/2 years, this is my 3,324th and last post. That's almost one a day, mostly while working full-time. But who's counting?
   At 66 (ugh), I'm ready to move on and pursue some book ideas. I will, however, keep this website active in case anyone wants to peruse past articles.
   I've seen a lot of great tennis in the past 10 1/2 years, but I will most remember the friendly players from around the world and the revealing interviews. Here are some highlights of the past decade-plus:
Dmitry Tursunov, a former top-20 player, detailed
his rigid upbringing in a four-hour interview in 2011.
2017 photo by Paul Bauman
   —Former top-20 player Dmitry Tursunov, a Moscow native who trained in Northern California as a junior and professional, spilling his guts about his rigid upbringing during a four-hour interview in 2011. As Vivian Kensington (Selma Blair) says in the hilarious 2001 movie "Legally Blonde," "Four hours."
   —Australian John Millman, like Tursunov one of the true nice guys in sports, candidly recalling the low point of his career in a 90-minute interview.
   —Millman becoming the first No. 1 seed in the 28-year history of the Aptos (Calif.) Challenger to win the title and shocking Roger Federer to reach the U.S. Open quarterfinals.
   —Strolling on the beach in Aptos as the sun sets on the Pacific Ocean.  
   —Santiago Giraldo, a former top-30 player from Colombia, looking at a ball with a smiley face on it during changeovers in the 2016 Fairfield (Calif.) Challenger to remind himself how lucky he was to be playing professional tennis. Giraldo won the title and retired four years later at 32. 
   —Belgium's An-Sophie Mestach, the world's top junior in 2011, hurting her wrist twirling her racket while bouncing the ball 25 times — yes, 25 times — before each serve.
   —Christopher O'Connell of Australia recounting his harrowing evacuation from Northern California wildfires during qualifying for the 2017 Fairfield Challenger. O'Connell won the title two years later.
Santiago Giraldo displays the smiley-face ball
he looked at during changeovers in the 2016
Fairfield Challenger "to remember how lucky
I am." Photo by Paul Bauman
   —Attending the Australian Open in 2012 — has it really been 10 years? — the U.S. Open in 2015 and 2016, and the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., annually.
   —Sorry to name-drop, but interviewing International Tennis Hall of Famers Billie Jean King, John McEnroe, Jim Courier, Pete Sampras, Michael Chang, Pam Shriver and Nick Bollettieri. All were gems.
   —The inimitable Wayne Bryan, tennis ambassador, father of Bob and Mike Bryan, and former longtime coach of the Sacramento Capitals in World TeamTennis. Wayne Bryan is smart, funny, exuberant and down-to-earth. Not a bad combination.
   —Serena Williams winning the Bank of the West Classic at Stanford in 2011, 2012 and 2014.
   —Naomi Osaka stunning 2011 U.S. Open champion Samantha Stosur in the first round at Stanford in 2014 as a 16-year-old qualifier playing her first main-draw match on the WTA Tour.
   —Germany's Sabine Lisicki breaking the record for the fastest women's serve (131 mph or 210.8 kph) in a first-round loss at Stanford in 2014.
   —Milos Raonic winning his third consecutive SAP Open title in 2013 in San Jose, Calif. The 6-foot-5 (1.96-meter) Canadian with a pulverizing serve never lost a set in 13 matches in the indoor tournament, which folded in 2014 after 125 years in one form or another.
   —Covering the 100th-anniversary celebration of the Sutter Lawn Tennis Club in Sacramento, Calif. Shriver moderated a poignant question-and-answer session with fellow Hall of Famers Dennis Ralston, Rosemary Casals and Charlie Pasarell. Beforehand, I sat at a dinner table with Ralston, who died 14 months later at 78.
Serena Williams poses after winning the Bank of the West Classic
at Stanford for the third and final time in 2014. Tri Nguyen/
TriNguyenPhotography.com
   —Interviewing San Francisco Bay Area product Brad Gilbert after the renowned coach, author and commentator and former top-five player addressed 125 juniors and parents at the beautiful, stately Olympic Club in San Francisco in 2013. 
   —Sofia Kenin winning a Northern California Challenger for three consecutive years as a teenager, triumphing in SacramentoStockton and Berkeley. Eighteen months after the latter tournament, she stormed to the Australian Open title.
   —Sam Querrey, a 6-foot-6 (1.98-meter) San Francisco native, sweeping the three-week NorCal Challenger swing through Napa, Sacramento and Tiburon in 2014. Querrey had decided to stay on familiar ground rather than try to qualify in Asia on the elite ATP World Tour.
   —Cameron Norrie of Great Britain winning back-to-back NorCal Challengers in Tiburon and Stockton at 22 in 2017 and Taylor Fritz of the United States doing likewise in Sacramento and Fairfield at 17 in 2015. They are now ranked No. 1 in their countries at No. 12 and No. 22 in the world, respectively.
John McEnroe spoke to reporters before a 2014
legends match in Sacramento, Calif. Photo by
Paul Bauman 
   —The spectacular view of the Golden Gate Bridge across San Francisco Bay from the town of Tiburon ("shark" in Spanish).   
   —American Bjorn Fratangelo — yes, he was named after Bjorn Borg — winning the 2018 Fairfield Challenger after almost quitting tennis.
   —American Stefan Kozlov — yes, he was named after Stefan Edberg — reaching the final of the 2014 Sacramento Challenger at 16.
   —Interviewing Jenson Brooksby at 12, CiCi Bellis at 13, Katie Volynets at 15 and Sam Riffice at 15.
   Brooksby and Bellis were voted the Newcomer of the Year on the ATP Tour last year and WTA Tour in 2017, respectively. Bellis, who underwent three operations on her right wrist and one on her right elbow in 2018-19, has not played in 14 months.
   Volynets, who turned 20 on Dec. 31, has climbed to No. 178 in the world. Riffice helped Florida win the NCAA team championship last May, then added the singles title.
   Brooksby and Riffice were born in Sacramento, Bellis in San Francisco and Volynets in Walnut Creek in the Bay Area.
   —Interviewing Stanford alumni Bob and Mike Bryan, Bradley Klahn, Nicole Gibbs and Kristie Ahn. All bias aside, fellow alums are the classiest, most articulate, most introspective athletes I've encountered in 47 years covering tennis. Granted, the tightly wound McEnroe wasn't exactly classy on the court, but he has always been refreshingly candid. Plus, he attended Stanford for only one year.
   Gibbs discussed her battle with depression. Others would have said, "Tennis questions only, please."
At 16, Naomi Osaka stunned Samantha Stosur in the first
round at Stanford in 2014. Photo by Paul Bauman
   True, Ahn flung her racket high into the crowd — accidentally, she said — during the semifinals of the 2019 Berkeley Challenger. But she patiently discussed the incident with a reporter afterward. Others would have hid in the locker room.
   —The sensational final between Smyczek (pronounced SMEE-check) and Kudla, close friends and training partners, in the 2015 Tiburon Challenger. Smyczek saved four match points and Kudla one in Smyczek's 1-6, 6-1, 7-6 (7) victory.
   —Date, a former top-five player from Japan who retired at 26 for 12 years, reaching the semifinals of the Stockton Challenger at 44 in 2015 and losing in the final round of Stockton qualifying at 46. Date was Tom Brady before Tom Brady.
   —The "Gentle Giant," 6-foot-11 (2.11-meter) Ivo Karlovic.
   —The "Little Giant," 5-foot-3 (1.61-meter), 120-pound (54-kilogram) Danielle Lao.
The drive to the Tiburon Men's Challenger offers a spectacular view of the
Golden Gate Bridge from the town of Tiburon. 2017 photo by Paul Bauman 
   —Jan Tiilikainen, after winning the national men's 30 indoor title for the fifth time in 2014 in the Sacramento area, recalling his grueling workouts as a teenager in Finland.
   —Interviewing Wayne Thiebaud, a world-renowned artist who played tennis until the day after he turned 100 in November 2020, on the phone. The gracious, humble Thiebaud (pronounced TEE-bow) died this past Christmas.
   —The "cookie lady."
   —Speaking of sweets ... buying heavenly brownies and chocolate croissants at Fournée Bakery in Berkeley, taking them across the street to the venerable Berkeley Tennis Club and munching them while watching world-class tennis courtside in beautiful weather. It doesn't get any better than that.

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