By Steve Pratt, special to USTA.com
– It’s down to one match for a spot in the coming year’s first Grand Slam, with a solid core of four Americans all under 20 years old advancing to the finals with big wins on Saturday.
Defending champions Ryan Harrison and CoCo Vandeweghe will be making a return trip to the finals of the USTA Australian Open Wild Card Playoffs on Sunday. Harrison will face fellow 18-year-old Jack Sock, while 19-year-old Vandeweghe will open up play at 1 p.m. at the Racquet Club of the South, when she meets 17-year-old Lauren Davis.
Harrison, playing his second collegiate opponent in as many days, had the toughest match on the day, as he eked out a 4-6, 6-2, 9-7 win over University of Tennessee sophomore Rhyne Williams.
"U.S. tennis has a lot to look forward to," said Harrison, ranked No. 173 in the world and from Cortez, Fla. "We have a lot of guys who can really play. I’m not playing poor tennis by any means right now, and I’m still going the distance with these guys. They’re in college right now, but Rhyne Williams, (Michael) Shabaz, Chase Buchanan and Stevie Johnson are just a few of the guys who will be Top 150 in the world once they get done playing college tennis."
Neither Harrison nor Williams had ever gone the distance but said not playing a third-set tiebreaker wasn’t a problem. "It’s a little bit strange to not play the third-set tiebreaker," said Williams, 19, who led at 7-6 and had a chance to serve out the match but was unable to. "But I don’t think it affected me at all."
Added Harrison, "The US Open is the only Slam that uses the tiebreaker to decide a match, so I’m used to it. I had a couple of matches at the French Open that were long and had the chance to go the distance, but I’ve actually never had to do it in the pros. But you want to prepare yourself, anyway."
Harrison probably wishes he could have gone the distance at the US Open instead of playing a fifth-set tiebreaker. He lost in the second round at the year’s final Grand Slam to Sergiy Stakhovsky of the Ukraine, 3-6, 7-5, 6-3, 3-6, 6-7 (6).
One year ago this weekend, there weren’t many who had heard of Harrison, who said he was the major underdog at this event and upset then No. 110-ranked Jesse Levine in the finals.
Sock, from Lincoln, Neb., rolled his ankle, up 3-2 in the second set against Denis Kudla of Arlington, Va., and had to call a medical timeout but was able to pull through.
After beating Beatrice Capra in straight sets on Saturday, Vandeweghe was immediately back on the court with her coach, Tom Gullikson, working on her game.
"Tom just wanted to work on a couple of things, just to work on my returns and approaches and volleys," said Vandeweghe of Ranch Santa Fe, Calif. "It’s a routine sort of thing, but sometimes I need it more than I do on other days."
Davis, of Gates Mills, Ohio, sent 16-year-old Southern Californian Krista Hardebeck packing with a strong all-around game to continue her impressive winning streak. Davis is coming off two big ITF pro circuit wins and two titles from the Dunlop Junior Orange Bowl and the Eddie Herr. Hardebeck should have had the advantage, having beaten Davis twice already this year in the finals of the Easter Bowl and at the National Hardcourts in San Diego.
"That’s what I’ve heard," said Vandeweghe, when asked if she knew Davis was on such a roll. "I’ve never seen her play or heard much about her. I’ll talk it over with Tom a little later. It was the same thing playing Tricie earlier today. It’d been so long since I’d played her that I just go out and work on patterns and see what works."
DAY 2: Saturday’s Results
Lauren Davis, Gates Mills, Ohio, def. Krista Hardebeck, Santa Ana, Calif., 6-2, 6-1
CoCo Vandeweghe (1), Rancho Santa Fe., Calif., vs. Beatrice Capra (4), Ellicott City, Md., 6-1, 6-4
Jack Sock, Lincoln, Neb., vs. Denis Kudla, Arlington, Va., 6-2, 7-5
Ryan Harrison (3), Cortez, Fla., vs. Rhyne Williams, Knoxville, Tenn., 4-6, 6-2, 9-7
DAY 3: Sunday’s Schedule
Women’s Final; Followed by men’s final
Here’s what all the players had to say after their matches on Saturday:
LAUREN DAVIS, 17, Gates Mills, Ohio
WTA ranking: 444
"(Krista) just played better the last two times we played. My confidence wasn’t as high as it is now, so I went into the match just knowing I could win. I just took control of the match from the start and took care of all the important points.
"I’ve improved physically, and, mentally, I’m just stronger. I’m going into tournaments not putting any pressure on myself."
KRISTA HARDEBECK, 16, Santa Ana, Calif.
WTA ranking: 396
"I knew she was playing really well and that it was a rematch from the Easter Bowl final and National Hardcourts down in San Diego this summer. I’m disappointed, yeah. I wish I could have played better, but since that didn’t happen, I’m just going to put it behind me and focus on 2011.
"She was just getting everything back and couldn’t miss. She just got back that extra ball each time."
COCO VANDEWEGHE, 19, Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.
WTA ranking: 116
"I was definitely playing my type of tennis and was really consistent. I knew I had to get a lot of balls back.
"(Beatrice) gets a lot of balls back and makes you put that extra ball away, which can be a tough opponent to play."
BEATRICE CAPRA, 18, Ellicott City, Md.
WTA ranking: 225
"CoCo played just a great match all the way around. Her first serve was on, and I expected it to be a little bit more inconsistent. But she just didn’t miss that much and didn’t give me any opportunities.
"I wish I was going to Australia, but I was just glad to get the invite and to get a round. This is only my third match since the Open, so I’m just happy to be out there playing again."
JACK SOCK, 18, Lincoln, Neb.
ATP ranking: 872
"I played very solid throughout, I thought. I wanted to play aggressive and be the attacker, and I think I stuck to my game plan pretty well. After I had that ankle roll in the second set, I didn’t want to put too much pressure on it and risk further injury, but it felt better as the match went on.
"I still have my ankle brace on and iced it after the match.
"Ryan’s a very good player, and I just have to play my ‘A’ game. I’m going to have to play well to win the match."
DENIS KUDLA, 18, Arlington, Va
ATP Ranking: 493
"I thought I played horrible at the start of the match. But after his injury (at 3-2 down in the second set), I just kept thinking I could be the luckiest man alive because I should have easily been losing the way I was playing. But he dealt with the adversity well on his service games, and I just didn’t do enough. He dealt with the pain fine.
"I’m not happy to just be here because I came down here to win. I felt like I couldn’t have beaten Jack before the match, but I just didn’t have it today."
RYAN HARRISON, 18, Cortez, Fla.
ATP Ranking: 173
"This was a big opportunity for Rhyne to play for a spot in a Grand Slam tournament. You know, it’s going to be dangerous because they aren’t going to get as nervous.
"I got a little bit of a rhythm in that second set, and the third was an absolute battle. I was fortunate to come out on top, but when it’s that close that deep into a match, there is literally anyone who can win it."
RHYNE WILLIAMS, 19, Knoxville, Tenn
ATP Ranking: 769
"I had a chance to serve out the match. I wasn’t thinking about winning at that point, and I wasn’t that nervous. I just stopped moving my feet, really. I didn’t hit a lot of first serves, which I had been doing.
"I actually felt a little bit tired in that second set, and he just jumped on me and made me pay for that. In the third set, I got kind of a second wind and got some energy back."
For more information, please see the event’s website at http://www.australianwildcard.com/