By Joshua Rey, special to USTA.com
BOCA RATON, Fla. – They played seven matches in seven days last week, each falling one win short of the USTA Girls’ 18s National Championship. They flew clear across the country Monday from sunny San Diego to sunnier South Florida. And on opening day at the US Open Wild Card Playoff, they faced high temperatures and higher-ranked opponents.
But for 17-year-old Nicole Gibbs (Santa Monica, Calif.) and 15-year-old Krista Hardebeck (Santa Ana, Calif.), the prize is worth the price. The California girls pulled off a pair of upsets at the USTA Training Center Headquarters Wednesday to inch closer to a spot in the main draw of the US Open.
Hardebeck, who finished third at Nationals, defeated 2008 Dunlop Orange Bowl champion Julia Boserup, 3-6, 6-3, 6-1.
Gibbs was one game from winning the National title and the US Open wild card that goes along with it on Sunday, losing a third-set tiebreak to Shelby Rogers. Three days and thousands of miles later, she showed no ill effects against Irina Falconi, rallying from 2-5 in the first set to beat the top-ranked college player in the country, 7-6 (2), 6-3.
"I think the most surprised person that I won this match was me," said Gibbs, who is already assured a wild card in the US Open Qualifying event. "I just played kind of out of my mind with what I had today. I think I got lucky in that sense that today was an on day and I was on my shots, pressing forward."
Gibbs received her invitation to the US Open Wild Card Playoff about an hour after her loss to Rogers in San Diego. Having come so close to guaranteeing her Grand Slam debut, Gibbs jumped at a second chance to play her way into the Open.
But not before a three-hour drive to Los Angeles, an entire day of flying and a 2 a.m. hotel check-in.
"I had no question. I was like, "OK, I’m going to go play,’" said Gibbs. "My parents were a little more apprehensive… but I’m glad I came."
In the early going, Gibbs struggled to break the 20-year-old Falconi (Jupiter, Fla.). The Georgia Tech All-American fought off five deuces to hold for 2-1 and three more to take a 5-2 lead. But Gibbs kept her composure, breaking back with a cross-court forehand winner off a Falconi drop shot. She took the set in a tiebreak.
"It was weird. I’ve never been that calm on a tennis court before," said Gibbs. "I was like, ‘I’m going to keep hitting the ball, and if it goes in, then I’m going to have a good match, and if it doesn’t, then I’ve got a few days rest before the Open.’"
Rocking second-serve returns, Gibbs raced to a 5-1 lead in the second by stroking a down-the-line forehand winner for an insurance break. She served out the match three games later with a backhand approach that forced Falconi into netting a forehand.
"She was hitting a lot of winners when I was staying in points for awhile," said Gibbs. "Given the fact that I’m trying to physically stay alive out there, I was trying to end points quickly."
If anyone knows how the fatigued Gibbs feels, it’s her roommate this week, Hardebeck. Like Gibbs, she played singles for the eighth time in 10 days, somehow summoning the strength to overcome a 3-6, 0-2 deficit and beat Boserup (Boca Raton, Fla.) in two hours and 27 minutes.
"Actually, right now, I don’t feel that bad," said Hardebeck. "Even though those matches make you tired, they make you tougher."
Down a set and a break, Hardebeck broke back by bashing a backhand winner from well beyond the baseline. Grooving her groundstrokes at all angles, Hardebeck won 12 of the last 14 games. She approached the net to belt a backhand down the line on match point, avenging a loss to Boserup on the USTA Pro Circuit in February.
Hardebeck is one of the hottest players on the ITF Junior Circuit. She qualified at Wimbledon and won the USTA International Spring Championships and the Easter Bowl in back-to-back weeks. A change from traditional classes to online schooling in January helped spark her run into the ITF Top 50.
"Ever since then, it’s been easier to focus on everything, and I’ve been training a lot more," said Hardebeck.
In Thursday’s semifinals, Hardebeck will play fellow teen Beatrice Capra, who needed just 72 minutes to down Lauren Davis, 6-1, 6-2. Gibbs’ opponent will be top-seed Madison Brengle (Dover, Del.), a four-time wild-card playoff winner.
Brengle, who defeated Jessica Pegula in straight sets, won a round robin to capture the very first USTA women’s playoff and earn a wild card into the 2007 Australian Open main draw. She won subsequent wild-card playoffs to gain entry into the main draws of the 2008 Australian Open and French Open, as well as the 2007 French Open qualifying.
"I’ve played in a few," joked Brengle, 20. "I started out playing the round-robin format, but I think I like this better because you think a little less. You just play your match, and that’s that."
In men’s play, former Florida Gator Greg Ouellette made good on his late invitation to the event, edging Texas A&M senior Austin Krajicek, 6-2, 3-6, 7-5. Ouellette (Ormond Beach, Fla.) was in town to practice with ex-teammate Jesse Levine when he learned of Jarmere Jenkins’ withdrawal – and his acceptance – at about midnight Monday evening.
"I wasn’t expecting to play here, but I guess my endurance was good enough," said Ouellette, who at 24 is the oldest player in the field.
With Krajicek serving-and-volleying relentlessly and Ouellette digging deep for passing shots, the two All-American left-handers pushed each other for the better part of two hours and 38 minutes.
Ouellette let leads of 3-1 in the second set and 4-1 in the third slip away, as Krajicek (Brandon, Fla.) attacked the net every chance he got.
In the end, though, Ouellette dipped a cross-court backhand at Krajicek’s knees, forcing the Aggie to pop a volley up and out on match point.
"I really wish I had closed it out in the second or finished it easier in the third, but he definitely stayed with it," said Ouellette. "He didn’t give up at all and raised his game when he had to."
Also advancing Wednesday was top-seed and world No. 196 Tim Smyczek (Milwaukee), who beat Ohio State star Chase Buchanan, 7-5, 6-0.
Enjoying the best year of his career, Smyczek, 22, has qualified for three ATP World Tour events and reached the final of two Challengers in 2010.
His ranking is high enough to earn him direct acceptance into next week’s US Open Qualifying, where three consecutive wins could propel him into the main draw.
The same is true for Smyczek this week.
"Even if I lose here, I still get to go play qualies," he said. "It’s kind of like an extra chance to get in the main draw, and I’d like to take it."
Smyczek will play a familiar foe in the semifinals – 18-year-old Alex Domijan. The elder American won their lone official encounter at a 2009 USTA Pro Circuit tournament in Boca Raton, but they have practiced together many times at the Saddlebrook Resort.
Neither Domijan, nor Ryan Harrison, faced a break point in the opening round. Domijan fought off French Open junior finalist Andrea Collarini, 7-5, 6-2, and Harrison handed USC’s Steve Johnson a 6-4, 6-4 defeat.
US Open Wild Card Playoff
USTA Training Center Headquarters
Boca Raton, Fla.
August 18-20, 2010
Men’s Singles Quarterfinals
(1) Tim Smyczek, Milwaukee, Wis., def. (8) Chase Buchanan, New Albany, Ohio, 7-5, 6-0
(5) Alex Domijan, Wesley Chapel, Fla., def. (4) Andrea Collarini, Boca Raton, Fla., 7-5, 6-2
(3) Greg Ouellette, Ormond Beach, Fla., def. (6) Austin Krajicek, Brandon, Fla., 6-2, 3-6, 7-5
(2) Ryan Harrison, Bradenton, Fla., def. (7) Steve Johnson, Orange, Calif., 6-4, 6-4
Women’s Singles Quarterfinals
(1) Madison Brengle, Dover, Del. def. (8) Jessica Pegula, Boca Raton, Fla., 6-2, 6-2
(5) Nicole Gibbs, Santa Monica, Calif., def. (4) Irina Falconi, Jupiter, Fla., 7-6(2), 6-3
(6) Krista Hardebeck, Santa Ana, Calif. def. (3) Julia Boserup, Boca Raton, Fla., 3-6, 6-3, 6-1
(2) Beatrice Capra, Ellicott City, Md., def. (7) Lauren Davis, Gates Mills, Ohio, 6-1, 6-2