Palmetto State Racket

Month: October, 2014

Alison Riske, big fan of HHI, wins first career title

by Jonathon Braden

A USTA South Carolina congrats to Alison Riske, who loves Hilton Head Island almost as much as she loves her native Pittsburgh, for winning her first career title last weekend. Riske beat Belinda Bencic to win the inaugural Tianjin Open in China.

From the WTA:

“It’s a huge accomplishment for me to win my first WTA title,” Riske said after the match, “and I was here by myself, which made it even more special, just to know that I was able to do it by myself.

“I hope I can keep up the momentum and try to compete every week as best as I can.”

Here is more about Riske. And go here to read why she loves Hilton Head Island so much.


On her birthday, Shelby Rogers talks Singapore, moving to Charleston and her strong summer

by Jonathon Braden

Shelby Rogers serving in her second-round match on Court 11 on Thursday. (US Open photo.)

What a way to celebrate turning 22.

On today, her 22nd birthday, Daniel Island’s Shelby Rogers is scheduled to fly from Charleston to Atlanta to Los Angeles to Singapore, where she will play in the WTA Rising Stars Invitational later this week.

Rogers and three other players were voted to play in the invitational by fans from all over the world.

This morning, during a layover at the Atlanta airport, Rogers took time to talk with USTA South Carolina about the invitational, moving back to Charleston and why she won’t be chewing gum in Singapore.

On going to the WTA Rising Stars Invitational because fans voted for her

“It’s really humbling to be honest because it was based on fans’ votes. It’s nice to feel all the support.”

“It was a lot of fun as well, making all the videos and kind of promoting myself.”

On prodding her parents to vote

“I didn’t have to tell them. They were voting hundreds of times a day.”

“There was a lot of dedication from a lot of people so I’m very thankful for all of that.”

“I would have felt really bad if I would have done all that” — asking people to vote, making videos — and not been given the invite.

On being back in Charleston

(In July, Rogers moved back to Charleston to train at the MWTennis Academy, housed at the Family Circle Tennis Center. She had spent four years at the USTA Training Center in Boca Raton, Fla.)

“I was in Florida for four years. It helped me so much clearly in my career, so now it’s just time for the next step. It’s been really great so far.”

“I’m just at a point in my career now where I can make some different decisions. I can get into the bigger tournaments… The finances are starting to go my way as well… I thought it would be positive.”

Rogers is currently ranked No. 71 in the world. She said she still has her place in Florida and is in the process of buying a home in Charleston.

On working with Jeff Wilson, Michael Joyce and her former coach Bryan Minton at the MWTennis Academy

“It’s such a great team there. We’re a really great family. I can use that word.”

“It’s such an incredible atmosphere there… Great attitudes from everyone.”

On the summer that included her first WTA final, a top-10 win and a top-20 win

“There were so many firsts and new things for me… I was just trying to absorb it all” and enjoy it.

“That’s why I could continue to do so well.”

On beating Eugenie Bouchard at the Rogers Cup in Montreal earlier this year

Rogers said her playing experience at the Family Circle Cup, the WTA tournament held in Charleston, helped her beat Bouchard in Montreal, Bouchard’s hometown. “I know how it is to play in front of your hometown crowd,” Rogers said. “All of the experiences I have had…  and the travels are paying off. I can use all that experience to help me in future matches.”

On how she’s had so much success in 2014

“It’s just mindset. It’s just the mental side of the game. Everyone at this level can play. They can hit the ball well. They can move well.”

Her birthday plans

“I have a 20-hour plane ride. So, party on the plane, I guess.”

On traveling the world

“I always try to see a bit of the city while I’m there.”

While she was recently in Beijing for a tournament, Rogers saw the Great Wall of China.

Her Singapore plans

“I don’t know much about Singapore. I know it’s beautiful, according to Google.”

“So I’m very excited and I’m sure it has a lot in store for me.”

“I do know you can’t chew gum. You can’t even bring gum in. So I’m very cautious of that.”

CiCi Bellis, US Open winner, Rock Hill Rocks Open champion

by Jonathon Braden

Courtesy of Tim Hartis with the Rock Hill Rocks Open:

CiCi Bellis at the Rock Hill Rocks Open

ROCK HILL, SC – CiCi Bellis, 15, of Atherton, CA, used a hot forehand shot on a cool Sunday afternoon to defeat fellow Californian Lauren Embree, 23, of Los Angeles 6-4 6-0 in the final singles match of the 6th annual ROCK HILL ROCKS OPEN tennis tournament.

It was the first USTA Pro Circuit singles championship for the amateur right hander, who is the No. 1-ranked junior girl player in the world (18-and-under).  She won a doubles Pro Circuit championship in March in Orlando, FL, on clay.  Amateurs who win on the Pro Circuit have limits on how much prize money they can accept.

Bellis made headlines in August at the 2014 U.S. Open with her first-round upset of No. 12 Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia.  Bellis received a wild card into the main draw as the USTA Girls’ 18s national champion, and she became the youngest player to win a main draw match at the US Open since Anna Kournikova in 1996.

The week before the Rock Hill tournament, Bellis was in Florida working with Nick Bollettieri, who has coached 10 players who went on to be No. 1 in the world.  Bollettieri changed how she gripped the racquet, and her strokes improved throughout the week at the $25,000 Rock Hill event.  Bellis outlasted 32 main draw players from 16 different countries.

Sunday’s match was held at the Rock Hill Tennis Center on the championship court.  Fans cheered enthusiastically as they watch under overcast skies.

Bellis is playing another $25,000 USTA Pro Circuit event in Florence, SC, this coming week.  After that, she will spend two more weeks with Bollettieri, before playing in a $50,000 event at Captiva Island in Florida.

In the doubles championship match in Rock Hill, held immediately before singles, Cindy Burger of the Netherlands and Sharon Fichman of Canada defeated Despina Papamichail of Greece and Janina Toljan of Austria 4-6 6-1 (10-6).

Tennis players on the Pro Circuit compete for prize money and ranking points.  The circuit is the pathway to tour-level tournaments, including the US Open, for aspiring competitors.

Many of today’s top stars, including Maria Sharapova, played on the Pro Circuit.  Several of these top-ranked players – including Madison Keys, Camila Giorgi and Varvara Lepchenko – played in Rock Hill.

Tournament Facebook page. Tournament website.

On USTA Pro Circuit, players’ frugal ways create interesting matchup

by Jonathon Braden

ROCK HILL, S.C. – Tuesday evening, Janina Toljan and Karolina Wlodarczak slept down the hall from each other at the Christopher home in Rock Hill. Wednesday morning, they were playing each other in the first round of Rock Hill Rocks Open, the USTA Pro Circuit tournament being held in Rock Hill.

Their host parents, Chris Christopher and his wife, Barbara, even came to watch. “I’ll be cheering for every point,” Chris Christopher said before the match.

Jokes aside, the first-round matchup highlighted the crucial role families like the Christophers play in the USTA Pro Circuit system.

All Pro Circuit players, even those receiving money from family, mind their budgets because of the meager prize money. And airfare and hotel stays take the most out of players’ bank accounts. It’s hard for players to get around flying to some tournaments, but if they can find free housing while playing in a tournament, the players can save enough for their next flight and more.

Wlodarczak (Tim Hartis/Rock Hill Rocks Open photo)

Wlodarczak (Tim Hartis/Rock Hill Rocks Open photo)

“That’s what you have to do,” Wlodarczak said of staying with families.

She’s been playing club tennis in Europe and professional tournaments for the past four years.

Danielle Lao might have had other plans this week if Rock Hill families weren’t welcoming players. This week, she’s been staying with the Miller family of Rock Hill.

“If I were to pay for a hotel every week, there’s no way I could do this,” Lao said.

She has been playing in USTA Pro Circuit tournaments since she finished her playing career at the University of Southern California and graduated in May 2013. After graduation, Lao thought about using her communications degree and pursuing full-time work instead of playing on the USTA Pro Circuit.

But her college coaches told her she would be young only once, and that if she didn’t seriously pursue tennis now, she would soon be 35 and full of regret.

“They were right,” Lao said. “I decided I still wanted to play tennis and here I am, a year later.”

Lao, who grew up in Los Angeles, particularly enjoys Southern tournaments because she gets to enjoy families’ “Southern hospitality.”

Before Lao and the two other players staying at Alison Miller’s home arrived, Miller went to Costco and stocked her cart with healthy proteins and carbohydrates, including mahi mahi, salmon, chicken, black rice and whole grain bread. Miller, who also hosted players last year, learned then that most players don’t prefer carbs that can leave you feeling full, such as lasagna and spaghetti.

During the mornings the players played, Miller also cooked cheesy eggs. She even let Lao drive the family’s 1995 Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo.

“The South really does humble a California girl,” Lao said.

Barbara Christopher, who is hosting four players, followed similar preparation plans as Miller. Christopher also made sure to show her players where the pots, pans and dishes were in case the players wanted to do their own cooking, which they have, she said.

Lao estimates that if families like the Millers and the Christophers didn’t open their homes and pantries to USTA Pro Circuit players, half the players would have to quit.

“It’s just nice for me to know that there are other people outside my family who really care,” Lao said. “It really makes me believe in the human race.”

The families like the arrangements as well.

Miller has enjoyed observing the players’ discipline, how they’ve been quiet by 10 p.m. every night and how they’re already sipping coffee at the table before 7 a.m.

The Christopher family appreciates getting to know the players beyond how well they hit their forehands.

The perfect matchup for the Christopher family, however, did not last long in Rock Hill.

In the battle of housemates, Wlodarczak retired down 1-2 against Toljan because of a back injury.

“At least one of us gets to move on,” Wlodarczak said. “I’m hoping she does well in her next match and keeps representing the Christopher household.”

Get to know Alex Cao, father, USC research engineer, USTA flex league player

by Jonathon Braden

By day, Alex Cao of Columbia is a research engineer at the University of South Carolina. By night, he is a husband, a father to 1-year-old Lily, and a tennis player.

Cao, who is younger than 40, is also an active member of USTA South Carolina. He enjoys flex leagues, combo league, and other USTA programs, including tournaments.

Recently, he took time to answer questions about his tennis background, why people should try USTA flex leagues, and how to best enjoy Paris and the French Open with a 1-year-old baby. (Disclosure: I played Alex in a flex league match earlier this year, and he might be the nicest person I’ve met in my year of living in Columbia.)

Family: Wife and baby. Neither play tennis at the moment, but both will one day.

How long have you lived in SC? 2 years

How long have you been playing tennis? I used to just play for fun with friends in junior high, but took it up again recreationally four years ago.

Where do you typically play? Southeast Park. It’s really nice there but needs a clubhouse. I also wish it was open until 10 p.m.

What USTA programs do you currently enjoy? Men’s league, combo league, flex league.

What is it about flex leagues that you like? I’m going to say the obvious: flexibility, plus the choice of where and what surface to play your home matches. I like to play on clay whenever possible.

What would you say to someone who hasn’t tried out flex leagues? Try it if you like to play singles. It’s relatively easy to schedule with just two people. Plus it’s a good way to meet new people. I know there are other options for singles in the city but none are as easy, IMO.

What is your favorite part about being a member of the USTA? The USTA tournaments and the Tennis magazine, although I know you don’t have to be a member to get it.

You also recently went to the French Open. What was that like? It was my first grand slam tournament and it was really exciting. I definitely recommend it. There were a lot of people everywhere on the grounds. They just have one session per day so you get a chance to see a lot of the top players. We bought tickets for two sessions. We got to see Murray, Federer, Halep and Serena, who lost. Plus, we had chance encounters with other players off-court, like Raonic and Djokovic. We were sad not to see Rafa in person. It’s kind of crazy seeing these players outside of the TV set. I just wish I had a chance to play on the red clay over there. Our lack of French was not an issue. Paris is also a lovely place to visit.

Any travel tips for those of us who want to make the trip in the future?

  • Buy your tennis tickets before your plane tickets and as soon as possible.
  • Buy tickets to one of the main courts otherwise you’ll be standing in line most of the time waiting to get into the outer courts.
  • Doesn’t really matter where you stay in Paris since Roland Garros is on the subway line and relatively easy to get to.
  • Don’t be deterred by having a 1-year-old baby with you 🙂
Alex Cao holds Lily, 1, at Court Suzanne Lenglen on May 28, 2014. (Submitted photo.)

Alex Cao holds Lily, 1, at Court Suzanne Lenglen on May 28, 2014. (Submitted photo.)