Nicole Gibbs walked off center court to the twanging opening chords of "American Girl," a victory serenade from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. The 21-year-old California girl recovered from a 15-40 break in the first game of the third set against Italian veteran Francesca Schiavone to break back and take it all, 6-3, 4-6, 6-2.
She joins another young American (cue David Bowie), 18-year-old Taylor Townsend, in getting through their two qualifying rounds and into the main draw of the Western & Southern Open.
Townsend's road was easier. She beat Spaniard Silvia Soler-Espinosa in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3.
And let's not forget another American making inroads at this critical US Open warm-up: me. This is I Hate Tennis' inaugural coverage of the Western & Southern Open. Know, Haters, that I will do my very best to cover the worst that can trip you up in this intense game: the meltdowns, the racquet smashes, the ball abuse and mid-set wak-abouts. And, of course, I'll give you the best that tennis has to offer, the moments when players pick their way out of their mental swamps and back onto solid ground.
The sweetest victories in tennis are the ones over yourself.
Taylor Townsend gave a fine example of this. Yeah, sure, the scoreboard made it look like she had an easy time over Soler-Espinosa, but she was in the weeds in the sixth game of the second set. She fought off four break points before finally succumbing to Silvia with a weak second serve that clipped the net cord and floated long for a double fault. She turned right around to break back Soler-Espinosa, sowing doubt in the mind and heart of the 22nd seed Spainiard with blistering return winners. SSE lost the game at net with a forehand volley that sailed wide.
She's young, she's very young," said Schiavone of Gibbs.
The qualifying match between 2010 French Open winner Francesca Schiavone and Nicole Gibbs was filled with more mental mud puddles, especially for Franny, who, at 34, is in the twilight of her singles career. After losing the first set, Schiavone was in control in the second, serving at 4-1 when signs of trouble started to emerge like swamp gas bubbling up from her unconscious. Gibbs had been egging herself on in the game, glaring at her camp in defiance after hitting a forehand winner down the line to level things at deuce. Take that, signora!
Schiavone apparently thought this was in bad form. When Gibbs won the next point with a return that hit the net cord and dribbled over into Schiavone's court, it was Schiavone's turn to glare. She stared at Gibbs, arms out wide in that classic, Italian "WTF?!?" gesture, when Gibbs didn't immediately offer the customary wave of apology.
She turned to face me and my husband, sitting behind the baseline. "She's young, she's very young," Schiavone said.
Ma che schifo, esclamo Francesca.
Schiavone promptly double faulted on her next service. Then, totally undone, she dumped a desultory forehand squash shot into the net.
Schiavone was still ahead, 4-2, but her errors started to mount. She got caught in No Man's Land in half-hearted attempts to get to net, punting the ball into the net or wide. She foot faulted, letting out something in Italian that didn't sound like it was very nice. She won the second set, 6-4, but didn't appear very happy about it.
Haters, the ony thing you need to mind on the other side of that net is the ball, not your opponent's gamesmanship.
Francesca broke Nicole in her opening service game in the third, but handed it back, with interest, in a 0-40 disappearing act in the fourth game that started with another foot fault and a long conversation with the chair umpire. In that game, and the next four that rounded out the set, Schiavone only won 8 points. Her first serve percentage dropped to 36 percent, quite a slide from 69 percent in the second. She went from hammering Gibbs' second serve to barely getting it back in play.
Gibbs, meanwhile, got stronger. Her service game percentage didn't falter, remaining in the 70s. She stopped doing the whole "C'mon!" thing. She didn't have to. She had already let loose a squirrel inside Schiavone's head, and her job was to just play a steady, solid, error-free game while the critter chased its tail.
Haters, let this be a lesson to you. The only thing you need to mind over there on the other side of that net is the ball.
Nicole Gibbs faces fellow American Christina McHale on Tuesday in their first round match. Taylor Townsend turns right around and goes out again tomorrow, Monday, to take on the Czech Klara Koukalova. Also qualifying is Varvara Lepchenko, who gets to face a struggling Samantha Stosur tomorrow.