The post-US Open part of the tennis season might be tennis overload, or garbage time for some fans.
A lot of the top players are tired.
Some who have traveled all year are just trying to get through the season healthy.
But in various remote places around the tennis world, there are comebacks happening.
And a lot of players have everything to play for.
We take you to the city of Templeton, Calif., population about 8,000, where a $60,000 women’s ITF tournament is taking place this week.
It’s not a place you generally find former top-10 players.
But this week, there are some stories brewing.
Comeback stories abound
Former No. 10 Coco Vandeweghe, currently at No. 476 after missing the better part of a year with a serious foot issue, has a wild card into the singles.
Vandeweghe returned in San Jose in July, her first tournament since playing doubles at the Tour Finals in Singapore the previous October.
She won her first match, against Marie Bouzkova, but has lost four in a row although she did make the Cincinnati doubles semifinal with Bethanie Mattek-Sands.
Her first-round match against No. 2 seed Usue Arconada will be her first singles match at the ITF level since 2015.
Shelby Rogers, who broke into the top 50 in 2017 and has been playing the bigger events with a protected ranking after being out with a knee injury, is in the draw with her current “real” ranking of No. 303 and faces a qualifier in the first round.
Top-10s in Templeton
Former No. 5 Genie Bouchard, whose current ranking of No. 157 this week essentially nudged her out of most of the Asian swing, had entered as the top seed.
But after the addition of wild card Varvara Lepchenko (once in the top 20, now at No. 137), and Arconada’s rise to a career-best ranking of No. 145, she is the No. 3 seed.
Bouchard will face Gabriela Talaba, a Romanian at a career-best No. 272 in the rankings, in the first round.
Talaba, who won a $25K ITF in Redding, Calif. a week ago, is only 18 months younger than Bouchard.
But the 24-year-old has never played a main-draw match at the WTA level.
In fact, she only took part in her first WTA-level tournament this past July, where she lost in the first round of qualifying in Bucharest.
She’s been busy; Talaba starred for four years at Texas Tech, winning multiple honours before wrapping up in 2018. She’s a lefty with a one-handed backhand.
But there’s a huge gap in experience, to say the least.
Also in the draw? A name that used to be a familiar one, but that we haven’t seen since the Oracle Challenger in Chicago last September.
Irina Falconi, now 29, reached the top 70 in both singles and doubles earlier in her career. But a year ago, she embarked upon an open-ended break.
Of late, she’s been hosting a tennis podcast. There is literally nothing in her social media to indicate she’s been thinking of a return or training to come back. Which shows you how futile it is to think you know anything about someone from what they choose to post on social.
She has a protected ranking of No. 155 to work with for awhile.
In Tashkent, mom-of-two Bondarenko is back
Across the world, at a small WTA Tour event that’s in its final year in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, another very good player returns.
Kateryna Bondarenko was top-30 in singles and top-10 in doubles a decade ago.
She won the Australian Open doubles with older sister Alona in 2008. And then she had her daughter Karin, now six – before making her first comeback.
She got to No. 56 in singles, and No. 50 in doubles, after the 2016 US Open.
Bondarenko has been out since losing to Vera Lapko in in the first round of the US Open a year ago. And, it turns out, she was already pregnant with her second daughter, born last winter.
As it happens, it’s a full-circle sort of thing. Bondarenko had one career WTA Tour title before leaving on her first maternity break. After coming back, she won her second – two years ago this week, in Taskhent.
And that’s where she has decided to start her comeback.
Now 33, she has special rankings of No. 85 in singles and No. 65 in doubles.
Bondarenko’s third act
And with the new rules instituted by the WTA for the 2019 season, she gets a break on the seeding for her first eight tournaments back.
If you saw the Tashkent draw, you saw that Bondarenko was the No. 9 seed. That wasn’t because a seeded player withdrew late. It’s called an “additional seed”, and ensures the player will not face a seeded player in the first round.
Bondarenko lost to Greet Minnen 6-2, 6-2 in the first round of singles in Tashkent, struggling on second serve and converting on just one of nine break-point chances.
She’s entered in the doubles as well, with Aleksandra Krunic, who had been a regular partner before she went off the tour.
And that same rule means they are seeded No. 5, in a 16-draw that normally would have four seeds. They face Sharon Fichman and another 30-something WTA working mom, Tatjana Maria, in the first round.
Bondarenko has also entered Beijing in doubles with Krunic, as well as Tianjin.
Duval keeps grinding
Back in Templeton, more comebacks.
Vicky Duval, a former top-20 junior just getting started in the pros, qualified and upset former champion Samantha Stosur in the first round of the 2013 US Open. She was still 17 and Stosur was No. 11 in the world. She got wild cards into Indian Wells and Miami, and qualified again at Wimbledon in 2014, upsetting No. 29 seed Sorana Cirstea in the first round.
Duval jumped into the top 100. But at that Wimbledon, she announced she had Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
She missed more than a year. And once she did return – she even jumped in to replace an injured Serena Williams at Hopman Cup with Jack Sock in 2016 – it’s been a struggle to stay on court. After that Australian summer, she missed six months, came back to play and lose three matches during the grass-court season – and was gone until the following April after surgery to repair a meniscus tear in her knee.
She came back at an ITF in Indian Harbour Beach ranked No. 896 (and defeated Bouchard, who had dropped down to that level briefly, in the quarterfinals). And then Duval played a crazy schedule, literally almost every week, until right about this time a year ago.
Like she was trying to make up for lost time.
(Duval briefly glimpsed the top 200, checking in at No. 199 for a couple of weeks in March 2018).
And then she was out again.
A stress fracture in her left foot and a partial ligament tear in her right ankle kept her out for months.
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Volunteer assistant coach at Florida
Duval, who is entering her second season as a volunteer assistant for the women’s tennis team at the University of Florida, returned in June at a $25K in Sumter, S.C. and reached the final.
Her ranking stood at No. 529. Duval has played most weeks this summer. And she finds herself in Templeton, ranked No. 439.
Only the most determined could keep grinding.
Duval will meet … Falconi in the first round.
Jesse Witten – still kickin’
American Jesse Witten, now 36 and a full-time coach at the Tough Tennis Academy in Naples, Fla. where he learned his trade as a kid, was never a big-time player.
He peaked at No. 163 in singles back in 2010.
But a decade ago at the US Open. He had his moment.
Ranked No. 276, and out of the qualifying, Witten upset No. 30 Igor Andreev in straight sets in the first round and No. 79 Maximo Gonzalez in four sets in the second round before falling in four tight sets to No. 4 seed Novak Djokovic.
Over the last few years, he has surfaced a couple of times a year – mostly at a Futures event in his hometown of Naples, Fla., and at the Lexington Challenger at his alma mater, the University of Kentucky. He won the NCAA title there in 2002.
But there he is this week, with no ATP Tour ranking, in the qualifying of an entry-level $15,000 ITF in Cancun, Mexico.
Witten won his first two matches in straight sets, before falling to a Bolivian kid 10-8 in the match tiebreak in the final round.
You just can’t keep a tennis player off the court.
Kayla Day – week in, week out
Another player in the Templeton main draw is American lefty Kayla Day, who is still just 19.
If you look at her numbers on the ITF circuit, it’s off the charts. With a month out here and there, she has been grinding it out on the ITF circuit non-stop for four years.
And at the beginning of that period, she also was playing junior tournaments.
Until July, when she missed two months. She returns this week in Templeton.
This time three years ago, Day was the No. 1 junior in the world after beating Viktoria Kuzmova in the 2016 US Open junior girls’ final. She also reached the doubles final.
(Notably, she defeated 2019 women’s singles champion Bianca Andreescu, who is nine months younger, in the semifinal of that US Open).
By the summer of 2017, she was already up to No. 122.
Currently, she sits at No. 369.
US Open junior champion Min
Day’s first-round opponent, who reached a career-best of No. 4 after she defeated Caroline Garcia to win the US Open juniors in 2011, is Grace Min.
Min, who is now 25, broke into the top 100 for three weeks back in 2015. She’s currently at No. 368 – one spot above Day.
There are a lot more stories out there this week. But these are a few.
And if it’s any consolation, here are a few names who didn’t even make it out of the second round of the Templeton tournament a year ago: Taylor Townsend, Kristie Ahn, Marie Bouzkova and Jessica Pegula.
And look at what they’ve done this season.
So in this week of comebacks, even with the big WTA event in Wuhan going on, keep track of their results – which will probably have to be on the live scoring.
The Templeton Tennis Ranch (pictured above, pic from their website) will be the place.
The more you look at the journeys of the players, the more you respect how stubborn and determined they are.