02 Dec 2017

NEC Masters set for enthralling finals

News Article

By Clive White

Photo: Tennis FoundationGordon Reid (GBR)

LOUGHBOROUGH: So physically and mentally exhausting had been their matches the day before, even diehard British wheelchair tennis fans must have feared for the chances of Gordon Reid and Alfie Hewett in Saturday’s men’s singles semifinals.

All the more so because their opponents were not only outstanding players in their own right - one a multiple Paralympic champion, the other a multiple Masters champion – but they had enjoyed relatively trouble-free matches the day before.

Yet despite this both the Britons won and furthermore did so in straight sets. Who’d be a sports pundit. It felt like the conclusion to the Paralympics in Rio all over again when the same two Brits scooped up doubles silver followed by gold and silver in singles.

Now Reid and Hewett go head-to-head again on Sunday in the final of the NEC Wheelchair Tennis Masters singles event after Reid beat Shingo Kunieda, the two-time Paralympic singles champion, 75 64 and Hewett annihilated Joachim Gerard, the defending two-times Masters champion, 60 62.

Furthermore, Reid has had a difficult year during which he revealed earlier in the week to itftennis.com that in the summer he was close to giving up the sport completely; the 19-year-old Hewett may have been on a high after another very successful year but admitted to feeling strangely below par here. As he said himself, after failing to find his ‘A’ game all week he suddenly came up with an ‘A star’ performance.

Both Reid and Hewett played the sort of tennis in the opening sets of their matches that they must wish they could bottle.

Reid, who had saved three match points in his semifinal against world No1 Gustavo Fernandez (Hewett saved a mere two in his against Stephane Houdet) opened on Show Court 1 and found Kunieda turning back the clock to the days when he reigned supreme in this sport.

The two players are among the quickest and smartest on court and there was nothing to choose between them until Reid forced the one and only break point of the set in the 11th game. It was all he needed to take advantage and clinched the set in the following game with a delightful drop shot.

Anyone who thought the match was over when Reid broke Kunieda in the opening game of the second set, however, was in for a surprise and half of the ten games saw service breaks. Time and again a rueful smile crept across Kunieda’s face as Reid hit winners from positions where most people would have been happy just to get the ball back into play. The critical break came in the ninth game when Reid finessed another winner.

The prospect for the home crowd of a second Brit going through to the final seemed akin to asking one too many presents from Santa. Little did we know that the 19-year-old Hewett had slept like a baby.

“I woke up this morning and felt the best I’ve felt all week, completely energised and I don’t know where it came from,” he said. “’This is weird’, I thought, ‘I’m going to have some sort of collapse soon’. I must have done my recovery really well because yesterday I was leaning against the sideboards, that’s how drained I was.”

Consequently, mouths were collectively agog at the Sport Loughborough Tennis Centre as Hewett raced through the opening set in 21 minutes to take it 6-0. When Hewett went 2-0 up in the second set he had a strange feeling of déjà vu. At the Bath Indoor Tournament a fortnight ago Gerard had gone 60, 20 up against Hewett before the Brit bounced back to win. Was this payback time?

“It was in my head that he was going to do ‘an Alfie’ particularly when he came back to 2-2 in the second set – I was just hoping it wouldn’t be a tiebreak in the second set!” Hewett said. “So to win that fifth game was great.”

At the end Gerard had a few brief words with Hewett. Asked what they were, Hewett said: “He just said to me, ‘I’ve never really seen you play like that’ and I just said, ‘I’m so sorry’. At the after-match press conference a shell-shocked Gerard mumbled the same word over and over again to describe Hewett’s performance – “insane”.

After that everything was pretty normal: David Wagner, of the United States, beat Heath Davidson, of Australia, 61 60, which was a good deal easier than many expected, to remain on course for his 10th Masters title. He may be shorn of his surfer locks these days but he has lost none of his all-conquering strength in this division.

For a while we wondered whether his end-of-season duel for the world No. 1 ranking with Andy Lapthorne was about to be derailed by the South African Lucas Sithole, but the Briton’s experience of coming through these tournaments eventually came to his rescue and he pulled through 75 75.

He explained that Sithole “is a streaky player who messes my head up a bit”. A similar performance on Sunday from the West Ham diehard will see Wagner win No. 10 and retain No. 1 and Lapthorne knows it.

“I know David will bring his level to the court and if I don’t bring mine I’ll get beat, but if I play the best I can play I firmly believe that will be good enough,” he said. “David Wagner is the best quad who has ever played this game – a lot of respect there. He’s a friend now, we used to be rivals and not really like each other off the court, but we get along really well now.”

Wagner has won five of their eight meetings this year including the one in the final of the US Open which went to three close sets. It still pains Lapthorne to think about it.

“Luckily, he’s got no Hawkeye on this court coz I had a point for 5-3 [in the final set] and I think Hawkeye showed there was one millimetre of the ball on the line so that one hurt a bit,” he said.

The women’s singles, as one expected, got its dream final when Yui Kamiji, the Japanese world No. 1, and Diede de Groot, the Dutch world No. 2, duly came through their semifinals. De Groot ultimately had to work the harder to beat fellow Dutchwoman Aniek van Koot 60 76(5) while Kamiji defeated Marjolein Buis, of the Netherlands, 63 61. Not surprisingly, Kamiji felt the need to stay a while longer on court afterwards to practise with her coach.

The two girls – Kamiji is 23 and de Groot 20 – are the future of women’s wheelchair tennis. Kamiji realises the very real threat posed by de Groot and as a consequence this year has changed both her chair and her shot selection. De Groot won their first and most recent meeting in 2017 but Kamiji won the six in between.

She must feel sometimes like an interloper at a private party. She is the only non-Dutch player in 23 years to date to win the women’s title, which she did in 2013. She knows that if she is to remain No. 1, though, her game must keep evolving.

“When I became No. 1 in 2013 I didn’t really know how I did it,” she said. “Now I see more the other players and I know if I change nothing I will not stay as No. 1.”