MIDLAND, Mich., February 12, 2011 â€“ You never know how a young tennis player will react to pressure.
This week in Midland, WTA Tour rookie Irina Falconi has participated in her first press conference, spoken to sponsors at several functions and written a witty blog for USTA.com. Oh yeah, sheâ€™s been competing in singles and doubles at the most prestigious event on the USTA Pro Circuit too.
Factor in some of the fastest indoor courts in the country and that spells trouble for the smallest woman in the field.
But for the 5-foot-4 Falconi, itâ€™s been no problema. The bilingual, college-educated 20-year-old won back-to-back matches on Saturday to reach the singles and doubles finals at the Dow Corning Tennis Classic.
â€œOne of the most important things at a tournament like this is giving back,â€ said Falconi, who was born in Ecuador. â€œI honestly enjoy writing the blog and I have no problem doing it. I wish I could do more and Iâ€™ve gotten some really great reviews about it. Itâ€™s always nice to get reassurance, having people say that they like your writing. Itâ€™s the least I could do.â€
She handled the heavy forehands and serves of 6-foot-tall Rebecca Marino with ease, upsetting the No. 2 seed 6-3, 6-2 in the first singles semifinal of the day.
Despite being outsized, Falconi dictated rallies and returned serves in an authoritative fashion.
â€œI stood about 30 feet behind the baseline,â€ Falconi said sarcastically. â€œThat was one of the biggest things. Sheâ€™s got to have one of the biggest serves in tennis. I felt like I was able to really read it today and I was able to find my rhythm on the return, which is huge when youâ€™re playing a big server.â€
In the first set, Falconi held a break point in each of Marinoâ€™s five service games. Though the Canadian escaped trouble to take a 2-1 lead, she blew two opportunities to break Falconi in the fourth game by missing her returns.
The former Georgia Tech All-American seized the momentum at 2-2, converting her fifth break point of the set by slicing Marino deep into her backhand corner. Marino tried but failed to run around for an inside-in forehand, netting the shot to give Falconi a 3-2 lead.
After the Atlanta resident held, Marino led 40-15 on her serve before Falconi hit back-to-back forehand winners. Marino double-faulted twice from deuce, perhaps feeling the pressure Falconiâ€™s forehands had presented.
Though Marino recovered one break, Falconi clinched the first set by winning another forehand-to-forehand rally. Marino finished the set without a single forehand winner.
â€œIt obviously worked, didnâ€™t it?â€ Falconi said about her forehand exchanges with Marino. â€œIf it ainâ€™t broke, donâ€™t fix it.â€
Marino hit her first forehand winner down-the-line to hold for 1-1 in the second set, but Falconiâ€™s shot-making remained remarkable.
In the opening game of the set, she followed a crosscourt forehand volley by bending low to the surface for a backhand volley winner into the open court. After breaking in the fourth game, Falconi held for 4-1 with a wide slice serve that pushed Marino off the court.
Marino had one more chance to make a match of it, holding two break points while trailing 2-4. But Falconi saved the first with a down-the-line forehand winner and the second when Marino dumped a forehand into the net.
Falconi saved one of her best patterns for the last game before breaking Marino at love. She set the Canadian up with two backhand slices, and then hit a well-disguised drop shot and a top-spin lob winner that brought fans to their feet.
â€œRebecca is not exactly the typical girl that you want to lob over,â€ said Falconi. â€œI think that I put my head in gear in the last game. I wanted to get it right there and not let her hold and then break.â€
After a 30-minute rest, Falconi returned to the court with countrywoman Alison Riske to play the Canadian/American pairing of Gabriela Dabrowski and Whitney Jones in a doubles semifinal.
Riske rewarded her partner with reflex volleys from the net and strong serving behind the baseline. She and Falconi broke Dabrowski to end each set in their 7-5, 7-5 victory.
Asked whether playing and studying at college is more difficult than playing two pro finals in one day, Falconi didnâ€™t minx words.
â€œCollege is very, very easy compared to this,â€ said Falconi. â€œTheyâ€™re very different. In college, you go to school every day and that was pretty rough â€“ having to do homework. I have friends telling me, â€˜Oh, I have a test today.â€™ But all these matches are tests to me everyday. I know what theyâ€™re going through and they know what Iâ€™m going through.â€
Falconi will face another big hitter in the singles final when she battles the â€˜Queen of Midlandâ€™ herself, Lucie Hradecka.
A fan favorite with the locals, the Czech defeated Ksenia Pervak of Russia 6-4, 6-4 on Saturday to clinch her third consecutive berth in the Dow Corning Tennis Classic singles final. No other player in the tournamentâ€™s 23-year history has reached the final three straight years.
Hradecka defeated Eleni Daniilidou in 2009 before falling in three sets to Elena Baltacha last year, when she was in a similar situation as Falconi. At the 2010 Midland event, Hradecka reached both the singles and doubles finals.
Unlike Falconi, she played both of her semifinals at night, which resulted in her playing a total of four matches in a 24-hour period. She also landed in Midland later than most last year after making her Fed Cup debut for the Czech Republic.
It came as no surprise when she lost energy in the latter stages of the singles final.
â€œThis year, I think I have a little bit more power,â€ said Hradecka. â€œBefore this tournament, I was at home practicing. I came here last Thursday â€“ not Monday night like last year.â€
In Saturdayâ€™s match, Hradecka earned the only break of the first set when she pummeled four straight forehands deep into the court, pushing Pervak further and further behind the baseline until the Russian missed a down-the-line backhand.
Hradecka served out the set at love, generating pace with ease on shots from Pervak that had very little on them. She crushed a down-the-line backhand winner to take a 6-4 lead.
â€œI was trying to move inside the court a little bit and hit through the ball,â€ said Hradecka.
Returning first serves from well inside the baseline, Hradecka broke open a 4-1 second-set lead. Pervak battled back to 3-4 and led 15-30 on Hradeckaâ€™s serve when the Czech reacted to a first-serve fault by smacking her racquet on the court.
She lost that point to give Pervak two chances to even the second set at 4-4. But a clean backhand winner and an ace helped Hradecka hold. She went on to convert her second match point with a service winner.
â€œItâ€™s a great feeling to be three-in-a-row in the finals here,â€ said Hradecka, who has never played Falconi. â€œI donâ€™t know [what to expect] because I didnâ€™t see her play or practice or anything. We will see.â€
General admission tickets to the 2011 Dow Corning Tennis Classic finals cost $12 for adults and $8 for children. Play begins on Sunday at 1 p.m. with the singles title match between Hradecka and Falconi. After a short rest period, Falconi and Riske will take on Jamie Hampton and Anna Tatishvili in the womenâ€™s doubles final.
Article by Joshua Rey
Dow Corning Tennis Classic
Midland Community Tennis Center
Saturday, February 12 â€“ RESULTS
Singles â€“ Semifinals
Lucie Hradecka (Czech Republic) def.  Ksenia Pervak (Russia) 6-4, 6-4
Irina Falconi (United States) def.  Rebecca Marino (Canada) 6-3, 6-2
Doubles â€“ Semifinals
Irina Falconi and Alison Riske (United States) def. Gabriela Dabrowski (Canada) and Whitney Jones (United States) 7-5, 7-5
Jamie Hampton (United States) and Anna Tatishvili (Georgia) def. Ahsha Rolle and Mashona Washington (United States) 3-6, 7-6(3), [10-6]
Sunday, February 13 â€“ SCHEDULE
Stadium Court â€“ starting at 1 p.m.
Lucie Hradecka (Czech Republic) vs. Irina Falconi (United States) â€“ SINGLES FINAL
Irina Falconi and Alison Riske (United States) vs. Jamie Hampton (United States) and Anna Tatishvili (Georgia) â€“ DOUBLES FINAL
ABOUT THE USTA PRO CIRCUIT:
With more than 90 tournaments throughout the country and prize money ranging from $10,000 to $100,000, the USTA Pro Circuit is the pathway to the US Open and tour-level competition for aspiring tennis players and a frequent battleground for established professionals. The USTA launched its Pro Circuit 32 years ago to provide players with the opportunity to gain professional ranking points, and it has since grown to become the largest developmental tennis circuit in the world, offering more than $3 million in prize money. Last year, more than 1,000 men and women from more than 70 countries competed in cities nationwide. Among those who have played at the Dow Corning Tennis Classic are seven-time Grand Slam winner Justine Henin, former world No. 1 Maria Sharapova, reigning French Open champion Francesca Schiavone and 2011 Australian Open runner-up Na Li.