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PNC Steel City Grand Prix Men’s and Women’s NRT/Viking PCQ
October 13-15, 2017
The APTA kicked off its Grand Prix season at the Fox Chapel Racquet Club in Pittsburgh, where the players were treated to three days of gorgeous weather and first-rate hospitality from tournament director Scott Kahler and his crew of volunteers. Although there were no surprise finalists, with the top two seeds vying for the titles in both the men’s and women’s draws, there were many well-played, dramatic matches throughout the weekend.
After winning the Patterson Open last weekend, the new team of Liz Cruz and Gabriela Niculescu came into Pittsburgh as the heavy favorites. L. Cruz/Niculescu faced some tricky opponents in their half of the draw, including Liz Jaffe and Myrthe Molenveld, 2017 APTA National Champions and third seeds, Florentina Hanisch and Annica van Starrenburg, and local favorites Kelly Fischer and Jessica Guyaux. None of these teams was able to make a dent in the L. Cruz/Niculescu armor, however, and the top seeds gained a berth in the finals without losing a set. Jaffe/Molenveld, playing a tournament together for the first time, rebounded from their quarterfinal loss to the top seeds by winning the quarterfinal reprieve. Their contrasting styles proved a winning combination, as they were able to defeat the highly ranked teams of Hallie Bodman and Liz Hayward and Mirian Cruz and Marcela Rodezno in the back draw.
In the other half of the draw, the second seeds, Cynthia Dardis and Amy Shay, once again showed why they have spent so many years at the top of the women’s game. After being extended to three sets by M. Cruz/Rodezno at Patterson, their quarterfinal rematch in Pittsburgh looked ripe for an upset. As they so often do, however, Dardis/Shay adjusted their play from a week earlier and coasted to a 6-2, 6-2 victory. The chance for a #2 and #4 seed semifinal matchup disappeared when Heather Prop badly injured her knee in the round of 16, ending the tournament for Heather and her partner, Alison Morgan. Hopefully Heather’s injury isn’t season ending and she will be back on the Grand Prix circuit at Chicago Charities. Even without the fourth seeds in their path, Martina Ondrejkova and Ana Zubori had a tough road to the semis, dropping the middle set to Cooey Lyon and Charlotte Sikora in the round of 16 before taking the third set, 6-4.
If their quarterfinal match against M. Cruz/Rodezno was any indication, Dardis/Shay would use their straight set championship loss against L. Cruz/Niculescu in the finals of Patterson to fuel an upset in the Pittsburgh finals. The finalists gave a terrific display of paddle, with Dardis/Shay hitting consistently deep overheads and volleys to counter their opponents’ heavy shots. After splitting the first two sets, L. Cruz/Niculescu switched sides, placing Cruz in the forehand court and Niculescu on the backhand side. This seemed to give Niculescu an extra spark and more opportunities to hit her inside out forehand, propelling the top seeds to a hard fought 6-3, 3-6, 6-2 victory. The first Grand Prix final of the year was a classic, showcasing over two and a half hours of excellent paddle.
Photos by Tom Benic
All of the top four seeds reached the semis and seven of the top eight reached the quarterfinals of the PNC Steel City Men’s Open, the lone upset coming when Scott Falatek and Vlatko Najdek took out the fifth seeds, Steve DeRose and Jon Lubow, in three sets in the round of 16. After dropping a set to Randy Lofgren and Wil Lofgren in the round of 32, Juan Arraya and Jeff Morneau displayed why they emerged last season as APTA National finalists and the second best team in the country. After their match with the Lofgrens, Arraya/Morneau beat Mark Barry and Brian Heil, the #8 seeds Mikk Irdoja and Max LePivert, and the #4 seeds Marek Czerwinski and Chris Gambino in straight sets en route to the final. The lack of upsets belies the depth in the draw; there were three contests that went the distance and multiple sets ending in tiebreakers in the round of 16.
The second seeds, Patterson Open finalists John Hughes and Marc Powers, also reached the quarterfinals without meeting too much resistance. Their semifinal match against the third seeds, tournament director Scott Kahler and fellow Pittsburgh resident Casey Watt, however, was another story entirely. In a match that extended over three grueling hours, Hughes and Powers came back after dropping the first set to win 4-6, 6-4, 6-3. Both teams exhibited tremendous all-court skills, wowing the crowd with amazing gets, digs, and blitzes.
Taken together with their 0-3 record against Arraya/Morneau, their exhausting three-hour semifinal battle seemed to put Hughes/Powers at a huge disadvantage heading into the final. Against all odds, Hughes/Powers raced out to a 6-3 first set victory, playing flawlessly and capitalizing on more errors than usual from Arraya/Morneau. Arraya/Morneau tightened up their games and took the second set, 6-3, while the length of the Hughes/Powers semifinal began to come into play. As play began in the third set, everything that could go wrong for Hughes/Powers did. Hughes hit his partner in the back of the head with a big serve, halting play momentarily while Powers shook off the impact of the hard hit. Then, as Hughes began visibly cramping, a bee stung him as he fought to continue playing. Despite a valiant effort to finish the match, Hughes couldn’t overcome his physical condition, and Arraya/Morneau closed out the third set easily.
Holding up their number one seeding, Juan Arraya and Jeff Morneau proved once again that they are firmly ensconced in the top three of men’s paddle. Hughes/Powers, Kahler/Watt and Czerwinski/Gambino also gave strong showings in Pittsburgh, and will continue to try to challenge for a Grand Prix title as the season progresses.
Women’s NRT/Viking PCQ:
Main Draw: Liz Cruz/Gabriela Niculescu def. Cynthia Dardis/Amy Shay, 6-3, 3-6, 6-2
Quarterfinal Reprieve: Liz Jaffe/Myrthe Molenveld def. Mirian Cruz/Marcela Rodezno, 6-3, 7-5
Reprieve: Debora Castany/Kerri Delmonico def. Cooey Lyon/Charlotte Sikora, 6-4, 7-6
Consolation: Fran Bolanis/Sarah Stallings def. Shaheen Bhanji/Lea Morris, inj. default
Consolation Reprieve: Anneliese Adkinson/Heather Morneau def. Erica Kagle/Kate Kapanowski, 2-6, 6-2, 6-2
Men’s NRT/Viking PCQ:
Main Draw: Juan Arraya/Jeff Morneau def. John Hughes/Marc Powers, 2-6, 6-3, 6-1
Quarterfinal Reprieve: Ryan Baxter/Ricky Heath def. Scott Falatek/Vlatko Najdek, 6-3, 6-1
Round of 16 Reprieve: Peter Berka/Graham McNerney def. Scott Estes/Mike Stulac, 7-6, 3-6, 6-0
Round of 32 Reprieve: Zachary Held/Thomas Murphy def. Alex Hume/Michael Montalbano, 3-6, 6-2, 6-4
Consolation: Mark Cunnington/Ryan Shockley def. Jesse Carl/Ben Garner, 6-4, 4-6, 6-2
Last Chance: Josep Baro/John Cassas def. Edward Burns/Michael Valinetz, 6-3, 6-4
Photos by Tom Benic / Kathy Jokl