Team USA's Mackenzie Soldan began the 2012 Paralympics with a strong 6-4, 6-0 effort against Colombian Johana Martinez Vega.
© Steve Goldberg
By Steve Goldberg, special to USTA.com
LONDON -- Day one of the London 2012 Paralympic Tennis tournament brought large and raucous crowds and mixed results for a U.S. team that featured four players making their debuts in the sport’s premier event.
While Emmy Kaiser and Mackenzie Soldan both moved on, Steve Baldwin and Noah Yablong were one-and-done in the men’s singles. It was a good day overall for the American side, as men's veterans Steve Welch and Jon Rydberg both won their first round matches.
Soldan closed out the day with a 6-4, 6-0 sweep of familiar rival Johana Martinez Vega of Colombia. After losing her first three matches against Martinez, Soldan has won the last two, with today being by far the strongest win in the series for the University of Alabama student. After going up 4-0 in the first set, it all went wrong -- and just as quickly as she went ahead, she dropped the next four games.
"It was an emotional roller coaster," Soldan said after the match. "It was a fun experience now that I’m reflecting on it. It was stressful at the time but I knew I just had to focus and stay in that moment where only that point mattered."
Soldan admits that the success of winning those first games in a bunch may have had a negative effect: "I did freak out a little bit and tightened up at that point," she said. Yet in the ninth game, Soldan righted the ship to go 5-4 and broke Martinez to win the set.
"That really gave me the momentum into the second set that I pulled that out and came back when I had momentum against me," Soldan said. "I finally just let loose and began to play."
Soldan steamrolled Martinez 6-0 in front of her teammates, including Emmy Kaiser who had just closed out a three set 6-2, 3-6, 7-5 win over Korea’s Myung-Hee Hwang. Kaiser hit 60 winners to 24 for Hwang. She was on the precipice at 4-5 in the third before coming back to win in a tiebreaker.
So both American women move on to the round of 16 on Monday. For the men, it was a split decision, with the veterans winning and the Paralympic rookies bowing out.
Steve Baldwin, who has recently come back to competitive tennis after retiring from it in 2002, was good enough to make the team but realizes how much the game has progressed in his absence.
"Most of the people and the game had changed dramatically." said Baldwin, without using it as an excuse, that the game was much more aggressive and offensive now and what was a more effective style of play in 2002 wasn’t these days. "It’s first strike now and the chairs have a lot to do with that. The players sit taller and the chairs spin quicker," he says, a rotation which allows players to use more of their bodies in shot making.
Losing in straight sets 1-6, 2-6 to Takashi Sanada of Japan, Badlwin added, "I’m pleased for the most part actually for the experience and keeping my head there. He’s got a big serve and was accurate with it. There were points halfway through the match when I found myself wishing we had four hours to play because by the end of four hours I could get used to this."
Sanada hit 25 clear winners to only six for Baldwin and created 25 forced errors.
Noah Yablong could never find the rhythm or consistency he needed to dispatch Nigeria’s Wasiu Yusuf in a 2-6, 3-6 loss. When he went ahead 2-1 in the first after dropping the first game, there was a feeling that he could rule the day. But after letting Yusuf hold serve to go 2-2 and getting broken in the next game, it never seemed that when he was in position to win a key point or game that it would happen.
Success will have to come in doubles for Baldwin and Yablong.
Jon Rydberg and Steve Welch changed the tone with convincing if not decisive three set wins. Up against Argentina’s exciting young Augustin Ledesma, who sounds more French with he exclamations of "Allez!" throughout the match, Rydberg dropped the first three games but steeled himself to force a tiebreaker that he lost 9-7. Rydberg started mixing up his game and hitting winners that took the next two sets 6-3 and 6-1, leaving Ledemsa to add the French question "Porquoi?" ("Why?") to his lexicon.
Welch looked like his day was going to be a quick one, winning the first set against South African Sydwell Mathonsi 6-2. He then let his opponent back in the match when he had a chance to close it out at 5-4 but ended up losing the tiebreaker (8-10). Refocused for the third set, Welch reminded everyone watching why he is a former number one ranked player and rattled off five straight games before giving up a consolation in a 6-1 finish.
Rydberg will play Frenchman Michael Jeremiasz, the no. 7 on Sunday while Welch will go against no. 11 Joachim Gerard of Belgium. They will team up to play the Brazilian pair of Pomme and Santos at the end of the day.
The quad squad also opens play with David Wagner against Lucas Sithole of South Africa, Nick Taylor against Japan’s Shota Kawano and Bryan Barten versus Marco Innocenti of Italy.