American Collegiate Invitational

American Collegiate Invitational

Any opportunity to showcase college tennis is a “win” in my book. The American Collegiate Invitational (ACI), held during the second week of the US Open, is no exception.

The USTA started hosting the ACI in 2014, featuring 8 men and 8 women playing a single-elimination singles tournament with the winner of each draw receiving a wildcard entry into the following year’s US Open Qualifying tournament. If, however, the winner is ranked 120 or better by the US Open entry deadline, then he/she will get a wildcard entry directly into the Main Draw. That’s means a huge payday for these young athletes – the 2017 qualifiers received $8000 just for being in the tournament, $50,000 if they actually made it into the First Round of the Main Draw. ACI winners also get wildcards into three USTA Pro Circuit events, and the runners-up each get one.

It is interesting to note that, although the ACI features college players, this is not an official college event. That means participants are competing as individuals, not as representatives of their schools. That also means that, even though they may receive coaching during their matches, the players’ college coaches cannot be the ones doing the coaching due to NCAA compliance regulations. The strange part is that players wear their college uniforms while competing and are introduced by name and school, but the scoreboard and draw show them as from the US as opposed to their university. For the life of me, I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand all the NCAA rules!

This year’s ACI Tournament Director was none other than recently-resigned USTA’s Director of Junior Tournaments, Bill Mountford. He told me that USTA chose to start this event 4 years ago in order to demonstrate its commitment to college tennis, to celebrate the best players by showcasing them on American tennis’s grandest stage: the US Open. And, to its credit, USTA is fully-invested in these players and this event, treating the collegians like Tennis Royalty by footing the bill for their travel, hotel accommodations at the Grand Hyatt (the official player hotel for the Open), and even taking them out for a gourmet meal the night before starting play. “They should be treated like royalty. They’ve come through Juniors and been among the best players. They’ve spent thousands upon thousands of hours honing their skills. They should be celebrated. It’s got to feel inspiring when they’re out there practicing right next to Rafael Nadal or having their racquets strung right next to Juan Martin Del Potro or being called in the morning by the Bryan Brothers because they need to practice with someone who’s going to hit kick serves to the ad court to warm them up for the day’s match. These are the best of the best of our young American players.”

He went on to say that he hopes the ACI players view this event as an extension of their US Open Juniors experience, bridging the gap between that tournament and the time they will, hopefully, be competing at the Open in the Main Draw. Being on these courts at this venue is a learning experience for them that should aid the transition as they move from college onto the pro tour.

2017 NCAA Women’s Champion, Brienne Minor, confirmed Bill’s hope. “To be able to play in the US Open and then this Invitational has been amazing! I’m so glad I had this opportunity. Hopefully, I can come back here. I definitely do want to play after college. I’m glad I got to have the experience and to know what it’s like and to be around the top pro players is pretty amazing, just to get that atmosphere. Now I know what it’s like and if I get to come back, I can change a few things and know what to expect.” Unfortunately, Brienne will be taking a break from tennis this Fall to have surgery on both her knees. The plan is to rehab and be ready for the dual match season in January.

I had a chance to speak with several of this year’s ACI players, and they all agreed that this event is a wonderful opportunity and certainly welcome the chance to earn a wildcard into next year’s Qualifying or Main Draw, but they view it as one more step in the process. Any time they get to compete on a big stage, it puts them one step closer to their goal of competing at the WTA/ATP level, which most of the players want. As UVA graduate Thai Kwiatkowski said, “If you can’t enjoy playing at the US Open, then you shouldn’t play the game!”

I found it interesting to hear Thai say it hurt more to lose his Main Draw match to Mischa Zverev, mostly due to the loss of ranking points and money that would help him fund his first year on the tour, than it did to lose first round in the ACI to eventual winner Tom Fawcett (Stanford). “I graduated with a Business Degree from UVA, and there’s a massive opportunity cost every day I step out on the tennis court. I’m eventually going to get out into the business world. I think I’m playing right now because I’ve played tennis my whole life, and it’s always been a dream, and I know that if I quit now I’ll always have in the back of my mind that I should’ve played. I’m getting that out of my system and seeing how far it can take me.” He shared that he’s continuing to study and learn while out on the tour because he misses that aspect of being a collegiate student-athlete. Thai went on to say that he’s going to miss everything about college tennis. “Those bus rides and tough matches and celebrations . . . I’m still best friends with all those guys and still talk to them every day, so it’s not too far off.”

I also had a chance to speak with several of the players’ parents, including Scott Holt (Brandon’s dad), Kevin Minor (Brienne’s dad), Beata Redlicki (Michael’s mom), and Carlo DiLorenzo (Francesca’s dad). After seeing all of them back in May at the NCAA Championships, it was great to catch up and get their take on this tournament. They each viewed this event as a wonderful opportunity for their children to play at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center during the US Open but also realize it’s just another step in their long tennis journey.

And in case you think these college students no longer need that kind of parental support . . . ACI Women’s Champion, Francesca DiLorenzo, had a parent in the stands cheering her on for each match, both in the Women’s Qualifying and the Women’s Doubles Main Draw as well as in this event. “It means a lot to have that support from home,” she shared. And, I have to say my heart nearly melted when I saw Thai Kwiatkowski hug and kiss his dad, Tim, after his first-round loss. What a sweet father-son moment!

Fran is taking the Fall off from Ohio State to pursue her professional tennis career, but, at least as of now, is planning to return to school for the dual match season though she will re-assess in the next couple of months. Some of the new, more restrictive, rules from NCAA are hurting her ability to play enough tournaments in the Fall which was a big factor in her decision to take the next few months off from school. Also, the fact that her major doesn’t allow for as many online classes now that she’s in her Junior year played a role in her decision.

I asked Fran how former UCLA player Jennifer Brady’s success at this year’s US Open impacts her. “It’s always really nice to see a college player do well. It gives us all hope. It’s really good for college tennis and shows that you can do something after college, that it’s not the end of the road like sometimes people think. For her to represent, not just her school but all of college, is unbelievable. It’s really exciting!”

Watching these kids compete was such a treat! I was there the first day of the very first ACI in 2014 but hadn’t been back since. Unfortunately, I had to fly back to Atlanta yesterday before the Men’s ACI Final, but I did see all the other matches this year. College tennis, in case you were wondering, is in great hands!

ACI Women’s Draw & Results

Round 1 (Quarterfinals):
Francesca DiLorenzo (Ohio State Jr) d. Sara Daavettila (UNC So) 6-1, 6-2
Ena Shibahara (UCLA So) d. Brienne Minor (Michigan Jr, NCAA Champ) 6-1, 6-3
Sydney Campbell (Vanderbilt Grad) d. Alexa Graham (UNC So) 4-6, 6-1, 7-6 (6)
Ingrid Neel (Florida So) d. Hayley Carter (UNC Grad) 4-6, 6-4, 6-2

Round 2 (Semifinals):
Francesca DiLorenzo (Ohio State Jr) d. Ena Shibahara (UCLA So) 6-4, 6-1
Ingrid Neel (Florida So) d. Sydney Campbell (Vanderbilt Grad) 6-4, 1-6, 6-2

Round 3 (Finals):
Francesca DiLorenzo (Ohio State Jr) d. Ingrid Neel (Florida So) 4-6, 6-4, 6-4

ACI Men’s Draw & Results

Round 1 (Quarterfinals):
Michael Redlicki (Arkansas Grad Student) d. Chris Eubanks (GA Tech Sr) 6-2, 6-4
Brandon Holt (USC So) d. William Bushamuka (Kentucky Jr) 6-2, 6-2
Tom Fawcett (Stanford Sr) d. Thai Kwiatkowski (UVA Grad, NCAA Champ) 7-6 (5), 6-4
Alfredo Perez (Florida Jr) d. Alex Rybakov (TCU Jr) 7-5, 6-3

Round 2 (Semifinals):
Michael Redlicki (Arkansas Grad Student) d. Brandon Holt (USC So) 4-6, 6-0, 6-3
Tom Fawcett (Stanford Sr) d. Alfredo Perez (Florida Jr) 6-1, 6-2

Round 3 (Finals):
Tom Fawcett (Stanford Sr) d. Michael Redlicki (Arkansas Grad Student) 7-6 (4), 6-7 (6), 6-4


A New Type of Tournament

img_7895-copyA little wedding-ing, a little tennis-ing – it was the perfect weekend on the Left Coast!

When I found out that the 60th annual Southern California Intercollegiate Championships were the same weekend as my daughter’s best friend’s wedding in Downtown LA, I was so excited! Not simply because I was going to have another chance to watch some amazing college tennis, but also because this was going to be the first college tournament using Playsight’s PlayFair tournament format.

Lisa with former USC Tennis Parent Steve Johnson
Lisa with former USC Tennis Parent Steve Johnson
What is PlayFair? Only the answer to every Tennis Parent’s dreams! Here’s how it works:
  • The facility must have Playsight SmartCourts installed which use several strategically-placed video cameras to record many different aspects of a practice or match.
  • PlayFair works just like the challenge system at a professional tennis tournament: each player gets 3 incorrect challenges per set.
  • If a player (or in the case of a college match, a coach) feels that an incorrect call or overrule was made, he or she can challenge the call.
  • The official has one minute to get to the Playsight kiosk on the court, push the Challenge button, and review the video of the shot in question.
  • The official can then uphold or overrule the call. If the video is inconclusive, the original call stands.
  • Players can also challenge an official’s overrule of their call at which point the official would go through the steps above to review the video of the shot in question.

For the SoCal Intercollegiate tournament, there were 3 roving officials covering 6 courts.

Playsight kiosk

Jeff Angus of Playsight, who was the one actually on the court running the challenge replays, explained the process in a little more detail. “On every court there are 5-10 instant video replay views. Officials can access instant replay and make the call. Players make the challenge – and coaches can signal to a player to challenge – then an official and someone from Playsight (me at this event) goes to the kiosk, loads the video up. Challenge time has been anywhere from a few seconds to a minute. We rely on video – it’s 100% accurate since it’s video, not tracking software like Hawkeye. The official makes the call – good, bad, or inconclusive. The players and coaches may not be happy with the call but they respect it, so there’s been a lot of challenges, which is more than I expected, but it’s also created a deterrence mindset in the players.”

And it’s the “deterrence mindset” that seems to be the greatest asset of the PlayFair system. Erica Perkins Jasper, COO of the ITA, observed, “Because the technology is there, the players have trusted each other more.”

USC’s head coach, Peter Smith, elaborated on Erica’s thoughts, saying, “We’ve had this system img_7898for 6 months in practice, but it hasn’t had the same impact as it had in one day yesterday. Guys were trying really hard to make the right call because they had ‘god’ above them. Last week at Regionals, several teams walked away with a bad feeling. We’re okay if we lose; we just don’t want to be robbed. I don’t think anyone left here yesterday feeling like they were robbed.”

The players seemed to be happy with this new technology as well. Nick Crystal, a senior on USC’s team, explained, “You have a 2nd eye. The officials are on the court, and if it’s close, you’re going to challenge. It’s nice to get that 2nd opinion and just know that you’re sure about a call. It’s impacting the close calls. People are only calling balls they for sure see out – rather than making a tight call – because they know you can go to the challenge system and they can get overruled. I think you can go out there and play more freely when you don’t have to worry about someone making a bad call, just focus on yourself and your game.”

Shot of the challenge screen

Jeff Angus saw a positive response to PlayFair in both the players and coaches, as well. “It’s surprised me how quickly not only the players but also coaches & officials have taken to the process.  Right away there’s been a different vibe at this tournament in terms of not really any arguing and bickering over line calls because it’s pretty clear, it’s video,” said Angus.

In terms of how it’s affecting the officials, Angus went on, “There’s seems to be a sort of calmness amongst the players, not only toward each other but also toward the officials. We’re trying to create better officials by validating or overturning their calls.”

ITA official Anthony Montero agreed. “My main job [this weekend] was to work with the officials to make sure we had a process everyone could live with. Overall the players seem very happy with it. The officials are getting more comfortable with it. We have a lot of data we’re going to take back and try to work out so that we have a seamless process for the officials if this is implemented in the future. My main concern is if it is implemented in the future, how do we roll it out so the officials can maximize its benefit?”

Things are still up in the air in terms of how this new technology will be used, especially at the collegiate level. Like Coach Smith told me, “How do we NOT use this now?” Erica Perkins Jasper is optimistic. “The future is really bright. Obviously, we have a great partnership with Playsight. I definitely agree that tennis needs to be more proactive in terms of embracing technology.”

One concern about embracing this particular technology is that it could widen the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” due to the high cost of installing and maintaining the cameras and kiosks. For the programs that have the funding to embrace this state-of-the-art technology, it’s amazing. But for the vast majority of programs, the $10k+-per-court cost is prohibitive. I know the ITA is working hard to build partnerships, and maybe this is one way those partnerships will pay off. Wouldn’t it be awesome if Oracle (as an example) provided matching grants to colleges that wanted to put Playsight or livescoring or other technology in place?!? As Tennis Parent Scott Holt told me, “I think it’s great for college matches. The biggest positive is it brings fans into the game and makes it more exciting which we all need. I hope they take it a step further and put it [the challenge] up on the big board. Then we’ll be able to really see it and get the clapping going like they do at the big tournaments. I’m all for it. Anything to make college tennis better.”

So, what’s coming in terms of rolling out PlayFair to other events? Playsight’s Jeff Angus shared, “We’re hoping it will become the standard of what’s done in junior tennis, college tennis, club tennis, even the pro level beyond the Hawkeye technology. Just knowing that you don’t have to have your eyes tracking all courts, you know your player is going to be supported by the video. It really gives everyone involved peace of mind. We have some USTA-sanctioned junior PlayFair tournaments coming soon. Our goal is to get this built into USTA at all levels – juniors, league, college – leveling the playing field.”

Are you curious about how many challenges there were in this pilot event? Overall, there were 63 challenges over the 5-day tournament with 35 overrules, 19 bad challenges, and 9 inconclusive challenges. On the first day of play, Playsight confirmed every call challenged. However, on Day 2, the video caused an official to overturn his own overrule. Playsight has promised to release additional data this week.capture

For more information on Playsight and PlayFair, click here for a Forbes article published earlier this week, here for Playsight’s blog post, and here for my podcast with Playsight key investor Gordon Uehling.


Twelve Days in LA

We’re back at home after almost a month of straight travel – it’s been an amazing summer, one that is ending too soon since my son goes back to school on Monday.

I know I haven’t written much about our time in Florida, and I promise to get to that, too, but I want to share with y’all our experiences in SoCal while they’re still fresh in my memory (those of you who know me, know that is a very big deal, lol).

The planning for our SoCal excursion really began back in April when Craig Cignarelli and Lester Cook spoke to my son about spending time with them over the summer. My son was really excited about working with them and some of the college players they train, so we devised a summer tournament schedule that would allow for him to have plenty of time with them. However, things don’t always work out as planned, and our 12 days in SoCal wound up looking very different that what we envisioned.

We arrived at LAX early afternoon on a Thursday. My son had reached out to Craig and Lester to arrange time on the court, but neither of them were available until the following Monday. Okay. Time for Plan B.

Steve Bellamy, creator of the Tennis Channel and owner of the Palisades Tennis Center, came to my son’s rescue! He invited my son over to the tennis center to hit with one of his sons and some of the other kids training there. It was the perfect way for my son to jump-start the trip and to make some new tennis friends (and collect their phone numbers for future hits) in the area. The next day, the Bellamys invited us to their house for my son to hit with their son again. The boys played a couple of sets while the parents chatted – it was great! Afterward, we headed back to my mother-in-law’s house for a quick shower before heading down to Venice Beach to walk around and grab some lunch to celebrate my son’s 18th birthday. Of course, the weather was absolutely spectacular, and we had a ball people-watching down there!

Saturday morning was my son’s first taste of LiveBall at the Palisades Tennis Center (click here to read my post about that experience). He wound up spending the rest of the day hanging out with his cousin, Ethan, at the Third Street Promenade, walking around and doing whatever it is teenage boys like to do (I’ve learned NOT to ask too many questions!).

The next day, it was back to Pacific Palisades and the Bellamys for my son to hit with their oldest, Robbie, who plays for USC. My son later admitted that he was a little nervous about whether or not he would be able to hang with Robbie, but after a couple of minutes, both boys got into a groove and were smacking balls back and forth, running each other like crazy. While the boys played, the parents talked, and both Steve and his wife, Beth, shared some very valuable insights with us about the college recruiting process. Basically, as I’ve said before, these kids have to be proactive with the college coaches in order to get and stay on their radar. It’s a lesson my son seems to be learning pretty well so far, thankfully.

We found out later that afternoon that neither Craig nor Lester were going to be able to work with my son while we were there. It was okay, though, because they gave my son the phone numbers for several college players who were available to hit with him each day, so my son started texting them to set up his schedule for the week.

On Monday, we drove up the coast to Santa Barbara to see the UCSB campus and to meet with the head coach, Marty Davis. Omigosh, what a gorgeous place! Coach Davis spent almost two hours with us, taking us around the campus, showing us the tennis facilities, and explaining how he runs his program. It was a very productive day since it was the first of the California schools outside of LA that my son had visited. We were all very impressed.

We decided to sleep in Tuesday morning then headed to Playa del Rey for a quick visit to the Loyola Marymount University campus. The coach was running tennis camp so wasn’t available to meet, but we saw the courts and the gorgeous campus. Afterward, we drove to Marina del Rey to walk around before heading back to the Palisades Tennis Center for a quick hit with the kids preparing for National Hardcourts. Then it was a short drive to UCLA and the LA Tennis Center for my son to hit with team member Ryoto Tachi. Ryoto is one of the hardest working young men I’ve ever met! His parents live in Moscow, but the family is originally from Japan, and Ryoto moved to California by himself while in high school to train and prepare for college. He and my son spent a lot of time together over the next few days, hitting and talking about college and tennis and life in SoCal. Ryoto’s mom was in town visiting, so we all had dinner together Tuesday night at Sugarfish, a sushi restaurant highly recommended by UCLA Assistant Coach Grant Chen – it was delicious!

In keeping with our theme of college campus visits, Wednesday found us on the Pepperdine campus for my son to hit with team member Alex “Sasha” Solonin. Every time I step foot on that campus, I’m in awe of its beauty. It’s situated atop a hillside in Malibu overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Because summer tennis camp was in session, the boys wound up playing on the lower courts while we sat on the steps staring at the water in the background. Wow! I actually left for a bit and went for a walk on the beach in hopes of catching a glimpse of the ocean-sides of some of the Malibu beach houses, but there’s a giant fence blocking access. Oh well. Late that afternoon, my son met Ryoto on the UCLA campus to work out at the gym while I visited with head coach Billy Martin back at the tennis center.

Thursday was another hit with Ryoto at UCLA. The boys started on the main courts but wound up moving to another set of courts near the dorms, so it was a great opportunity for my son to see another area of the campus. They played a couple of sets while Ryoto’s mom and I chatted about the challenges of having your child on the other side of the world. She comes to the States at least twice a year to visit him, and Ryoto gets home to Moscow and Tokyo once a year, but still – it’s a long way from home! I asked her how Ryoto decided to move to California to train and go to school, and she told me that it’s very difficult for athletes in Japan to develop in their sport while achieving academically – they typically have to choose between their sport or their education. The American college system offers a great opportunity to do both.

We headed back to the UCLA courts on Friday morning for one last hitting session with Ryoto. While the boys were on court, my husband and I took advantage of the gorgeous weather and went for a long walk around our alma mater. There have definitely been some changes on campus over the past 29 years! That night, we met up with Steve Bellamy for a late dinner in Malibu at Nobu and enjoyed some amazing food while overlooking the ocean – heaven!

The ITA Summer Circuit tournament at Cal State LA started on Saturday morning. Since my son didn’t really know anyone playing in the tourney, he was struggling to find a warm-up partner, but Steve came through for him and set up an early morning hit at his courts with Katie LaFrance who was there from Arkansas training at the tennis center. Apparently, Katie did a great job of getting my son ready for his match because he pulled out a tight one over the 7 seed in the first round then went on to win his second match 0 & 0! All the practice matches he had played during the week prepared him so well for his tournament opponents. He was definitely in Fight Mode out there! Those first two matches were played at Azusa Pacific University, about an hour northeast of where we were staying. The weather in the desert is much different than what we had been experiencing all week – it was incredibly hot (over 100 degrees on court) and dry with very little breeze and zero shade on the courts.

One of the highlights of Saturday was the fact that my son had a sizeable cheering section for his first match. My Facebook (and, now, real life) friend, Karl Rosenstock, was there to shoot some photos and videos of the tournament. Another Facebook friend and fellow tennis parent, Bobby Chacoin, brought his daughter Izzy out to watch, too. And my brother brought his two kids out as well. It was great to see everyone and for my son to hear their support throughout a tough first round.

The next day, my son had an early warmup at Cal State for his 3rd round match against the middle son of USC head coach Peter Smith. Unfortunately, Riley got the better of my kid that morning, but there were some very valuable take-aways from the match. Ross Greenstein of Scholarship for Athletes was at the tournament and watched my son play. Afterward, he and my son went out for lunch to discuss the match, some things my son can work on over the next few months, and the progress my son is making with his tennis and his college recruiting.

We were scheduled to fly home Monday afternoon but still had a couple of things to accomplish before we headed to the airport. We made one last drive up PCH to Malibu for my son to check in with Craig Cignarelli. We then hopped over to Pepperdine for my son to meet with newly-appointed head coach Marcelo Ferreira. Did I mention how gorgeous that campus is?!?!? Then, off to LAX for our flight home.

It was an incredible trip, one in which my son learned and grew as a player and a man. Each time we take one of these excursions, I realize how much tennis is giving him and how much it is helping him learn the lessons that will serve him so well the rest of his life.

Enjoy the photos!


The Invaluable Experience


Photo courtesy of Ralf Cheung & The Daily Trojan

Two-time USC All-American Tennis Player Says College Sports are the Experience of a Lifetime

Reflecting on her successful college tennis career, Danielle Lao, a two-time All-American at USC thought she might have some valuable information to share with others either enrolled at colleges and universities around the country, thinking about playing college sports, or even sports fans wondering what the college experience is like for a elite athlete. Months ago, Lao started putting her thoughts down in an online Tumblr blog that started gaining more and readers. The blog didn’t talk about any one topic, but Lao answered questions many student-athletes might have. After a little prodding, Lao decided to turn her writings into a Kindle book. “Turning my blog posts in a book was a great way to organize my scattered thoughts that I was slowly collecting since the end of my collegiate career,” explained Lao.

The recent USC graduate thinks the lessons that can be learned from playing sports are “invaluable” life experiences.

“College tennis was such a pivotal part in my development as a player as well as a person and my hope is to share with as many people as I can, how college is such an invaluable experience,” adds Lao. “Whether it is reaching out to the upcoming generation entering college, reassuring current student-athletes,or making graduates smile about the sense of deja vu they feel from reading this book, I want to be able to be a voice that says college sports packs something incredibly special.”

This fall, Lao embarked on a professional tennis career, and wants to stress the fact that playing college sports is a privilege that select few get to experience.

Lao says get the most of the experience.

“College sports are something so unique. My biggest desire is that the world can grow to appreciate what it takes for student athletes to excel at what they do. More importantly, I hope that every student athlete grows to know how blessed and privileged they are to acquire such a title.”

“The Invaluable Experience” is available as a Kindle download on To hear more from Danielle about her experience at USC and on the pro tour, be sure to tune into the ParentingAces Radio Show on Monday, January 6th. Fight on, Danielle!