It was one heck of a tournament for Brayden Schnur. Entering the ATP 250 New York Open last week his main tour record was 0-5. But in just six days, after winning two qualifying matches, he went to 4-6 and almost to 5-5 before losing a thriller final 6-1, 6-7(7), 7-6(7) to Reilly Opelka.
There were all kinds of plot twists in the two-hour championship match, starting in the very first game. Schnur, who would manage zero break points on the 6-foot-11 Opelka’s monster serve during the match, had 0-30 and then 15-30 in his opponent’s opening service game. The 21-year-old American, who had won a serve-fest (81 aces) against compatriot John Isner 6-7(8), 7-6(14), 7-6(4) in the semi-finals, looked a little shaky out of the blocks. On the 15-30 point, Schnur got into a rally with Opelka and unwisely went for an aggressive backhand down-the-line, which he missed wide. He probably should have played more conservatively, challenging an antsy Opelka to maintain the rally. Not surprisingly Opelka, back to 30-all, quickly won the game with the first two of his 43 aces.
Schnur regretted the decision to go for that backhand at 15-30, later admitting, “I knew he was at his most vulnerable in that first game.” It might have been his best chance all match to break serve.
The rest of the way in the first set Schnur was well below par but re-set in the second – without an off-court comfort break it should be noted – and played well.
He saved two break points at 4-all, the second with a gutsy inside/out forehand winner, in a game that he basically had to have to keep his hopes alive.
In the subsequent tiebreak, he saved a championship point at 5-6 with bold volleying and then a second with an improbable Opelka double fault (one of just two on the day). Two points later Schnur leveled the match when Opelka hit a forehand service return long.
In the third set, Schnur had to save three break points down 1-2 but then was the more poised of the two players as Opelka appeared still rattled by that double fault on championship point in the second-set tiebreak.
But in the decisive final-set tiebreak – with Schnur making a poor backhand unforced error to go down 2-4 and a poor forehand unforced error to fall behind 4-6 – Opelka got to a third and a fourth championship point. On the first Schnur hit a service winner and on the second – with Opelka serving – he made the return and then hit a low backhand passing shot that forced a pop-up volley allowing him to put away a forehand passing shot.
Schnur saved a fifth championship point with an approach to the backhand that forced an Opelka passing shot error into the net.
Earlier in the match, the TennisTV.com commentator had said, “it does feel like it’s written in the stars for Brayden Schnur.”
At 7-all, that prophesy seemed to be coming true when Schnur hit an ace to finally set up a championship point of his own – against an Opelka who by then had to be feeling completely snake-bit after all his missed chances. The Opelka electronic review challenge wasn’t immediate and it looked as if he would serve facing the first championship point against him. But he did challenge and – as shown here – the serve down-the-middle was out by a whisker.
The pause didn’t help Schnur and his second serve clipped the top of the net and fell back for only his second double fault of the day. The electronic review proved to be a devastating reversal of fortune for Schnur. On the next point, his sixth championship point, Opelka belted his 43rd ace to seal the 6-1, 6-7(7), 7-6(7) victory and win his first ATP Tour title.
Later Opelka, from West Palm Beach, Fla., would say about the reversed call at 7-all “that challenge was probably the difference” in the match.
As for Schnur, he commented after the disappointment of the loss, “it’s a dream come true, an amazing week for me. It just sucks to go down the way it happened…to have a challenge at 7-all that close, and then a 30-second break, almost, and then hit a second serve into the net to double fault – super tough.”
About his opponent in the final, he said, “I would actually rather have played Isner because he didn’t look as comfortable off the ground all week as Reilly.”
Having started the week at No. 154, Schnur’s ATP ranking improves to No. 107 – just three spots outside the cut-off for main draw at the French Open and Wimbledon. He would have gone all the way up to about No. 88 had he won.
There has been a lot of coverage of Schnur’s tearful trophy presentation speech when he talked about how so many people had helped him during his career, especially his parents, and how unlikely reaching the final of the ATP 250 would have seemed to him just a week earlier.
It’s hard to deny that there was certainly an aspect of Schnur having earned his success – having paid his dues. He was no better than No. 26 (2013) in the International Tennis Federation combined (singles and doubles) rankings as a junior and then he did well in three seasons of college tennis at the University of North Carolina (UNC) where he won the 2015 USTA/ITA National Indoor Collegiate Championship and was a three-time All-American.
The grit-grinding of being an aspiring pro is obvious in Schnur’s travels in the minor leagues of pro tennis in 2018. Here are the places he went to, mostly for Challenger and Futures events: Australia – USA – Mexico – Canada – Guadeloupe – Mexico – South Korea – Great Britain. And guess what? – that was only until the end of June. Here’s the rest of 2018: Canada (four Challengers and the Rogers Cup qualifying) – USA – China – Chinese Taipei – China – India.
The 23-year-old from Pickering, Ont., now resident in Montreal and coached by Tennis Canada’s Fredéric Niemeyer, has made many friends and impressed his peers and coaches at every level. When he decided to leave college and turn pro in August, 2016, after two and half years at UNC, his collage coach Sam Paul said, “Brayden had unprecedented success in his time at UNC. No other player I’ve coached in 27 years at Carolina had as many accolades.”
It’s always dangerous to make projections based on one strong week, but at 6-foot-4 Schnur certainly looks like he has the complete package to be a successful pro. He has excellent ground strokes, especially a big forehand, he volleys confidently, has a first-rate serve and good service returns. He’s a powerful athlete and moves well for his size. But most of all, at the New York Open he displayed an excellent match-playing temperament.
He saved two match points and recovered from a 2-5 deficit in the final set to beat No. 34-ranked Steve Johnson 6-4, 4-6, 7-6(4) in the second round, overcame losing a first set tiebreak after having quadruple set point to beat No. 111 Paolo Lorenzi 6-7(7), 7-6(5), 7-5 in the quarter-finals and then saved five set points in the opening set on his way to upsetting No. 49 Sam Querrey 7-6(7), 4-6, 6-3 in the semi-finals.
“Beating Johnson was my happiest day of the tournament,” Schnur said. “It was my first top-50 win.”
Following the victory over Lorenzi, he noted, “today’s win is because of my mental strength.” That applied to all his matches, including the final where he was incredibly resilient faced with Opelka’s oppressive serving.
“I’ve been working on playing point by point,” Schnur said. “I’ve been doing meditation and it’s made a huge difference in my game. It’s important to put things in perspective and not get too discouraged.”
Last April-May-June, he lost five first-round matches in a row in Leon (Mexico), Seoul (South Korea), Gimcheon (South Korea), Busan (South Korea) and Surbiton (England).
The following week, on grass for a second consecutive week, he won two qualifying matches and two main-draw matches at a Challenger in Nottingham.
It was during those weeks – including losing in the final round of qualifying for Wimbledon 7-6(3), 5-7, 6-1 to Christian Harrison of the U.S. – that he changed his serving routine. He introduced a shortcut, starting his motion without bouncing the ball.
“Last year on grass I kind of picked it up,” Schnur explained about no-bounce serving. “And ever since I was serving well so I kind of stuck with it. I guess it’s turned into a trademark. Everyone has been asking me about it this week.”
Schnur received a special exempt spot in the ATP 250 main draw at the Delray Beach Open and will play No. 51-ranked Adrian Mannarino in the first round on Tuesday. It won’t be easy after such an emotional week in New York. “I’m pretty tired and the body’s pretty sore,” he admitted on Monday. “The last couple of weeks I’ve done a lot of serving and I haven’t been sleeping that well at night. The body is a little bit drained.”
After Delray Beach, Schnur plans to play three Challengers in China starting in March. He had not signed up for the qualifying for Indian Wells and Miami and so the commitment to the events in China prevents him from entering those Masters 1000 tournaments. “I still haven’t won a Challenger so it’s a huge goal,” he said about heading to China, “and I can go back and work on my game.”
With just 58 ranking points to defend between now and the second week of June, Schnur has a good chance to make even more progress – but he’s not putting any extra pressure on himself. “I have leeway to improve some more,” he said. “If I get enough points to get into the top-100, fine – I know it will come eventually.”
The ‘ballpersons’ at the New York Open came with one huge plus – they were able to skip classes and get time off school last week. That was mainly because they were mostly of a certain age, with their school days several decades in the past.
Feature photo: Alex Smith / New York Open