©Colette Lewis 2006
Palm Springs CA--
Sixteen-year-olds Donald Young and Kim Couts won't be returning to the Riviera Resort and Racquet Club in Palm Springs, but as the 2006 ITF Easter Bowl Champions, they both will remember it fondly. Slated to be razed, the main site of the Easter Bowl is a special place for each of them, but for different reasons.
Couts will look back on her 6-1, 5-7, 6-3 victory over unseeded Reka Zsilinszka as the day she brought her game to a higher level, while Young's 6-3, 6-1 win over Dennis Lajola erases the disappointment of his 2005 tournament.
"Last year I didn't go out the way I wanted to go out," said Young, remembering his straight-set quarterfinal loss to Michael Shabaz. "I think this is my last Easter Bowl, so I can go away having no regrets."
Rarely tested throughout the week, Young, the tournament's top seed, gave Lajola a clinic in defensive tennis while the desert breezes swirled through Stadium Court Sunday afternoon. Lajola, seeded sixth, had beaten Young in their last meeting in 2004, but any psychological edge he may have had evaporated quickly, when Young broke Lajola three straight times to take the first set.
"The wind kind of bothered me," said Lajola, 17. "But he just played well. He makes you play. He puts it in your mind-- if you're not making your shots--and you start overplaying. It's the pressure of him not missing."
Young agrees that consistency is one of his strengths, and when coupled with his court speed and defensive skills, frustration enters the fray.
"I get a lot of balls in," said the Chicago native, now living in Atlanta. "That's what I try to do, make them go for shots they don't want to hit, and my speed puts pressure on them to hit a better shot than they would usually go for."
Lajola found himself doing just that in the second set, but although the game score was lopsided, Young didn't feel it was a stroll.
"I thought it was a pretty good match," said Young, who will head for Florida and the Pro Circuit events there next month. "The scores don't indicate how close it was and how well we played."
Couts and Zsilinszka battled for nearly two and a half hours to determine the girls championship, although the first set was no contest.
"I knew what game style she was going to play," Couts said, knowing that Zsilinszka possesses foot speed and retrieving skills similar to Young's. "I just came out really agressive and really did not miss any shots in that first set."
But the tenor of the contest changed immediately in the second set, when Couts was broken for the first time in the opening game.
"I told myself I'm not going to miss anything," said Zsilinszka, 16. "She was playing amazing, but she started to miss more. The wind out there made it a little tricky."
"She raised her game a little bit," the sixth seeded Couts said of the second set reversal. "She didn't miss as many balls and she tracked down a few extra balls. I still had opportunities, but I lost it 7-5, and after I came back from a bathroom break, I said to myself 'I want this and I'm really going to fight and do everything I can to try to get it.'"
Couts got back to her first set form, taking a 5-1 third set lead before Zsilinszka closed the gap to 5-3. Zsilinszka saved one match point when Couts made an error, on her second chance, Couts made no mistake, pounding a backhand winner to take the match and her first ITF Grade 1 title.
"Someone said to me afterward that I looked more relieved than excited," said Couts. "It was 5-1, then 5-3 and that was a close game too, so yeah, and there was some relief there for sure. She put up a great fight."
Couts, who reached the round of 16 in the Australian Junior Open this year and played ITF events in South America prior to the Easter Bowl, believes that her exposure to other world class juniors helped her on Sunday.
"You can really take a lot of confidence and a lot of experience from that," Couts said. "But having said that, she's a great competitor and a great player to be in this position today. She's had an incredible year so far in USTA events. But the ITFs are where it's at I think, to gain the experience to jump to the next level, the pros, and that's my goal."
Zsilinszka is just coming to terms her game's new stature, and will enter the Top 100 in the ITF rankings, after having been in the 400s earlier this year.
"I think I'm catching up," she said. "I had two goals for this year. One was to be number one in the country in the 18s, and I got there in February," said the often self-deprecating high school junior. "The other, longer term goal, was to get into the U.S. Junior Open."
But there are two Junior Grand Slams before that, and she and her father have started to talk about the possibility of playing those too.
Her short term plans include some junk food and she celebrated her great tournament week with a bag of potato chips and a slice of cheesecake after her match.
"Anything goes now," she said happily.