©Colette Lewis 2008--
Second seed Lauren Embree and No. 1 seed Bradley Klahn had not lost a set in reaching the finals of the USTA 18s Spring Championships, but those streaks ended Saturday morning, when Kristie Ahn and Dennis Nevolo took 6-4, 6-3 victories from them to capture titles at the Mobile Tennis Center.
Nevolo's win over Klahn, the USTA Winter champion, gave the Fighting Illini recruit 14 straight sets won during a dominant week of tennis. The return of serve has always been one of Nevolo's strengths, and Saturday was no exception. Entering the final, Klahn had only been broken three times in his previous six matches; Nevolo had earned four breaks by the opening game of the second set.
"He returns so well," said the 17-year-old Klahn, who will attend Stanford this fall. "He put a lot of pressure on me to make first serves. When I missed them, I knew I had to hit a decent second serve or he was going to step up and attack it and get me on the defense right away."
Klahn was unable to draw even in the opening set after surrendering two breaks to fall behind 3-0. The gusty winds resulted in unforced errors from both players, but Klahn seemed to be more affected by the unpredictability. Nevolo's strategy also forced Klahn into uncomfortable positions on the court.
"With the wind today it was very tough to play like I have been most of the tournament," said Nevolo, 18. "I had to roll a few balls until I got the one ball that I needed, and then I was able to hit out. I went high to his backhand and tried to pull him off the court. He's got a really good forehand, so you can't leave a lot of balls just sitting. You have to hurt him."
Serves that Klahn's previous opponents couldn't handle came back from Nevolo, and forehands that were outright winners earlier in the week were not Saturday morning. One such blast from Klahn landed at Nevolo's feet within inches of the baseline, but somehow he directed it back with equal force past the approaching Klahn. It was one of several jaw-dropping reflex shots Nevolo pulled out, like rabbits out of a magician's hat. After another such shot, when an out-of-position Nevolo dipped a pass by Klahn, who though he had the net covered, Klahn could only shake his head and mutter "yeah, right."
After losing in last year's final to Brennan Boyajian, Gurnee, Ill.'s Nevolo credits his court positioning for his success in both last month's National Open tournament title and in Mobile.
"I'm not backing up as much, I'm holding my ground a lot better this year, dictating play inside the baseline," said Nevolo, who also mentioned his more stoic mental state recently. "I've been working on that for a long time, to try to stay composed as much as possible. I don't want to wear myself out by screaming at myself."
Nevolo broke Klahn in the first game of the second set, when the left-hander from Poway, Calif., chipped in with three unforced errors. Klahn had only two break chances in the second set, both with Nevolo serving at 3-2, but he capitalized on neither, and Nevolo wasn't challenged in his next service game. In the final game, Klahn held off one break point with a service winner, but he sent a forehand wide two points later to give Nevolo the victory.
The score of the girls' final may have been the same, but the similarities end there. Embree, last year's finalist, and Ahn, a 15-year-old playing for the first time in Mobile, battled from the baseline for over two hours before deciding the winner of the gold ball.
Embree had won their last three meetings, so Ahn was determined to make some changes in her approach.
"I had to really stick to my game plan--no matter what, just keep hitting the ball, even if I was missing a bit," said Ahn, who is from Upper Saddle River, NJ. "I knew I couldn't play long points with her, because she's really good at that. And she's such a fighter, so at no point in the match, could I loosen up or anything."
Down 4-0 in the second set, Embree showed what Ahn meant, holding and breaking to get back into the match. But when she lost her serve again, for the fifth time, in the next game to give Ahn a 5-2 lead, the glimmer of hope she had to reach a third set expired.
Ahn, who admits to being less-than-comfortable at the net, was quick to move in if she got a short ball, although her putaways were not volleys, but rather blasts to the corners. Ahn also attacked Embree's second serve with increasing frequency and used her pace to produce floaters she could finish.
"She was definitely more aggressive than I was," said Embree, 17, of Marco Island, Fla. "And her forehand was on today. She played really well; she's an awesome player."
Ahn was the first to admit that the score was no indication of the breadth and depth of the battle.
"The score doesn't really matter," said Ahn. "If you were there, you would know we played our hearts out. I think we both know we tried our best."
The consolation and bronze ball matches were also played on Saturday morning. No. 5 seed Alex Domijan repeated as boys' consolation champion with a 6-2, 6-2 victory over No. 9 seed Kevin King. Fifth place in the girls' division went to No. 3 seed Keri Wong, who defeated No. 1 seed Christina McHale 6-7(3), 6-2, 7-5. The boys' bronze ball went to No. 3 seed Brennan Boyajian a 7-5, 6-3 winner over Drew Courtney. Eleventh seed Lilly Kimbell took third place in the girls' division with a 6-2, 6-1 decision over No. 16 seed Hanna Mar.
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Saturday, March 15, 2008