©Colette Lewis 2009--
When Mitchell Frank and Denis Kudla met in the 16s Orange Bowl final in December, it wasn't much of a contest, with Kudla winning 6-0, 6-2. In their next meeting, a month later in the semifinals of the Grade 1 in Costa Rica, it was more competitive, but Kudla again posted a victory, this time by a 6-3, 6-3 score.
When the No. 1 seeded Kudla took the first set in their semifinal contest Saturday morning at the Home Depot Center, and held a break in the second, it looked as if the recent pattern would continue. But this time Frank broke the mold, winning the final two sets to record a 3-6, 7-5, 6-2 victory.
"Losing the Orange Bowl that bad actually helped me a lot," said the ninth-seeded Frank, who trains at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Md., alongside Kudla. "I realized what I needed to do. I've just played better on the important points."
After dropping the first set, where Frank said he played "too defensive," he took a 5-2 lead in the second, and although he failed in his first opportunity to serve for the set at 5-3, he broke Kudla at 5-6 to even the match.
"In the second and third, I just really stepped up and started to attack him a lot more. Knowing that I was going to step up, it forced him to go for some shots he didn't want to."
Frank continued to frustrate Kudla, who took it out on his racquet on several occasions. As the final set drew to a close, Frank was simply too steady for the top seed, who is currently ranked 16th among the ITF world juniors.
"At Orange Bowl he played extremely well," said Frank, who calculates that his appearance in the final means earning a spot in the main draw of the upcoming Junior Slams is likely now. "He really hasn't been playing quite as well this week, but he's so hard to take out, even if he's not playing well."
Withing minutes of the No. 1 seed going out, the No. 2 seed followed him to the sidelines, when Tennys Sandgren lost to No. 4 Evan King 7-5, 3-6, 6-3. Sandgren had won four consecutive three-setters this week, but he couldn't make it five, when King came back from 0-40 down at 3-3 in the third, and went on to win the final three games of the match.
Sandgren, who was irritated by some fans who were supporting King and let them know it, squandered four break point chances in that seventh game, and knew that he had given away a crucial opportunity.
"Merry Christmas," he yelled after a series of his unforced errors and a close call on a service winner gave King the lead.
In the next game, Sandgren, who had gotten out of many tight spots in his previous matches, couldn't do it again, double faulting on game point to give King a 5-3 lead. Serving for the match, King, who had recently traveled to Brazil with Sandgren, found himself at 30-30. He then struck one ace, and then another, ending the match with a blazing delivery down the T.
"I served well when I needed to," said King, who had lost to Sandgren in their past two meetings. "I think that was a big part of the match. At 30-all, 5-3, I hit two aces, and it was a relief not to have to grind some points."
King, who like Frank, is in his first Grade 1 final, knows he has his work cut out.
"Mitchell's been playing unbelievable," King said, who hasn't played Frank before. "I saw him play a good amount in Brazil. He was down 6-1, 5-1, 40-15 (at the Banana Bowl) and came back to win the match. The guy never gives up, he keeps fighting no matter what. So you have to stay focused, and don't think he'll ever give up, because he won't."
The girls final will also feature two players in their first Grade 1 final, unseeded Grace Min and No. 9 seed Sloane Stephens. Min, who downed No. 2 seed Beatrice Capra in the second round, claimed another Top 40 ITF victim on Saturday, when the 14-year-old from Georgia beat No. 3 seed Valeria Solovieva of Russia 6-3, 7-5.
Solovieva, who trains in Florida, is usually a very gritty and determined player, but something was missing on Saturday morning, according to Min.
"For some reason, it didn't look like she wanted to be out there," Min said. "She was getting impatient. I don't know whether she was hurt, or she just didn't feel like being there. It was weird, but I didn't want to lose an advantage like that."
Min got in position to close out the match when she broke Solovieva at 4-4 in the second set, and although she was unable to convert, she felt she still had the momentum, and the right strategy.
"I just focused on being patient, make her hit a lot balls and trying to keep it out of her strike zone," Min said. "So she wouldn't have a clean look at the ball. She ended up giving me a short ball, and I could attack her from there."
Stephens earned her berth in the finals with a 6-3, 6-2 win over No. 10 seed Nicole Gibbs, and it was the fifth game of the second set that propelled her to victory.
With Stephens serving, the game went to eight deuces, and Gibbs had five break points. It brought back memories for Stephens of a recent Pro Circuit tournament match.
"I played a tournament in Redding (Calif.) a couple of weeks ago and it was in the third set against Stephanie Dubois, and I lost that (2-all) game. I knew if I had just won that game, I could step up and be aggressive at 3-2, so I was really trying to push for that game. I knew if I didn't get this game, it would be hard to fight back."
Once Stephens held on her third game point to take a 3-2 lead, she didn't look back, and Gibbs, who is known for her comebacks, couldn't getting anything going, losing her next two service games and the match.
Min and Stephens will be meeting for the first time in Sunday's final, and despite being a little over a year older and the higher seed, Stephens insists there's no extra pressure.
"It's just like playing any other person," Stephens said. "If you've played five matches and beaten everyone, you've obviously done well, so now you just play."
Regardless of what happens on Easter Sunday, Stephens has already earned one championship this week. She and partner Mallory Burdette, the No. 3 seeds, downed unseeded Lauren Herring and Min 6-3, 6-1 to claim the girls doubles title. The longtime friends, who trained together at Nick Saviano's academy in Florida, were finalists at the U.S. Open Junior Championships last fall, and they are planning to play the upcoming Junior Slams together too.
"I feel we play our best when we're having fun and laughing," said Burdette. "You miss a shot, and who cares?, keep going. I think we've definitely gotten a lot better with that, more relaxed together. That's probably the best part about being good friends with your doubles partner."
In boys doubles, unseeded Lawrence Formentera and Mousheg Hovhannisyan earned their spot in the final with a 6-1, 6-3 win over No. 8 seeds Tigre Hank and German Sanchez Delfin of Mexico on Saturday morning. They had only a few hours to enjoy their status as finalists however, as they were back on court against Sandgren and his partner Ryan Noble, the No. 5 seeds. Noble and Sandgren won all the key points in the first set--Formentera and Hovhannisyan had 10 game points before they finally won one--and came from a break down in the second to record a 6-0, 6-4 win.
Noble and Sandgren have played together before, but without much success.
"I'm not sure we've ever won a match together," said Noble, who reached the final of the ISC last year with Alexei Grigorov of Russia. "And we've played together like four times. My dad actually told me to pick anybody but Tennys."
Despite the success of the partnership in this tournament, Noble and Sandgren won't be continuing together for the Easter Bowl. Sandgren is playing with Bob van Overbeek, and Noble is playing with frequent partner Bo Seal.
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Saturday, April 11, 2009
©Colette Lewis 2009--