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Friday, June 12, 2009

Qualifiers Battle Back to Reach Singles Finals; Doubles Champions Crowned at Grass Courts

©Colette Lewis 2009--
Philadelphia, PA--

The sun finally made an appearance at the International Grass Courts, but the change in the weather didn't change the fortunes of qualifiers Lauren Davis and Michael Zhu, who kept their winning streaks intact with come-from-behind wins Friday afternoon.

Zhu, a 16-year-old who is commuting from his home in Princeton, absorbed the loss of the first set for the second consecutive match with No. 1 seed JT Sundling cruising through the opener 6-2. But Zhu took a quick lead in the second set, making Sundling play from behind, and although the 18-year-old Californian pulled even, then took at 5-4 lead, the next game was key. Serving at 4-5 deuce, Zhu was only two points from a straight-set loss, but he won the next two points, broke Sundling in the following game, and momentum was all on his side.

Serving at 3-2 in the third set, Zhu went down 0-40, got to deuce, then saved three more break points to take a 4-2 lead. With a second break of Sundling in the next game, Zhu had some breathing room and he served out the match, despite facing a break point in the final game.

"I'm really confident in my returns," said Zhu, who has now won seven matches since he began qualifying last Saturday. "I can place them and come in right off it. My serve is consistent--I focus on getting my first serve in and making the volley. Once you make the volley, it's really easy to dominate the point."

Zhu will face No. 4 seed Raymond Sarmiento, who also possesses an excellent return game, and a willingness to volley. It took Sarmiento two sets to get a rhythm against unseeded Emmett Egger, but he eventually found it to take a 7-6(5), 4-6, 6-1 decision.

Sarmiento was unable to break Egger until the third set, but in the opening set tiebreaker, he took a 6-3 lead when Egger didn't win either point serving down 3-4. Two set points went begging however, as Sarmiento lost his next two serves to make it 6-5. On his final chance, Sarmiento threaded a forehand past the net-hugging Egger to claim the set.

There was only one break in the second set, with Egger getting it at 2-2, and he made it stand up. But in the final set, Sarmiento broke in the second game and again in the sixth to eliminate any drama.

"He was serving very well, especially his first serve," Sarmiento said. "He made a high percentage of his first serves and it was tough for me to win those points. I started to get a consistent rhythm, anticipated a couple of his serves, got a break, and I got rolling."

Sarmiento and Zhu have never played, but given the qualifier's results this week, Sarmiento knows better than to take his opponent lightly.

"I haven't watched him much, but I've heard from others that he can hit the ball pretty big," Sarmiento said. "He can serve well, return well, has good hands, so it'll be a good battle. Grass is definitely an equalizer, and anything can happen on the grass."

Most of what happened to qualifier Lauren Davis in the first set of her semifinal match with Rio Kitagawa was slipping and errors, as she tried to find the form that had seen her win five consecutive matches in straight sets. The 15-year-old from Ohio eventually did, earning a 3-6, 6-2, 6-1 victory and her first berth in an ITF final.

"The fact that the grass was wet was getting into my head," said Davis, who had practiced prior to the tournament on a grass court at a club near her home outside of Cleveland, Ohio. "It shouldn't have bothered me, but I kept on sliding. And she was hitting hard--I don't think I was prepared for that."

Kitagawa used her forehand to keep Davis off balance in the opening set, but couldn't sustain that level when Davis began to slice often and come to the net more. After dropping the second set, Kitagawa, a 15-year-old from Japan, seemed to lose her focus, and the only game she won in the final set was with Davis serving for the match at 5-0.

Davis will face top seed Brooke Bolender for the first time when they meet in Saturday morning's final, and after saving match points in her second round win over Nicole Melichar, Bolender is starting to feel more at home on the surface.

"It's a comfort level," said Bolender, 17. "I think I've accepted the fact that you have to come in, even if you don't want to."

Against unseeded Chanelle Van Nguyen Friday, Bolender started well and held on for a 6-1, 6-4 victory.

Van Nguyen couldn't get her shots to find the court in the first set, but she played much better from the start of the second, breaking Bolender for the first time at 3-3. Unfortunately, she gave the break right back in the following game, and when Bolender held to take a 5-4 lead, the pressure was squarely on the 15-year-old from Florida. She saved three match points in the epic ten-deuce game that followed, one an error by Bolender, but the other two on drop shot and lob winners. Van Nguyen then had five game points, one a seemingly easy volley that she couldn't shovel over the net, but Bolender fought them all off, and gained a fourth match point. Van Nguyen sent a forehand long to end the game that had taken nearly as long as the third set of the Davis-Kitagawa match, and Bolender was relieved.

"If it would have gone to 5-all, I would have been a little nervous," said Bolender. "I was nervous in that game, because she was playing better in the second set than she did in the first, and she put a lot of pressure on me to close it out, so I was happy I did."


Van Nguyen got her revenge in the doubles final Friday afternoon, when she and partner Kyle McPhillips came from behind to take a 2-6, 6-2, 10-2 victory over Bolender and her partner Breaunna Addison in a battle of unseeded finalists. In the first set, McPhillips and Van Nguyen couldn't convert game points when they had them, but they reversed that trend by winning a deciding point on Bolender's serve in the second game of the second set, and ran out to a 4-0 lead.

"We were up 40-15 so many times in the first set," said McPhillips. "We couldn't close out the games. That was a big thing we kind of screwed up on that we fixed in the second set."

In the match tiebreaker, 15-year-olds McPhillips and Van Nguyen, who reached the Easter Bowl semifinals in April, continued their excellent play, while the level of Addison and Bolender dropped noticeably. As the errors mounted for their opponents, McPhillips and Van Nguyen kept the pressure on, rolling to their first title together in their six months as a team.

"I think what makes us really good is that we're best friends," McPhillips said. "We communicate well."

Top seeds Sarmiento and Nathan Pasha fashioned a 6-2, 5-1 lead against unseeded Egger and partner Andrew Korinek in the boys final late Friday afternoon, but were a point from 5-5 in the second set before winning a third deciding match point for a 6-2, 6-4 victory.

"On grass anything can happen so quickly," said Sarmiento. "One point here or there, and definitely the deuce point."

Serving at 1-5 and at 3-5, Egger and Korinek saved match points on those deciding points, and had Sarmiento down 15-40 when he was serving for the match at 5-4. Sarmiento and Pasha needed to win those last three points if they were to stave off the comeback, and they did. Sarmiento hit a service winner and Pasha put away a volley to get to the deciding point, and Egger netted a forehand volley to give Pasha and Sarmiento the title.

It was the second consecutive International Grass Court title for Sarmiento, who won it last year with Jordan Cox.

Despite the new partner, "it feels exactly the same as last year," said Sarmiento, who lives in the room next to Pasha at the USTA's Boca Raton Training Center. Neither would claim the same relationship as Van Nguyen and McPhillips, but both did jokingly concede that the other was "all right."

The schedule for Saturday is the girls final at 11:00 a.m. with the boys final to follow.

For complete draws, see the TennisLink site.