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Friday, September 10, 2010

Kudla, Sock and Stephens Still in the Hunt for U.S. Open Titles

©Colette Lewis 2010--
Flushing Meadows, NY--

The cool and cloudy conditions that have settled over New York the past two days are a reminder that the change of seasons is underway. But Americans Jack Sock, Denis Kudla and Sloane Stephens are not quite ready to make the same exit that summer has made, with all three reaching the semifinals of the U.S. Open Junior Championships.

Stephens, the No. 15 seed, defeated Australian Open girls champion and No. 6 seed Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 to earn a meeting with top seed Daria Gavrilova of Russia. Gavrilova was tested by American qualifier Robin Anderson in their quarterfinal match, but she prevailed 6-4, 6-4 in an entertaining and well-played match between two of the quickest players in the field.

Stephens and Pliskova started out slowly, with Stephens looking particularly tense. Serving at 2-3, Stephens gave Pliskova the break without requiring the tall Czech to hit the ball.

"I was really nervous at the beginning. I double faulted three times in a row in one game," said the 17-year-old, who is originally from Florida but now lives in Southern California, and trains at the USTA West Coast Center in Carson.

Pliskova served out the set, and when Stephens lost the opening game of the second set, her prospects dimmed. But in what was to become a pattern, Pliskova was unable to consolidate the break, and it was then that Stephens began to hit more freely, using her forehand to force errors. Pliskova made a series of errors of the unforced variety serving at 3-4, but Stephens couldn't finish the set despite one set point. Serving at 4-5, Pliskova had two game points at 40-15, but Pliskova chipped in a couple unforced errors, and Stephens stepped up with a well-executed backhand volley winner followed by a forehand that Pliskova couldn't get a racquet on. When Pliskova made a forehand error on the next point to give Stephens the set, she gave her racquet a angry fling and received a racquet abuse warning, just as Stephens had during the first set.

In the third set, Stephens was again broken to start the set, but she didn't panic.

"Even though I got broken in the opening game--I double faulted twice in that game too--I knew I could break her. I knew we were switching ends, it was windy and I thought she'd have trouble with the wind."

Stephens was right, as she got the break right back and then broke Pliskova again. Serving at 4-2, Stephens got up 40-15, but it turned into a four-deuce game, and again double faults, two of the nine Stephens had, played a role. Pliskova got the break, but she never got even, as Stephens broke right back to serve for the match.

Stephens allowed no room for hope, and Pliskova showed minimal resistance, barely putting a ball in play as Stephens served it out at love.

Stephens and partner Timea Babos of Hungary, the third seeds, later won their semifinal doubles match 6-2, 7-5 over top seeds Gavrilova and Irina Khromacheva of Russia. When asked about the relative importance of a third consecutive junior slam doubles title or her first junior slam singles title, Stephens replied that they were "equally important."

"I've found a good partner, and I enjoy playing with her," said Stephens. "It's not like it's hard to go out there. We play well together and if we play aggressive like we have, we have a good chance."

Stephens and Babos will play the unseeded team of An-Sophie Mestach of Belgium and Silvia Njiric of Croatia in Saturday's girls doubles final. Stephens and Babos already own a victory over their finals opponents, a straight-set win in the Wimbledon quarterfinals.

Stephens also beat Gavrilova at Wimbledon in the second round of the singles before falling in the quarterfinals to eventual champion Kristyna Pliskova, Karolina's twin.

The other girls semifinal will feature two unseeded players, Yulia Putintseva of Russia against Roland Garros finalist Ons Jabeur of Tunisia. Jabeur downed unseeded Caroline Garcia of France 6-2, 6-4, while the 15-year-old Putintseva continued her string of upsets by defeating No. 5 seed Monica Puig of Puerto Rico by the same score.

In the boys quarterfinals, Sock continued his impressive play with a 6-3, 7-6(4) win over No. 13 seed Victor Baluda of Russia. Sock, a wild card, has not lost a set in his four victories, and is 3-0 in tiebreakers.

Against Baluda, Sock took an early 3-0 lead, and although he was broken serving at 3-1, he got the cushion right back and served out the first set.

Both players held to start the second, but serving at 1-2, Sock was broken at love. Again however, Sock got the break right back and each player held serve in the remaining games. Sock seemed less determined to hit his forehand on nearly every shot, using his two-hander and slice backhands more.

It might not have been much more than luck that kept Sock from a third set however, as in the tiebreaker he got two let cord winners, one to put him up 4-0 and the second to take a 6-2 lead. An understandably depressed Baluda saved two match points, but at 6-4, Sock got a first serve in and slammed a forehand winner into the corner to earn his spot in the semifinals.

"It was a little bit more calm than yesterday and the day before," Sock said. "I felt good out there. He played well, I played pretty well and it came down to the wire in the second set, and I got the W, so that was good."

Sock's next opponent is Wimbledon boys champion Marton Fucsovics of Hungary, the second seed. Fucsovics went to a third set for the third time in four matches against American Dennis Novikov, yet once again got the win, 6-2, 4-6, 6-3. Because Sock has played so few ITF events, he doesn't know much about the international juniors.

"I don't know anybody outside the Americans here, because I don't play ITFs," Sock said. "I watched him play a couple of games after my match and my coach watched him play for about half the match, but I really don't know much about him, so we'll see how it goes. I don't know many of the guys, so I'm just going out there and playing, trying to play my game. It's worked pretty well so far, so I'm going to just keep doing that."

Fucsovics does recall seeing Sock at last year's Orange Bowl, but isn't really familiar with his game.

"I heard he's playing very well, is playing Futures and Challengers, but I don't know anything about how he plays," said the 18-year-old Wimbledon champion, adding that winning a second junior slam is very important to him. "I haven't seen him play here, but we are in the semifinals, so I think he's playing pretty well."

While Sock's match got tougher as it progressed, Kudla's match with unseeded Filip Horansky of Slovakia got easier, with Kudla taking a 7-5, 6-1 decision on a near-empty Louis Armstrong Stadium.

"At 6-5 I told myself I need to be more aggressive," said the tenth seed, who has now reached his first junior slam semifinal. "So I broke and won the first set. This is a change, this is different," deadpanned Kudla, who had lost the first set in his first three matches and said if he didn't have a two-setter this week, he would be forced to do laundry.

"Then in the second set, I just kind of cruised. I was looking for the early break because when I broke him in the first set, just moving forward worked way easier."

Against No. 8 seed and French Open champion Agustin Velotti of Argentina in the semifinals, Kudla is looking to continue the aggressive play that contributed to his last two wins.

"He's such a fighter, obviously he won the French Open, so you know he loves long points. Luckily I train with Mitchell Frank, who plays similar to that, doesn't miss a ball."

Kudla and Velotti have split their two previous meetings in 2008 and 2009, ironically with Velotti winning on hard courts and Kudla on clay.

The chance for an all-American final is motivating for both Sock and Kudla.

"It would be great if we would play each other in the final. I felt like in Kalamazoo, it should have been the final," said Kudla who had three match points in his semifinal loss to Bob van Overbeek. "But to see each other in the final would be great. He's been going through the tournament a lot easier than I have, but today I think we both showed we belonged in this round."

"It's good that we have two guys in the semis," said Sock. "Half the guys left are American, so that's good and I hope we can both get through and have an all-American final. That'd be nice here at the U.S. Open. Credit him, and hopefully I'll see him in the final."

In the boys doubles, French Open champions and No. 3 seeds Duilio Beretta of Peru and Roberto Quiroz of Eucador will go for their second junior slam title Saturday against Oliver Golding of Great Britain and Jiri Vesely of the Czech Republic, the No. 4 seeds. Beretta and Quiroz won their fourth consecutive straight-set match over Guilherme Clezar and Tiago Fernandes of Brazil 6-0, 6-3. Golding and Vesley advanced to the final with a 7-6(6), 6-7(6), 10-6 win over Baluda and Alexander Rumyantsev.

For complete results and draws, as well as Saturday's schedule, see usopen.org.


Curious said...

Isn't Sloane originally from Fresno, CA? Or has she always lived in Florida (up until moving to Carson)?