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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Collins Wins Second Consecutive USTA 18s Spring National Championship; McCourt Takes First Gold Ball with Comeback Win

©Colette Lewis 2011--
Mobile, AL--

Three weeks ago, Danielle Collins and Zack McCourt had lost early at the National Open in their home state of Florida, so taking home gold balls at the USTA 18s National Spring Champions less than a month later stretched even their vivid imaginations. But Collins' 6-1, 6-1 win over Catherine Harrison, and McCourt's 4-6, 6-3, 6-1 victory over Austin Smith proved again that fortunes can change quickly in the game of tennis.

"We didn't have the best experience in Tampa two weeks ago," said Collins, a 17-year-old from St. Petersburg. "I think we cried together. We were sulking, it was bad."

McCourt was even less diplomatic in his assessment of his experience at the tournament.

"That National Open was disgusting," said McCourt, an 18-year-old from Weston. "I couldn't serve, couldn't get the ball in the court. I was actually thinking how in the world am I going to play a Supernational in Mobile? What am I doing?"

But once he arrived in Mobile, McCourt, a No. 17 seed, changed his focus.

"I realized that, at this level, playing smart is going do more than your great ground strokes and big serves. Mentally, you have to be the strongest if you're going to do this."

McCourt proved he had taken his own advice to heart in the opening set, when he lost the first five games to the unseeded Smith, yet stayed positive and went on to win the next four. Nervousness might have been a logical explanation for McCourt's slow start, given that he had never been in a National final before, but he said it was actually the opposite. Nerves were a problem for him overnight and when he woke up, but if anything, he said he was "too loose" when play actually began.

Even though McCourt fell short of a complete comeback when Smith broke him serving at 4-5, the message was sent.

"I feel like I got lucky actually to get away with that set," said Smith, a 17-year-old from Georgia. "It was so big for him, the momentum change. Even though I'd barely got the set, he'd won four games and I'd won one. He just started making more balls, stayed on top of the baseline, stayed on top of me, never giving me any time to set up for any shots. He played really well."

McCourt went up 4-1 in the second set, pressuring Smith's serve, which he broke four times, including the last game of the set. McCourt, who went three sets in his semifinal win over Nicholas Naumann, thought that experience gave him an advantage.

"Not only was he kind of mentally worn out, he hadn't had any three-setters the whole tournament," said McCourt, who will play for Princeton in the fall. "Since he hadn't had any three-setters to give him confidence in the third set, I thought I would have the edge mentally, because I would know how to handle it."

Smith struggled with his service return and his backhand in the final set, while McCourt kept the pressure on by making Smith win points, committing few unforced errors while still playing aggressively. In the final game of the match, McCourt's serve was there when he needed it. Down 0-30 courtesy of two Smith winners, McCourt climbed back to match point with an ace, which was accompanied by a very loud "come on". A McCourt forehand long made it deuce, but two more service winners and McCourt had the victory, one he was calling "surreal" even 30 minutes later.

"I always believed that I could win at this level," said McCourt, who trains at the Bill Clark Tennis Academy. "I just never knew how or when I would do it. I think just learning how to play smarter just gave me the opportunity to play up to my ability. When I finally had a strategy and a go-to game plan in the big moments, that really made the difference."

McCourt's friend Collins had already found the gold ball formula, with her most recent one coming last year in Mobile, but after a very difficult fall and winter, with injury and illness keeping her from training and playing, she is back in top form.

Against No. 8 seed Catherine Harrison, Collins was confident and commanding, with all the lengthy games coming on Harrison's serve. A match with a score of 6-1, 6-1 usually doesn't extend to 80 minutes, yet the dominance Collins showed was primarily at the match's key moments.

"I played so well today," the sixth-seeded Collins said. "It was different today, because a lot of my matches in this tournament, I was really thinking about it, but today I was on a whole other planet, reacting to whatever she did, and I think that worked better for me, because I was more relaxed."

When facing the punishing two-handed ground strokes of Harrison, relaxation is not the usual response.

"She hits the ball so hard," said Collins. "It's scary. She hits harder than some of the guys I play with. I would hit a return, and boom, it's right back to me, so I would have to get ready right away. She was putting so much pressure on me, playing aggressive, so that forced me to come up with better shots."

Harrison lost her serve in the first game of the second set, and just couldn't get her serve to behave throughout the match.

"It was great earlier in the week, my second and third matches it was really strong, but I just really struggled with it today," said the 16-year-old from Germantown, Tennessee. "I just couldn't go for my first serve confidently, and when you can't do that, you're not going to do very well. But Danielle played really clean, she just made almost no errors, taking every opportunity."

In the final game, Harrison's second serve also let her down, with two double faults, including on match point, allowing Collins to claim her 14th straight win in Mobile.

"I love being here," Collins said when asked what was the key to all her success at the National Spring Championships. "It's not like a big city like Miami, with the beach and the shopping centers. It's just so peaceful and calm, and wherever you go everyone's smiling. I think it gives me a more relaxed environment, which helps my tennis."

Collins and McCourt not only left with the gold balls, but with the tournament sportsmanship awards.

In the other matches played on Saturday, top seed Kyle McPhillips took home the bronze ball with a 6-4, 7-6(2) win over Lynn Chi, a 17 seed. The boys bronze ball went to No. 4 seed Hunter Reese, who beat No. 17 seed Nicholas Naumann (4) 3-6, 7-5, 6-2.

Unseeded Taylor Townsend took the girls consolation title, avenging her main draw loss to No. 3 seed Brooke Austin 3-6, 6-3, 10-8. Fifth seed Hunter Callahan took the boys consolation title with a 6-3, 6-4 victory over Garrett Gordon, a 17 seed.

For complete draws, see the TennisLink site.


Florida Snowbird said...

I was watching the Boys 18s Boca Raton Super Series today and realized how tough this draw is.

Is it bizarre that a Super Series appears similiar in strength as the 18s SuperNational in Mobile?