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Friday, March 18, 2011

Reigning Champion Collins Goes for Second Straight Against Harrison, Smith and McCourt Will Decided Boys 18s National Spring Championship Saturday

©Colette Lewis 2011--
Mobile, AL--


There are three rookies in the finals of the 2011 USTA 18s National Spring Championships, and one veteran, defending champion Danielle Collins. Catherine Harrison, Collins' opponent Saturday morning, has never reached a USTA National final in singles, and neither Austin Smith or Zack McCourt have had an opportunity for a gold or silver ball.

Collins, the sixth seed, downed top seed Kyle McPhillips 6-2, 2-6, 6-4 on another warm and sunny day at the Mobile Tennis Center, and after two bouts of bronchitis this winter and a slashed artery in her ankle last fall, Collins has finally regained the form that saw her win the Spring National title in 2010.

In the opening set of the semifinal, Collins came out swinging, making very few unforced errors and rifling her backhand crosscourt and down the line. McPhillips depends on her consistency and a court sense that punishes any thoughtless shot, but in the opening set, she made more errors than usual and was often caught flat-footed by the pace of a Collins shot. The second set immediately tilted in McPhillips' direction, as the 16-year-old from Ohio broke Collins immediately and challenged in the Floridian's every service game. The break between the second and third sets, new in USTA 18s tournaments for 2011, gave Collins a chance regroup, but not in the expected way.

"I don't really think it helps to get coaching, unless you're playing just awful," Collins said. "The whole second set I was so tense, I was missing, and I'll admit, I went off the court and I was crying. It was really emotional for me and I put a lot of pressure on myself, which was dumb. You can't go out there having a death grip on the racquet or you're going to miss every one."

In the third set, the moonball was a popular shot choice for both players, and many of the rallies were very lengthy, with little to separate the two. Collins went up 3-1 and 5-2, and served for the match at 5-3, but never reached match point, with two McPhillips winners and an ill-conceived drop shot getting McPhillips back on serve at 4-5. But McPhillips couldn't take the opportunity Collins offered her, hitting a forehand long and double faulting to make it 0-30. Collins was an easy overhead from three match points, but she botched it, then hit a backhand long to make it 30-30. Rather than dwell on her errors, Collins prepared for the next point, where she pulled McPhillips wide, causing her to net a backhand. On match point, McPhillips' sliced forehand landed long, and Collins cited her composure in the late stages as key to her victory.

"Everybody knows I'm pretty short-tempered and tennis means a lot to me, so I get angry," the 17-year-old Collins said. "But I said, don't get angry, you'll lose if you get angry, just chill out. I kept telling myself, you've got this, chill out, you're good."

Collins will play Harrison for the third time, having won the previous two meetings at the National 18s Clay Courts in Memphis, Harrison's home town.

Harrison may be playing in her first National Championship singles final, but it's not as if she is unfamiliar with the big stage. The 16-year-old, who hits a two-handed forehand, was a finalist at the 16s Orange Bowl last December, and she also played before a large crowd of local supporters in the main draw of the WTA Cellular South Cup in Memphis last month.

In her 7-5, 6-1 semifinal victory over 16-year-old Lynn Chi, a 17 seed, Harrison saved a set point serving at 4-5, shaking off a double fault at deuce that put her on the brink of losing the opening set. She hit a confident overhead winner to get it back to deuce and on game point, executed a perfect slice that drew an error from Chi.

Chi can hit the ball as hard as anyone, and when she was on her rhythm, Harrison had no advantage in the pace department. But Chi would suddenly make a series of errors, and that's what she did at 5-5, giving Harrison a chance to win her fourth straight game, and the set, which she did.

"In the second set, she started making a lot more errors," said Harrison. "She didn't seem like she wanted to work the points as much in the second set. She was going for more earlier, and that was resulting in more errors. Her serve really went downhill in the second set."

Chi was broken in the first game of the second set, and trailed the rest of the way, as Harrison continued to take advantage of Chi's serving problems to take control of the points. A final break leading 5-1, and Harrison was into the final, hoping to add a gold ball in singles to the gold ball in doubles she won at last year's 16s National Hard Courts.


In the boys draw, it would have been difficult to predict a final featuring unseeded Austin Smith and Zack McCourt, a 17 seed, but both have played excellent tennis throughout the week, and one of them will take home his first gold ball on Saturday.

Smith defeated fellow Georgian and No. 4 seed Hunter Reese 6-3, 6-3, the sixth consecutive straight-set win for the 17-year-old right-hander.

Breaking Reese in the first and last games of the opening set, Smith kept the pressure on in the second set, allowing only one easy hold, and forcing Reese to save break point after break point. Serving at 3-4 in the second set, Reese saved three more of them, but the seven-deuce game ended with Smith finally converting his opportunity, with a big forehand forcing an error.

"On the deuce points, my main focus was just to make returns, basically hang in there," said Smith. "I wanted to capitalize when I did get my ad, which took me a few times, but eventually it happened."

Smith had stuck to his strategy of moving players around throughout most of the tournament, but changed his focus a bit against Reese.

"I think his backhand is better than his forehand, and he likes to be on the move a lot," Smith said. "He can mix up some angles, he's good on the run, so I played him a little bit more up the middle, instead of angles, trying to go through the court more than angles today."

Serving for the match at 5-3, Smith survived both a net cord in Reese's favor and his own forehand error at 40-15. Showing no sign of frustration, Smith converted his second match point, when Reese hit a backhand long, assuring that he would not add to his bronze ball collection.

"I have three singles bronze balls. I've gotten to the semis a few times, but haven't gotten it done. I was kind of nervous going in; I wanted to get through the semis so bad. Playing for a bronze ball was not the goal."

McCourt's 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 win over Nicholas Naumann, also a No. 17 seed, was as close as the score would indicate. Naumann has quite an array of shots, both offensively and defensively, and McCourt began to see them all in the second set.

"At 4-3 he started to get to everything," said the 18-year-old Floridian, who is attending Princeton in the fall. "He was coming up with these crazy shots, these crazy volleys, making me play another ball. It was a little frustrating for me at first, because he was making a lot of erratic errors, but then when he started not missing, hitting bigger shots, better shots, better balls, I had to adjust, and I didn't really adjust until the third set."

Trailing 2-0 in the final set, McCourt held and broke for 2-2, forging a 4-3 lead. McCourt received a gift from Naumann, when he double faulted on game point to give McCourt a chance to serve out the match, but McCourt couldn't take it. He lost the game at love, but didn't panic, and broke Naumann for the second consecutive time to close out the match.

"I had been returning really well, I'd been doing really well on his serve, so I didn't lose confidence," McCourt said.

McCourt recalled his two previous meetings with Smith.

"I played him in the 10s and lost 1 and 1, and I played him in the 14s and lost 6 and 6," McCourt said. "So I haven't played him in about four years, so it should be fun to see how we stack up now as opposed to all those years ago."

McCourt is one player who is not surprised to see Smith in the final.

"I know he's got the game to do really well, and obviously has had some great wins in his career so far," said McCourt, who was playing in his first National semifinal today. "It's cool, there'll be a new gold ball winner finally, instead of like Bjorn(Fratangelo) and Jack(Sock) winning every freaking tournament."

In the doubles finals this afternoon, McPhillips and her partner Skylar Morton, the No. 4 seeds, collected their second gold ball together, defeating Harrison and her partner Kaitlin Ray, the fifth seeds, 6-1, 4-6, 6-4. McPhillips and Morton, the 2010 Easter Bowl 16s champions, trailed 3-1 in the final set, but won five of the next six games to earn the title.

"It was like a roller coaster," said McPhillips, who played six sets of tennis in the midday heat without showing any signs of fatigue.

"We played good in the first set, pretty solid," Morton added. "The second set was downhill and the beginning of the third was more downhill, and then we got it back together."

In the boys doubles final, Anton Kovrigin and Jason Luu won the battle of the No. 9 seeded teams, beating Brett Clark and Gordon Watson 6-3, 6-3.

Today, Kovrigin helped Luu collect a gold ball that he had prevented him from winning back in the 2009 16s Clay Court Championships.

"He has a silver ball and I have a gold ball," said Kovrigin, who won the title with Joe Dorn, while Luu finished second with Quoc-Daniel Nguyen as his partner in Delray Beach.

Having reached the finals of a Level 2 in their only previous tournament together, Luu and Kovrigin thought they had a chance to go deep in the Spring Nationals.

"We thought maybe we'd do well here, and it turned out we did," said Luu, who will be attending Cornell in the fall.

"Our games complement each other," said Kovrigin, a Vanderbilt recruit. "He's more of a net player, and I like to go from the baseline, rip the ball."

Against Clark and Watson, the pair thought the wind, while not strong, but noticeable, may have contributed to their win.

"We returned very well today, with a lot of spin, so we made it tough for them to volley," Luu said.

"They have great hands, and the wind takes their hands away," Kovrigin said."

The third place in boys doubles went to No. 2 seeds Eric Johnson and Mackenzie McDonald, who defeated No. 9 seeds Harrison Adams and Naumann 6-3, 6-2. Meghan Blevins and Mary Jeremiah, both future Oklahoma State players, won the girls bronze balls, beating Mia King and Taylor Townsend 6-1, 4-6, 6-3 in a battle of unseeded teams.

The girls consolation final on Sunday will feature Townsend against No. 3 seed Brooke Austin, a rematch of their round of 16 match two days ago, which Austin won in three sets. The boys consolation final has No. 17 seed Garrett Gordon taking on No. 5 seed Hunter Callahan for fifth place.

For complete draws, see the TennisLink site.