©Colette Lewis 2011--
Gabby Andrews was surrounded by three generations of her extended family Sunday, all of them smiling broadly after her 3-6, 6-2, 6-1 win over Denise Starr in the championship match of the USTA Girls 18s Clay Courts.
Andrews' father grew up in Memphis, but moved to Southern California before his daughter was born, so the tournament is the 14-year-old's yearly trip to reconnect with her grandmother, great aunt, aunts and uncles, as well as several young cousins Andrews admitted she was just getting to know. As the several dozen family members sought relief from the baking midday sun under the Racquet Club of Memphis's ample shade tree, Andrews could provide even more good news for them: she will be back in February, to use the qualifying wild card into the Memphis WTA event that goes to the Girls 18s Clay Courts champion.
The family reunion atmosphere was much more subdued after the first set of the match, when the unseeded Starr broke top seed Andrews three times, looking much more comfortable despite playing in her first National Championship final. Andrews, who described her play in the first set as erratic and impatient, didn't give her supporters much to cheer about.
That changed quickly in the second set, when a determined Andrews settled down, stopped making unforced errors and started to hit through the court with a sense of purpose. Up 4-0 in short order, Andrews hit a minor speed bump when she was broken to make the score 4-2, but she resumed her two-break lead in the next game, when at 30-40, she hit a perfect lob over Starr, who could only watch in dismay as it dropped six inches inside the baseline.
Andrews held in the next game, although she had to save a break point, to even the match at a set apiece. During the 10-minute break, Andrews and her father sat in the shade near the court, but away from any interruptions, and talked briefly about what her approach should be for the final set.
"Just relax, and that's it. He only said like one word to me," said Andrews, still amazed at his brevity. "He was just standing there, swaying back and forth, and I was like, okay Dad, thanks. I'll take that."
In the third set, Starr was broken in the opening game, but Andrews, who admitted she was nervous when the set began, saw a 40-15 lead in the second game slip away, and it was 1-1 when Starr cracked a return winner on her second ad. Starr lost her serve again in the next game however, and Andrews began to sense she had the upper hand.
"I tried to make her move more, because when she was set up, she could just dictate, and I found myself running from side to side," Andrews said. "I had to make a change, so I decided to hit more drop shots, the best part of my game, and that worked out. I moved her around so I could get that short ball and dictate."
Between the drop shots and the increased depth she was getting on her ground strokes, Andrews began to force Starr into more errors. With Andrews taking a 5-1 lead, it was tempting to write Starr off, but she had won the final six games of her semifinal match on Saturday against Stephanie Vlad, so Andrews knew better.
"She's a streaky player," said Andrews. "She looks like she's not into the match when she really is. I did not feel comfortable, not one bit."
Because she was unseeded, Starr was playing her eighth match in eight days, with the last four all going three sets.
"I just ran out of steam, and she's a really good player," said Starr, a 16-year-old from New York. "She really didn't let me come back. She wouldn't let me pass her and she hit winner after winner."
But for all her physical struggles and Andrews' renewed confidence, Starr did not go quietly in the final game. Serving at 1-5, Starr saved four match points in the eight-deuce game, although the third and fourth came on backhand return errors from Andrews, which produced a rare show of frustration from her--a scream and a swipe at the Har-Tru with her racquet. On the fifth match point, Andrews decided to go for a second serve return on the forehand side instead, and it paid off when she hit a clean winner to end the nearly two-hour contest.
Although disappointed with her performance in the final two sets, Starr saw the positives in her breakout tournament.
"I learned that I'm physically stronger than I thought I was," said Starr, who beat the No. 2, No. 7 and No. 9 seeds among her seven victories. "And that I can do things myself, because I don't have a coach, and it depends on me. And I have a better game than I thought I had."
As for Andrews, she had already reached the goal she had set for herself Saturday, when she made the championship match.
"I wanted to make it the finals, because I made the semifinals last year," said Andrews, who mentioned returning to defend her title during remarks to the crowd after the match. "I always try to do better at a tournament than I did the year before. And I won it. It's amazing, it's awesome. I'm excited to come back here (for the WTA tournament) and see my family, because I only see them once a year."
She may find she has even more cousins to get to know when that event rolls around in February.
In the only other match played on Sunday, No. 5 seed Taylor Townsend defeated No. 15 seed Chalena Scholl 6-0, 6-0 to claim the consolation singles tournament, which is for fifth place.
Makenzie Craft was named the winner of the sportsmanship award.
For complete draws, see the TennisLink site.
For more on the Clay Court Championships in Florida, see collegeandjuniortennis.com.