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Friday, July 22, 2011

Wild Card Starr Reaches Semifinals at Girls 18s Clay Courts

©Colette Lewis 2011--
Memphis, TN--

Although the temperature was nominally cooler for the quarterfinals Friday at the USTA Girls 18s Clay Courts, reaching only into the mid-90s, the air was thick with humidity after thunderstorms Thursday evening. The energy-sapping conditions have proven no problem for wild card Denise Starr, however, as the 16-year-old New Yorker reached her first National Championship semifinal with a 5-7, 6-2, 6-2 win over No. 7 seed Samantha Crawford.

Because Starr isn't seeded, she has already played six matches this week, with half of them going three sets. But as she proved against No. 2 seed Whitney Kay in the second round, Starr is adept at resetting her focus, even when down a set, and she stayed positive even when one of Crawford's many forehand winners were zipping past her.

Starr served for the first set at 5-4, but couldn't close it out, and double faulted at 30-40 in her next service game, which gave Crawford the set. But she began to serve better in the second set, and returned well enough to engage Crawford in baseline exchanges.

"Once I got the return back, I felt like I could start a rally," said Starr, who is training at the USTA Centers in both Boca Raton and New York. "I tried to keep it away from her forehand, because she just hits it as hard as she can, and gets everything in. And if she gets a good first serve in, there's no way I can even touch the ball."

Crawford had come up with some big serves to stay in the match against Lynn Chi late in the third set on Thursday, but today she couldn't find that magic. Down two breaks in the third set, she got one of them back, but serving at 2-4 she lost a five-deuce game, unable to get any free points from Starr.

"She would miss some first serves in crucial moments, and at game point on her serve, I would hit a down the line winner on my return," Starr said.

Unlike when she served for the first set, Starr had the luxury of two breaks when serving for the match, producing an ace of her own early in the game, then finishing the win with an emphatic backhand winner.

Starr admits that she's playing without any pressure this week.

"I've had nothing to lose, and I just went out and played my best," Starr said, acknowledging her own high level in the last two sets against Crawford.

Starr's semifinal opponent Saturday will be No. 9 seed Stephanie Vlad, who ended the Racquet Club of Memphis' hope for a hometown champion by defeating No. 4 seed Catherine Harrison 6-2, 0-6, 6-3.

Vlad has no trouble against big hitters, as she proved on Thursday against Maci Epstein, saying she loves playing "people who give me pace." In the opening set, Harrison, one of those hard-hitters, made it easy for Vlad by making a lot of errors. Vlad, a 17-year-old from Arizona, made almost no mistakes herself, and Harrison began pressing, which led to more errors.

But in the second set, it wasn't Vlad letting down, or making more errors that turned the match in Harrison's favor. It was Harrison raising her game, dictating play and winning countless points with drop shots.

"She was missing a lot in the first set, and in the second set, the shots she was missing, either long or in the tape, she was starting to click, and they were going in," said Vlad, who reached the semifinals of the 2010 Winter Nationals after being out with a torn ACL. "She was being a lot more aggressive in the second. She was coming to the net and putting volleys away, keeping me on my toes, so she played a lot better."

After a drop shot winner and an ace to close out the second set, Harrison probably would have liked to start the third set immediately, but the mandatory 10-minute break between sets, new this year for the 18s, gave Vlad a chance to regroup.

She took a 2-0 lead, then saw Harrison win the next three games, and the first sign of frustration, in the form of yelling at herself, surfaced when she was broken in that fifth game. Harrison couldn't keep the lead, and the drop shot, so effective until that stage, let her down, as Vlad finally began anticipating it. When Vlad won the seventh game at love, she allowed herself to express some emotion, shouting "let's go," as she headed to the changeover leading 4-3.

Harrison then played a sloppy game, making almost no first serves and spraying groundstrokes, the last two giving Vlad the game. To the dismay of the scores of fans supporting Harrison, Vlad had no trouble finishing out the last game, holding serve at love for the victory.

In addition to withstanding Harrison's barrage of winners in the second set, Vlad was also able overcome all the vocal support for Harrison.

"It was a little distracting but I tried to stay focused, and didn't let them bother me," said Vlad, a rising senior who is still exploring her college options. "It's understandable because she's from here that a lot of supporters would come out to watch her. It was nice to play in front of a lot of people though."

Top seed Gabby Andrews also has a local connection, with her grandmother and great aunt living in Memphis, where her father grew up. Just how comfortable she is at the Racquet Club, where she reached the semifinals last year as a 13-year-old, showed Friday morning, when she beat No. 5 seed Taylor Townsend 6-4, 6-2.

Andrews had not beaten her friend and regular doubles partner Townsend in three previous meetings, and it looked like more of the same was in store when Townsend took a 4-1 lead in the opening set. Both players were making a lot of unforced errors and breaks of serve were commonplace. At 4-4 in the first, Townsend saved three break points and had four game points, but she lost her serve, giving Andrews the opportunity to serve for the set. When Andrews fell behind 15-40, it looked like the set would continue, but Townsend made errors on each of those chances, with her normally reliable forehand producing two more errors to give Andrews the first set.

Andrews got out to a 3-0 lead in the second set, breaking Townsend in the first and third games, and although Andrews gave one of the breaks back, Townsend remained too erratic to put any real pressure on Andrews. Townsend is usually an emotionally charged player, with the energy nearly always positive, but whether it was the friendship or something else, that side of her wasn't evident today.

"I noticed she was missing a lot of balls she normally wouldn't miss," Andrews said. "I don't know what happened. The last three times we've played, she was feisty, you know, get in my face, but I don't know about this one."

Andrews said she is beginning to feel more comfortable on clay, thanks to her training on the surface, so rare in Southern California, at the Carson Player Development Center with Leo Azevedo.

"I played smart clay court tennis," said Andrews, who also credits USTA National Coach Kathy Rinaldi for helping in her development. "I kept more balls in play, didn't go for too much, only went for it at the appropriate times."

Andrews will play No. 3 seed Danielle Collins, who squandered a 4-1, two-break lead in the second set against No. 17 seed Hannah King before eventually claiming a 6-2, 5-7, 6-3 victory.

The match took nearly four hours to complete, with not only the 10-minute set break, but also an "equipment" break for Collins, who excused herself to change clothing due to excessive sweating.

"I usually sweat a lot, but not this much," said Collins, who is recovering from mononucleosis. "My doctor said you tend to sweat a lot when you have mono. I got overwhelmingly tired and it was hard for me to do what I needed to do on my serve."

Collins served for match at 5-4 in the second set, but with two double faults, including one at 0-40, King pulled even. She held, and Collins still couldn't find the energy to serve properly, again double faulting on game point, this one a set point.

After the break, which she spent talking with her coach Scott Dei, Collins came back more prepared to finish the task.

"I started to shut up, calm down, and did what he said," Collins said. "I stuck to the game plan and stay positive for the most part, and just focused on playing each point."

Neither player could hold serve in the third set, with five straight breaks before Collins held to make it 4-2. King, who didn't hold serve at all in the final set, did break Collins at 5-2 with a trio of outright winners, but she was unable to sustain any of that momentum in the final game, which ended with a King double fault.

Collins and Andrews have never played, but Collins has heard about Andrews, who is almost exactly three years younger than the 17-year-old Floridian.

"I'll have to bring the heat tomorrow, that's for sure," said Collins. "She's a really good player, a beast. She's had some really good results, and she's tough as nails, so I'll need to be well-rested and bring my A game tomorrow."

The doubles finals are set, although only one of the semifinals was played Friday afternoon. Samantha Crawford, part of the top-seeded doubles team with Taylor Townsend, was unable to play due to an abdominal strain, so No. 4 seeds Lynn Chi and Chalena Scholl received a walkover into the final.

Danielle Collins retired from her unfinished quarterfinal doubles match Thursday night without taking the court, putting Ashley Dai and Kelsey Laurente, the No. 9 seeds, in the semifinal against No. 2 seeds Whitney Kay and Caroline Price. Dai and Laurente were leading Collins and Maci Epstein 6-2, 4-2 when the rain suspended their quarterfinal match Thursday night.

In the semifinal, there was very little to separate the two teams, with Dai and Laurente saving a set point with Kay serving at 5-4 in the first set and Price and Kay saving two set points with Price serving at 5-6. After the second seeds won the first set in a tiebreaker, they fell behind 3-1 in the second set, but won the next five games to post a 7-6(2), 6-3 victory.

For complete results, see the TennisLink site.

For more coverage of the USTA Clay Courts, see collegeandjuniortennis.com.