Krueger Meets Kozlov, Kiick Faces Scholl in ISC Finals Sunday; Ho and Safiullin Claim 16s Titles Saturday
©Colette Lewis 2012--
It will be the oldest vs. the youngest when 14-year-old Stefan Kozlov and 18-year-old Mitchell Krueger meet for the championship of the ITF Grade 1 International Spring Championships Easter Sunday morning at the Home Depot Center.
The 12th-seeded Kozlov, who turned 14 in February, reached his first Grade 1 final on a warm and unusually calm day at the USTA Training Center West, defeating No. 14 seed Luca Corinteli 6-2, 6-3. Kozlov and Corinteli, who both train at the USTA's Boca Raton Center, had split their previous two meetings, but Kozlov was at the top of his unique game in Saturday's semifinal encounter.
"I thought I was executing break points and key points well," said Kozlov, of Pembroke Pines, Fla. "I was returning well, and it was an overall good performance."
Although he has grown recently, Kozlov is still much smaller and less physically imposing than Corinteli, who has a linebacker's physique. The size differential wasn't a factor Saturday however, as Kozlov was able to use his usual array of lobs, drop shots, volleys and spins to frustrate Corinteli.
Another aspect of his game that has improved in the past few months is his serve, Kozlov saying he is now placing it well and serving harder than he had done as recently as last year. And he's also added some velocity to his forehand.
"My forehand's more explosive now. I'm going for it and executing it well," said Kozlov, who is also trying to dial back on the emotional intensity he displays.
"My negative emotion I'm trying to keep back, and I don't want too much positive, because I can't use too much energy on that," Kozlov explained. "At this level, you just can't waste energy on little things like that. I'm not saying you shouldn't say 'c'mon'--I say it a lot--but just not too much."
Top seed Krueger, who turned 18 back in January, kept his emotional balance throughout his two-and-a-half-hour 7-6(4), 3-6, 6-2 semifinal victory over No. 3 seed Noah Rubin, even though he felt fortunate to win the opening set.
"He started off the match way more aggressive than I was," said Krueger who was broken in the opening game of the match. "He was pushing me all around. I was lucky to get back in the first set. But I just hung in there, tried to compete on every point. I felt I played well when I needed to on the big points."
Krueger got the break back in the seventh game, and in the tiebreaker, used his serve to his advantage, with two consecutive service winners. Leading 5-4, Krueger raised his level, hitting a forehand winner to give himself two set points. After a long rally and a good approach by Rubin, Krueger hit a perfect top spin lob that even the extremely quick Rubin could only wave as he raced back to the fence.
The 16-year-old Rubin showed no signs of frustration and kept going for the lines and hitting them with great regularity. With Krueger serving at 2-3 in the second set, Rubin pounded winner after winner for the break, which was all he needed to close out the set.
"He broke me by hitting four winners," said Krueger, who has committed to Texas A&M. "Maybe I could have given him balls he didn't like, but there wasn't a whole lot I could do. That was pretty much the set right there."
The first break in the final set went to Krueger, but, as he has been doing regularly this week, he gave it right back. He broke Rubin again, the third break in a row, and was able to hold, but even with a 5-2 lead he didn't relax.
"I knew it was far from over," Krueger said. "He comes back all the time, like yesterday. He's always in every point, doesn't miss a whole lot, doesn't give you a lot of errors."
Rubin took a 40-15 lead serving at 2-5, but Krueger won the final four points of the match, the last on a netted backhand by Rubin.
Krueger and Kozlov have never played, which is no surprise, given the four-year difference in their ages, but Krueger has heard about the prodigy.
"I've seen him play," said Krueger. "It will be interesting. When you play him, you can't think about his age. He's just as good as any of these guys. I'm pretty excited to see how it goes."
While the two boys finalists have never played, 16-year-old Floridians Allie Kiick and Chalena Scholl have developed quite a rivalry. They have split four matches, and in the most recent two, Kiick won on clay in the final of the Amelia Island Pro Circuit Event, and Scholl won on the hard courts at the ITF Grade B1 Pan American Championships in Tulsa.
In Saturday's semifinals, they both battled back from a set down to record their victories, with the seventh-seeded Kiick defeating top seed and Australian Open girls champion Taylor Townsend 2-6, 7-5, 6-1 and No. 3 seed Scholl beating No. 8 seed Jennifer Brady 3-6, 6-0, 6-0 to advance to the final.
Kiick won the first two games against Townsend, then lost the next six, but she wasn't disheartened by the Townsend run.
"She missed a lot of balls in the beginning, but then she started playing her game, came to the net, was really aggressive and played really well. There wasn't much I could do," said Kiick, who trains with Townsend at the USTA National Center in Boca Raton.
The second set was close throughout, with Kiick saving a break point at 5-5 with an ace to force Townsend to hold serve to reach the tiebreaker. Townsend played a dismal game and was broken at love, a loss of momentum she never got back.
Kiick took a 4-1 lead, and Townsend's serve continued to let her down, with double faults at game points costing her the fourth and sixth games. Kiick took full advantage of Townsend's lapses and served it out to reach her second Grade 1 final.
"I started hitting it as deep as possible, and she started making more and more mistakes," said Kiick, when asked what turned the match in her favor. "That's how I pulled it out in the third as well."
Scholl had a similar assessment of her turnaround against Brady.
"In the first set I was just hitting really short, and she took advantage of that, finishing off the points really well," said Scholl, who won a Grade 1 and a Grade 2 in South America last month. "For me, it was just be more consistent and hit it deeper, and take control of the points. She definitely played worse in the last two sets."
Scholl and Kiick practice together often, and both admit there are many similarities to their games.
"We have very similar games and we know each other very well," Scholl said.
"I agree one hundred percent," said Kiick. "We play very similar games, so it'll be who wakes up on the right side of the bed."
The doubles champions were crowned Saturday afternoon, with top seeds Townsend and Gabby Andrews defending their girls title with a 7-5, 6-2 win over Scholl and Stephanie Nauta. The second-seeded team of Mackenzie McDonald and Trey Strobel captured the boys championship, beating unseeded Tom Colautti of Great Britain and Josh Hagar 6-4, 6-3.
McDonald and Strobel had played together only once before this week, on the clay in Brazil, but they like the way the partnership is working.
"Our games complement each other very well," said Strobel, who has committed to Stanford. "Mackie has a great return, and we're both good at the net."
"It definitely makes it easier when you have a partner like Trey, who has a good serve and holds most of the time," said McDonald. "He has good volleys, so he puts away points."
One indication of their dominance this week was avoiding the match tiebreaker played in lieu of a third set. They didn't even need a regular tiebreaker in any of their five wins.
"We've been hitting good returns and good serves on the big points," said Strobel.
Townsend and Andrews, who won the Australian Open girls doubles title in January and were in the US Open girls doubles final last September, are beginning to know each other's moves now.
"It's getting there," said Townsend. "We're getting better at the switching part, but we still have to work on the middle, calling the middle. Once we get that down, we'll have something constructive going on."
The close friends had not seen each other since Australia, but it didn't take them long to get back in the groove.
"It had been a while, but in our first round match, it was okay, we can do this," said Andrews. "We've got this back again. So it was great playing with her."
Both doubles champions will be playing together at next week's Easter Bowl.
All the boys 16s champions since the tournament's inception in 2005 have been Americans until this year, when Russian qualifier Roman Safiullin defeated Frances Tiafoe 6-7(6), 6-3, 6-1 in the championship match.
Safiullin, who is from Moscow, has been training in San Diego with Luda Makarova, Christina's Makarova's mother, an invitation he and his father received at the Junior Orange Bowl. Playing in his first ITF two weeks ago at the Grade 4 in Claremont, the 14-year-old Safiullin lost in the second round of qualifying there, but went on to beat Logan Smith, the Claremont champion, in the semifinals yesterday, and Les Petits As champion Tiafoe today.
Safiullin, who came to the U.S. not only for the tennis, but to improve his English, felt fortunate to get out of the first round, where he beat Victor Pham 7-6(2), 4-6, 6-3.
"The first match was so difficult," said Safiullin. "I could have lost and not be here the winner."
Against Tiafoe, Safiullin was able to recover from the tough first set, breaking Tiafoe at 3-3. Tiafoe was treated for a blister on his foot during the changeover, and Safiullin had to save break points to maintain his lead. At 5-3, Tiafoe took a 40-0 lead, but Safiullin kept putting balls back in play, winning five straight points and avoiding having to serve out the second set.
"I went a little crazy early in the third," said Tiafoe, 14. "He got up a break and I couldn't pull myself together. But he played an unbelievable match today. It was a great effort by him, and I hope to play him again."
If Tiafoe does get that opportunity, he'll have to travel to Russia for it, where Safiullin will return next month to play the European championships and other ITF events this summer.
The girls final featured 15-year-old Jessica Ho against 14-year-old Emma Higuchi and it was all Ho, who took a 6-1, 6-1 decision in just over an hour.
It was Higuchi who had breezed through her first five matches, while Ho was forced to a third set in both the quarterfinals and semifinals, but there was no sign of any fatigue in the opening games.
"I came out feeling really good," said Ho, who trains at the Brandon (Fla.) Sports and Aquatic Center with Alex Golub. "I think her game matched up pretty good to mine, and I played really well. And I don't think she played as well as she did yesterday."
Ho said the only nerves she felt came when she was up 5-0.
"It was a lot less than normal though," said Ho. "It's really nice to have one of those matches."
Last year Ho lost in the first round, and even though her opponent that day, Yuki Chiang, went on to win the tournament, Ho was happy to replace that memory of Carson.
"It's really great that in one year you can win the tournament where you lost in the first round," Ho said.
Higuchi had nothing but compliments for Ho's performance Saturday morning.
"She just played really well," said Higuchi, who lives in Los Angeles and trains with the USTA at the Home Depot Center. "I just want to congratulate her. It was a really good experience this week. I got to play a lot of people that I didn't really know. Now I've just got to work on stuff and get ready for Easter Bowl."
Higuchi will be the top seed in the 14s at the Easter Bowl, while Ho received a wild card into the 18s.
In the girls doubles final between two unseeded teams, Yuki Asami and Ilana Oleynik defeated Natalie Da Silveira of Brazil and Ena Shibahara 7-5, 1-6, 10-1.
Tiafoe ended his day with a winner's trophy, with he and Junior Tennis Champions Center training partner Yancy Dennis taking the boys 16s doubles title with a 7-6(4), 6-4 over Augustus Ge and Jean Thirouin. Neither team was seeded.
For complete draws, see the tournament page at usta.com.