©Colette Lewis 2012--
Rancho Mirage, CA--
Last year at this time, Mackenzie McDonald wasn't playing tennis. Dealing with a diagnosis of Idiopathic Thrombocytopenic Purpura, a bleeding disease, McDonald was out of competition for eight months, and missing the Easter Bowl was especially difficult for the 2009 Boys 14s champion.
"It was brutal," said McDonald, who turns 17 on Monday. "I really wanted to be here. I almost considered coming just to hang out, I wanted to be here so bad. I couldn't, but it just made me more hungry for a title."
The third-seeded McDonald satisfied that craving on a picture perfect Sunday morning at the Rancho Las Palmas Resort, defeating No. 4 seed Alexios Halebian 6-4, 6-1 to take the boys title at the Grade B1 ITF tournament.
McDonald won the first six points of the championship match, but Halebian upped the ante, playing outstanding tennis to take a 4-1, two-break lead.
Serving with that lead, Halebian had points to take a 5-1 lead, but McDonald broke, the first of five straight games he would win to take the set.
"I got off to a good start, looking good and then I didn't make it 5-1," said Halebian, a native of Glendale, California who trains at the USTA's Boca Raton center. "He started playing better and better. My chance to win the match was maybe get the first set, since I started out so hot."
Halebian suffered the first break of the second set serving at 1-2, with McDonald winning the bulk of the long rallies with exceptional forehands and decisive volleys. Under the barrage of deep and penetrating shots, Halebian began to contribute unforced errors and when he was broken again, little hope remained.
"He came out hot, but after that I tried to slow it down a little bit," McDonald said. "I just tried to stick to my game plan. Down 4-1 you've got to dig yourself out of that hole, but after that, you win a few points, you win a game, you break him, you get confident and when you get up 5-4 you get a little looser. Once you get the first set, you're pretty loose and you're just playing easy," McDonald said of his late surge.
Serving at 5-1 in the second set, took a 40-0 lead, but needed his third match point to end it, with a strong forehand forcing an error from Halebian.
Although his celebration was muted, McDonald was satisfied with his win, three years after he claimed the 14s title on the same Rancho Las Palmas court, when he was also the No. 3 seed.
"I'm happy to be back out here, I really am," said the Piedmont, Calif. resident. "It's good to be battling and back on the courts. And to be doing so well, that's good."
McDonald's friend JC Aragone is now going through a similar medical setback, and McDonald has been doing all he can to set an example for him.
"We saw him last week and I've been texting him almost daily and I think I'm helping him a little bit, because I went through the same thing," said McDonald. "You just appreciate it more to be out there and to be playing tennis, to be fortunate enough to do all this."
Comebacks, whether in rehabilitation or on a tennis court are one and the same for McDonald.
"I'm definitely mentally stronger from it," said McDonald. "JC on his deathbed twice, he didn't give up, he got back. Same thing with me, I almost had it, but I didn't give up. And in these matches, you're down and you don't give up. In the Australian Open,[I was] down 6-0, 4-0 30-0 [in the 2012 junior quarterfinals], just don't give up and great things can happen."
There was another medical comeback story from the 16s girls champion Brooke Broda, who had a stress fracture in her left foot and was in an air cast for a month and half. The eighth-seed decided at the last minute to give it a try, and she ended up collecting her first gold ball by virtue of a 6-3, 6-1 win over unseeded Meredith Xepoleas.
Broda, of West Chester Ohio, had never played the Easter Bowl before, making her confession that she was intimidated by playing on center court understandable.
But although she fell behind 3-1 in the first set, Broda showed no signs of nerves as she got the break right back, the first of eight consecutive games she would win.
Xepoleas, a 14-year-old from Huntington Beach, Calif., hits with impressive pace, but her ground strokes were erratic while Broda's improved with every game. Xeopleas got on the board in the second set to make it 3-1, but Broda held, and even an incident with a ballrunner, who fainted on court, causing play to be suspended, couldn't stall Broda's momentum.
After about ten minutes, the ballrunner, who was said to have suffered from the flu the previous day, walked off the court under his own power, but the delay was long enough to require a five-minute warmup. None of that helped Xepoleas, who was broken at love in the first game after the resumption of play.
"To be honest, I pretty much knew I was going to lose the match after the delay," said Xepoleas. "Even before probably. I was down and I wasn't feeling it, and I didn't think five minutes was going to give me a chance."
Coaching is allowed during a suspension of play, so Broda used the opportunity to talk to her father and one of her coaches, but she was still uncertain about the impact the delay might have.
"I was definitely a little nervous about that," said the 16-year-old left-hander, who trains at the Queen City Racquet Club in Cincinnati. "I knew I might not be as warmed up as I was. But as soon as I found out we were going to get a re-warmup, those nerves went away."
Broda took a 40-0 lead serving for the championship, but a rare forehand error and a backhand winner by Xepoleas accounted for the first two match points, but on the third, Broda's first serve produced a netted return, giving her the championship.
"I was playing a little rusty, but I just tried to keep progressing, getting better with each match, which I think I did," said Broda, who lost only one set in her seven victories. "And I think I just played my best match."
Boys 16s champion Joe DiGiulio didn't lose a set all week, and he too came up with his best in the finals, downing No. 9 seed Aron Hiltzik 7-5, 6-1.
The 12th-seeded DiGiulio, from Newport Beach, Calif., trailed 4-1 in the opening set before he found his stride, winning 12 of the final 14 games to subdue Hiltzik.
Hiltzik had DiGiulio on his heels early, but DiGiulio said it wasn't nerves, but rather Hiltzik's play that led to the deficit.
"When I got down 4-1, I felt I was hitting the ball pretty good, but he was winning the games," said DiGiulio, who will be 17 in June. "I just needed to get a couple of games under my belt, get more confident and build from there."
Serving at 4-5, 15-0 in the first set, DiGiulio survived a collision with a line judge at the back of the court, which caused a brief delay, but didn't stall his resurgence.
"[Hiltzik] had a pretty easy overhead near the top of the net, and he sort of bounced it," said DiGiulio. "I thought it was maybe going to go over the fence, but since center court is so big, I thought I might have a chance at it. Running back, I didn't realize how close the ref was, sort of ran into her, and she fell down pretty hard."
The line judge left the court scraped and sore, and the game continued, with DiGiulio taking the next three points and the game. He broke Hiltzik at love and served out the set.
DiGiulio continued his dominance on serve in the second set, taking a 4-0 lead before Hiltzik managed a game. Serving at 4-1, DiGiulio didn't miss a first serve, hitting two aces and barely allowing Hiltzik to participate in the game.
"In a couple of my matches this tournament I've been serving really well," said DiGiulio. "I've been building that up the last month or so and it just started clicking, better as the matches went on. I served well today."
Hiltzik echoed that.
"His serve was on, mine was off," said Hiltzik, a Wilmette Ill. resident, who will be 16 next week. "He played great today; he got the best of me. He was very consistent, didn't give me many free points. He did a good job."
DiGiulio was pleased to reach his goal and end a personal dry spell.
"It was a really good week of tennis," said DiGiulio, who trains at the Advantage Tennis Academy in Irvine, Calif. "I had a goal of winning the tournament coming into it, and it just feels good to accomplish that. I haven't won any big tournaments in a while, and to win this feels good, to try to build my confidence back up."
DiGiulio collected his second gold ball of the day in the tournament's final match, teaming with Logan Smith to defeat Jake Devine and Cameron Klinger 6-3, 6-3 in the boys 16s doubles final. DiGiulio and Smith were seeded fifth, Devine and Klinger were unseeded.
The girls 16s doubles title went to No. 6 seeds Alexis Pereira and Elizabeth Profit, who beat top seeds Shannon Hudson and Olivia Sneed 6-2, 7-5.
Alexios Halebian ended his day on a positive note, pairing with defending champion Mitchell Krueger to take the boys ITF doubles title 6-2, 6-7(3), 10-7 over No. 2 seeds Jordan Daigle and Austin Siegel.
Krueger and Halebian, the top seeds, trailed 7-5 in the match tiebreaker before winning the final five points of the match.
"It was only one mini-break really," said Krueger, who was playing in his third consecutive ITF Easter Bowl final. "We played a good point at 7-5, I think, and tiebreakers like that can go any way. Any second it can change. It wasn't like they handed it to us, we had good rallies, good volleys and we just came out on top on the big points."
"I didn't want to go 0 for 2," said Halebian. "When we were up a set and a break they started locking it in more, and we started missing a lot more returns, and our first serve percentage went down a little bit. Good thing we got it back at the end there."
For complete results for the 18s, click here.
For the complete results in the 14s and 16s, click here.