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Saturday, April 14, 2012

Townsend Claims Easter Bowl 18s Title With Two Wins Saturday; Blumberg, Higuchi Take Titles in 14s

©Colette Lewis 2012--
Rancho Mirage, CA--

Taylor Townsend could have used a calculator Saturday, and not simply to add up the points from her 4-6, 6-0, 6-3 victory over Brooke Austin in the Easter Bowl ITF final at the Rancho Las Palmas Resort. Although the Grade B1 title is a major step in her quest to become the world's top-ranked junior, Townsend also needed her math skills to tally the time she spent on court: five hours and one minute, and that was before she stepped on the court for the doubles final Saturday evening.

Due to a rare rainstorm in the Coachella valley Friday afternoon, Townsend was required to play both her singles semifinal and final on Saturday, and while the weather wasn't wet, the cool temperatures and gusty breezes added to the day's challenges.

Townsend defeated unseeded Mayo Hibi 7-6(0) 6-4 in the morning's semifinal, while Austin, who trailed No. 7 seed and International Spring champion Allie Kiick 5-1 when their semifinals match was suspended Friday afternoon, came back to take a 2-6, 6-2, 6-4 decision.

Austin, 16, and Townsend, who will be 16 Monday, hadn't played in over a year, primarily due to Austin's foot injury, which kept her out of the major ITF tournaments last fall and winter.

Austin opened with a break and took a 2-0 lead, only to lose the next four games, with multiple double faults in most of her service games. She didn't let that frustrate her however, and once Austin got the ball in play, she was pounding winners left and right. Down 2-4, Austin won the next four games to secure the first set, and Townsend knew she had to make changes.

"I was really upset at the end of the first because I had it at 4-2," said Townsend. "I went on the side, read my notes, closed my eyes and calmed down, tried to take it slower. She likes to rush, so I tried to take it slow and relax."

Austin takes the ball on the rise, which gives her opponent no opportunity to read and react to the ball, and she also wastes little time between points, which leads to the feeling she is always in control. In the second set however, Townsend found her own rhythm, and reeled off nine consecutive games to take a 3-0 lead in the third set.

"Taylor played really well the second set," said Austin, an Indianapolis resident who won the Easter Bowl 14s title in 2009. "I didn't play as well. But I was just trying to stay aggressive, and hopefully it would work, which it did a little bit."

Austin got back into the match in the third game of the final set, and although Townsend fought off two break points by serving and volleying to take that 3-0 lead, Austin had demonstrated she wasn't going away. She held and broke to get back on serve at 2-3 but that stretch of four straight breaks didn't end until Townsend served for the match at 5-3.

The left-hander from Georgia started with a double fault and was down 15-30 when Austin's return, her best shot all week, produced another winner. But Austin missed a forehand, then a backhand volley to give Townsend a match point, which she converted when Austin missed on her forehand volley.

"When she would step in on the second serves, she was really putting a lot of pressure on me," said Townsend, who adjusted her serve in response to the winds that were gusting over 30 mph. "When she was hitting flat, directing it to my backhand, I wasn't getting to any of those shots, so I had to come up with some first serves, or some better second serves, which is what I did to close it out."

Townsend's day was only half over, however, as she and partner Gabby Andrews had a doubles semifinal to play a few hours after her singles championship. The top seeds and defending champions won that match, over Julia Elbaba and Camila Fuentes, 7-5, 6-1, but they retired trailing 3-1 in the first set of the final against No. 3 seeds Samantha Crawford and Kiick, with a foot injury to Townsend as the reason.

Townsend's next junior event will be representing the United States in the ITF Junior Fed Cup qualifying in Mexico, along with Andrews and Austin, the same team that won the ITF World Junior Team competition for the 14s in 2010.

The 14s champions did not face the same challenges in terms of scheduling, having completed their semifinals on Friday, but the wind was also a problem for their morning matches.

William Blumberg, the No. 14 seed, didn't let it bother him, however, as he rolled to a 6-2, 6-1 win over No. 2 seed Kyle Seelig.

"I tried to not really worry about the conditions," said Blumberg, who lives in Greenwich, Conn. and trains at the USTA's National Center in Flushing Meadows. "The wind started to come up during my match, and instead of fighting it, I just used it by hitting kick serves wide with the wind and pulling him off the court. I thought I used the wind pretty well."

Blumberg won eight games in a row, taking a 4-0 lead in the second set before Seelig held. If there was any chance for Seelig to reverse the momentum it was in the sixth game, but Blumberg saved three break points to quash Seelig's hopes for a comeback.

"He sliced his backhand a lot, kept it low to my backhand and I was just missing a lot," said Pennsylvanian Seeling, who had not lost a set in the tournament until today. "The wind bothered me a little bit, but he just didn't miss."

Blumberg's plan was similar to the one he used to oust top seed Anudeep Kodali in Friday's semifinals.

"My strategy was to kind of get him off his game with high deep loopy balls," said Blumberg, 14. "He likes pace and I didn't give him much of any pace, so that kind of threw him off a little bit I think."

Although Blumberg was excited about his first Easter Bowl title and second gold ball, he ranks his win over Michael Mmoh in the semifinals of January's Les Petits As as his biggest victory in his young career. Blumberg, Mmoh and Frances Tiafoe will be traveling together again in a few days, representing the US in the ITF World Junior Team competition qualifying in Mexico.

With the conditions so difficult, the girls 14s final between top seed Emma Higuchi and CiCi Bellis, a 17 seed, was played at a surprisingly high level. Higuchi took the championship match 6-4, 6-4, but both girls played with composure and purpose, despite the occasion.

"I think the wind was difficult for both of us," Higuchi said. "We didn't play amazing, but I think we both handled it well. It was a good match."

Higuchi trailed 3-1 in the opening set, which she attributed directly to nerves.

"I was really nervous in the beginning, kind of shaky," said Higuchi, a 14-year-old from Los Angeles. "Center Court kind of freaks me out and it was overwhelming a little bit. I just tried to get balls in and to focus and it worked out pretty well."

Bellis dropped five of the next six games, but if the 13-year-old was discouraged she didn't show it, and she took a 4-3 lead in the second set when she broke Higuchi. Bellis couldn't hold on to the lead however, and just as in the first set, she lost her final two service games.

Higuchi admitted she was guilty of looking ahead in that seventh game.

"I think I got nervous a little, thinking ahead too much maybe," said Higuchi, who trains at the USTA Center in Carson. "So I focused on the game, one point at a time and nothing else."

Bellis was full of praise for Higuchi.

"I think she played awesome," said Bellis, from Atherton, Calif. "She was really aggressive today and moved forward well."

Higuchi may indulge in some ice cream in celebration of her first gold ball in singles, but after a day off she will return to school.

"I go to school still, so it's kind of hard to play five hours, but I try to play before and after school," said Higuchi, who reached the finals of the International Spring 16s last week. "School's like my off-time, so I can re-focus for tennis. It's a good balance."

The finals for the boys ITF were decided Saturday, with No. 4 seed Alexios Halebian set to meet No. 3 seed Mackenzie McDonald. Halebian beat No. 6 seed Thai Kwiatkowski 6-3, 6-3 a few hours after Kwiatkowski had beaten wild card Ronnie Schneider 6-3, 2-6, 7-5 in a rain-delayed quarterfinal. McDonald made short work of Noah Rubin, the No. 2 seed, winning 6-2, 6-0.

"I definitely saw he had a tough day out there with the wind," said McDonald, who won the 14s Easter Bowl title in 2009. "It got to him a little bit, but I stayed strong out there."

Halebian had won three straight matches after dropping the first set, but he was happier with his form Saturday.

"It got a little windy at times, but I felt like if I played good margins, I'd be okay," said Halebian, 17. "I was hitting my forehand really well and took care of my serve most of the time. He played good at times and bad at times, but I felt I played at the same level the whole match."

Halebian and McDonald have never played before.

"I've never played Mackie in a tournament, and it's funny we're playing in the finals," said Halebian. "I haven't planned anything out so far. We'll wait and see tomorrow."

The 16s finals are also set for Sunday, with the girls first on Stadium court at 8:30 a.m. Unseeded Meredith Xepoleas will play No. 8 seed Brooke Broda for the girls championship. Xepoleas defeated Kaitlyn McCarthy, a No. 17 seed, 6-7(5), 6-2, 6-3 to advance to the final.

No. 12 seed Joe DiGiulio advanced to the boys final with a 6-2, 2-1 ret. inj. result over top seed Yale Goldberg and will play No. 9 seed Aron Hiltzik. Hiltzik had to finish his quarterfinal match Saturday morning, defeating No. 16 seed Logan Smith 6-2, 6-4 to advance to the afternoon's semifinal, where he beat No. 17 seed Thomas Fawcett 6-3, 6-2.


In addition to the three singles championships, three doubles titles were also decided Saturday.

In the girls 14s, unseeded Ena Shibahara and Savannah Slaysman defeated No. 8 Sofia Kenin and Parris Todd 6-3, 6-4 to collect the gold balls.

In the boys 14s, William Blumberg and Brian Tsao, seeded eighth, defeated No. 1 seeds Anudeep Kodali and Jonathan Small 4-6, 6-4, 6-4, giving Blumberg his second gold ball of the day.

The girls 18s doubles final ended after ten minutes when Andrews and Townsend retired, leaving Crawford and Kiick as the champions.

It was a far cry from their performance at last year's Easter Bowl, when they lost in the first round.

"We didn't do so well here last year," said Crawford.

"Yeah last year was a disaster," Kiick said. "This year we just kind of decided at the last minute to play with each other and it went really well."

"Allie's really good at the net and at poaching, she gets to a lot," said Crawford. "So I just try to help her with my serve."

"She sets everything up for me," said Kiick. "I just put it away."

The boys ITF doubles title will be played on Sunday, with top seeds Halebian and Mitchell Krueger facing No. 2 seeds Jordan Daigle and Austin Siegel. Both teams won match tiebreakers in Saturday's semifinals to advance.

For complete results for the 18s, click here.

For the complete results in the 14s and 16s, click here.