©Colette Lewis 2012--
Few tennis players at any level could take a five-month break from competitive tennis and win a national championship in their first tournament back. Danielle Collins added her name to that short list Sunday morning, when she defeated No. 4 seed Jamie Loeb 6-1, 6-4 to claim the Girls 18s National Clay Court Championship on another steamy day at the Racquet Club of Memphis.
Collins, seeded No. 16, had taken time off this winter and spring to deal with senior activities at Northeast High School in St. Petersburg, Fla., although she continued to train at IMG's Bollettieri Academy in Bradenton between bouts of tendinitis in her knees. Graduating last month, Collins returned to competitive tennis on Monday, when she lost the first set to Jessica Ho and trailed 4-1 in the third set before winning the final five games of the match.
"I had such a close first match and I almost wasn't able to pull it out," said the 18-year-old, who was competing in her fifth 18s Clay Court Championship in Memphis. "So to be able to come back from that and get better each match, improve, that was my goal the whole tournament. I was able to reach my goal and it's a great feeling."
Collins had played an outstanding match against defending champion Gabby Andrews in Saturday's semifinal, rolling to a 6-3, 6-0 victory, and although she wasn't quite at that level Sunday against Loeb, she had enough left to end Loeb's impressive 33-match winning streak.
Loeb struggled with her serve throughout the match, double faulting often, and she never found the key to counter Collins devastating ground strokes. Loeb did have a brief lead to open the second set, getting her first service hold in the opening game, and breaking Collins in the next, but Collins won the next three games. From then on neither player held serve, with five straight breaks, the last one earned when Collins hit a drop shot winner from deep in the court that went over to Loeb's side of the net, then spun back into it. It wasn't the first drop shot winner Collins had hit, but it was the most improbable and significant, giving her a 5-4 lead, although she maintained Loeb's version of the shot is superior to hers.
"She would drop shot so much," said Collins. "Her drop shot is really good; it's better than mine. So to be able to hit that, at that point in the match, it was kind of like, yeah, finally caught you."
Collins still faced the difficult task of holding her serve, and Loeb had two break points to even the second set. On the first, at 30-40, Collins hit a backhand winner, and on the second, she hit a good first serve that caused Loeb's return to go just long. An ace gave Collins her first match point, but Loeb replied with a clever forehand passing shot winner. On the second match point, Collins missed a forehand wide, and on the third match point, Loeb again hit a forehand passing shot for a winner. Finally, on match point number four, Loeb just missed a forehand slice wide, and a relieved Collins had her sixth gold ball.
"It's very discouraging when you get a ball around the service line, you hit it, you think you're going hit a winner, but she's so good at anticipating, she gets to it and she passes you," Collins said. "Not once, but twice. But I just told myself, you've got to be patient, eventually she'll break down and I'll be able to close this out. Just stay calm, don't get too angry, and stay motivated, get to the finish line."
Loeb thought her slow start hurt her against Collins.
"I could have gotten off to a better start, she came out swinging right away," said Loeb, a 17-year-old from New York. "In the second set, I got into more of a groove. Maybe if I'd served a little better, if I could change that, but overall, I think I fought really hard to the end, and never gave up."
Loeb, who trains at the John McEnroe Tennis Academy in New York, felt she was close to turning the match around in that final game.
"As a player, I never give up, even if I'm down 5-0, 40-0 even," Loeb said. "I've come back from being down 5-2 in both sets, winning the match 6 and 6, so I knew today, being down match points, I wasn't going to change my mentality. I just kept fighting, unfortunately, it just didn't work out."
Collins is no longer ITF age eligible, as she turns 19 in December, so she will not be offered the US Open wild card that goes to the Girls 18s Clay Court champion, but she is interested in the qualifying wild card for the WTA event held indoors at the Racquet Club in February that she earned with her victory.
"I'll be in college then, but I'm sure they'll let me play this tournament," said Collins, who joins the team at the University of Florida next month. "Hopefully Scott (Dei, her coach) can come. I know he's always wanted to come here, so I'm sure he's happy I won."
After a little over two hours of rest for Loeb, the girls doubles final was played, with No. 2 seeds Ashley Dai and Maegan Manasse defeating Loeb and Madeline Lipp, the top seeds, 7-6(2), 6-1.
As storm clouds swirled around in all directions but miraculously didn't produce any rain, Dai and Manasse, who had never played together before, overcame a 4-1, two-break lead in the first set.
"We started a little slow, but we picked it up," said Manasse, whose usual partner, Zoe Katz, was injured. "We kept our cool and started to get more balls in," said Dai, who was playing in her third consecutive national doubles final, having taken silver at the Winters with Kourtney Keegan and won gold with Whitney Kay at the Springs. "We got more pumped, basically just kept it going," said Dai.
Both Manasse and Dai, who are from Southern California, were initially at a loss to explain how they meshed so quickly, but once they considered the question, they began to offer several reasons.
"I don't know, it just works," said Manasse. "She's better at net, so when I set it up, she can finish it with no problem," said Dai. "It works well, and she has a good backhand, I have a good forehand."
"And our personalities mesh well," said Dai, who has six gold balls, all in doubles. "And we had fun throughout the whole tournament," said Manasse. "It was good."
In the bronze ball match in singles, top seed Gabby Andrews defeated No. 2 seed Brooke Austin 6-3, 6-1. In the consolation final, No. 14 seed Kourtney Keegan downed Katerina Stewart, a 17 seed, 7-5, 3-6, 12-10.
The bronze ball in doubles went to Tess Bernard-Feigenbaum and Spencer Liang, who beat Louisa Chirico and Denise Starr 6-3, 6-3 in a match between two No. 9 seeds.
For complete results, see the TennisLink site.
In Virginia Beach, Mia Horvit, the No. 10 seed, won the girls 16s Clay Court championship, defeating unseeded Francesca Dilorenzo 1-6, 6-2, 6-3.
At Delray Beach, No. 3 seed Mitch Stewart won the boys 16s Clay Court championship, beating No. 13 seed Baker Newman 6-1, 6-3.
The boys 18s final match was abandoned due to rain, with top seed Jared Hiltzik leading No. 16 seed George Goldhoff 6-4, 3-1. Marcia Frost is covering the event for the Tennis Recruiting Network, so I'm sure she'll have more on this unfortunate ending in her recap.