©Colette Lewis 2012--
The stakes are high Sunday at Stowe Stadium, when No. 3 seed Dennis Novikov and No. 8 seed Alexios Halebian meet for the first time to determine the 2012 Boys 18s National Champion.
Novikov, a freshman at UCLA, and Halebian, who turned professional last year, are vying for the US Open main draw wild card that goes to the Sunday afternoon's winner, following impressive performances in Saturday's semifinals.
On an unseasonably cool but thankfully dry day, Novikov defeated No. 5 seed Noah Rubin 7-6(6), 6-3, while almost simultaneously, Halebian eliminated No. 6 seed Jared Hiltzik 6-3, 7-6(5).
The 16-year-old Rubin had held his own in the opening set, but the size and power of Novikov, who will be 19 in November took its toll.
"In the second set I felt he got a little tired," said Novikov, from San Jose, Calif. "He didn't serve as well as he did in the first set and I took advantage of my opportunities. He served a little worse and I stepped up my returns."
Novikov could also rely on his serve to get him out of trouble, as at 1-2 in the second set, when he faced a break point after a rare double fault. Novikov hit a service winner to save it, and two more good serves gave him the game. When Rubin was broken at love serving at 3-3, Novikov would have the only advantage he would need, and he began to dictate play on every point with his powerful ground strokes.
"I feel he struggled with my ball," said Novikov, who didn't have an opportunity to scout Rubin because he was playing his quarterfinal at the same time, but relied on his parents for advice. "My parents said yesterday he was hitting the ball a lot, going for winners and stuff, but I feel he couldn't really do that with me. I hit a heavier ball than who he played yesterday (top seed Mitchell Krueger)."
Rubin had Fox News television personality and family friend Sean Hannity supporting him from behind Court 2, but the New Yorker wasn't able to dent the Novikov serve late in the second set, and two backhand winners ended his run while propelling Novikov into his first National Championship final.
As he did in his quarterfinal win over No. 2 seed Michael Redlicki, Halebian got off to a quick start against Hiltzik, breaking him for a 2-0 first set lead and holding the rest of the way. In the second set, both players had many break point opportunities, but none were converted, leading to a tiebreaker.
"I thought I played a decent tiebreaker," said Halebian, and 18-year-old from Glendale, Calif. "I played okay, I thought. I hit a winner or two that was called out, it was close, but it really looked in from my point of view. He had his chances and didn't convert. He could have played a little better, I thought, and I don't know what happened, but it went my way."
Halebian is attempting to keep the US Open main draw wild card thoughts out of his mind as he prepares for the best-of-five set final Sunday afternoon.
"I'm just trying not to think about it," Halebian said of the biggest prize in US junior tennis. "It's a long day tomorrow, three out of five...I'm physically ready and I like long matches...I'm really excited to play tomorrow."
Novikov calls playing in the final of Kalamazoo for the first time a "great experience," one he hopes will lead to Flushing Meadows later this month.
"If I can get a win tomorrow, it would be an even better experience at the US Open," Novikov said.
In the 16s semifinals, played Saturday morning, local favorite and No. 2 seed Paul Oosterbaan fell to No. 32 seed Sasha Gozun 4-6, 7-5, 6-2. Gozun, a 16-year-old from Sarasota, Fla., felt the pressure of being from Kalamazoo might have kept Oosterbaan from performing at his best.
"I don't know if it added pressure to Paul, because he's hometown boy," said Gozun, who moved to Florida from Moldova, a small country between Romania and Ukraine, four years ago. "Everybody thinks he has to win it. But I respect him, he's a very good player, it was just my day today."
The first set opened with some nervous and sloppy play by both Oosterbaan and Gozun, and after four holds, there were five consecutive breaks of serve. Serving for the set at 5-4, it looked as if a sixth straight break might be coming when Oosterbaan fell behind 0-30. But although his serve gave him trouble later in the match, it came through for him at 30-all, with a service winner, and he earned the first set with a forehand passing shot.
In contrast to the first set, the second was all holds, with Gozun holding more easily than Oosterbaan, who needed to save break points in two of his service games. Serving at 5-6, Oosterbaan fell behind 15-40 when Gozun hit two forehand winners. He saved one when Gozun netted a second serve return, but double faulted to lose the second.
The 10-minute break didn't help Oosterbaan and it didn't hurt Gozun. Gozun took a 3-0 lead, and although he was broken for the first time since the last game of the first set to make it 3-2, he got the break right back, feasting on Oosterbaan's second serve.
"I didn't really serve well the whole match," Oosterbaan said. "He started serving better as the match went on. Mentally he stayed tough and I broke down. It was awesome to have the crowd out there helping me all week, it helped me get through a lot of matches, but not today."
Gozun, who as the No. 32 seed would be the lowest seed to ever win the 16s tournament in its 70 years in Kalamazoo, acknowledges that he is just beginning to tap his potential.
"Everybody's telling me I play much better than I am ranked, but it's also mentally," said Gozun. "It's one thing to have good ground strokes, another thing to be prepared mentally. I was relaxed here, didn't feel so much pressure."
Gozun's opponent in Sunday's final will be No. 12 seed Henrik Wiersholm, who defeated top seed Mitch Stewart 7-6(2), 6-2 in a battle between two friends from the Pacific Northwest.
Stewart fell behind 3-1, and as he had done in his quarterfinal match with Logan Staggs Friday, he fought back to take the lead, winning four straight games. But he was unable to serve out the set at 5-3, and Wiersholm dominated the subsequent tiebreaker.
"He wasn't missing," said Wiersholm. "But for a while there, I wasn't missing either. When he got the break and I went down 5-3, I told myself I was just going to go out there and start making balls, getting positive energy flowing, get a little bit in-your-face in how I'm going to come back and win this set. He got a little bit tight, I have to say, made some key errors, but I also started going for a little more, taking it to him. I really took it to him in the tiebreaker."
Stewart is known for his mental toughness, but he met his match in Wiersholm.
"I think it's a really good trait, but most guys don't expect when they're up--they expect people to cave in," said Wiersholm who won the 12s national championship in 2009. "But when I'm down, I start playing better, taking it to them more, and that's what I did today."
Wiersholm didn't lose focus when he lost the first game of the second set, breaking right back, and although he could hold his 3-1 lead, when he broke Stewart for the third time in the set to go up 5-3, he didn't falter in the final game, closing it out quickly, a rarity in the two and a half hour match.
Gozun has a recent win over Wiersholm, having beaten him 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 in the first round of the Orange Bowl 16s, played on the Har-Tru courts in Plantation last December.
"Sacha's a great player," said Wiersholm. "He's a big guy who's going to hit a lot of big balls. I'm just going to be solid and find a way."
Wiersholm found a way to his first gold ball of the tournament later in the day, when he and Daniel Kerznerman, the No. 4 seeds, beat top seeds Aron Hiltzik and Oosterbaan 6-2, 7-5. Hiltzik and Oosterbaan were on their heels most of the match, but fought back from 5-2 down to save five match points before Hiltzik was broken serving at 5-6 to deliver the victory to Kerznerman and Wiersholm.
"As everyone could tell, we got a little nervous," said Kerznerman, a 16-year-old from New York. "We just tried to stay focused and stay calm and keep trying our best. We got a good break at the end on Aron's serve."
Kerznerman and Wiersholm have been playing doubles together for a few months, winning the ITF Grade 4 Grass Court title back in June.
"Our intensity together is really high," said the left-handed Kerznerman. "We fight well and we both have different games in doubles. He's very aggressive and we work well as a team, I guess."
Wiersholm has played a lot of tennis in the past nine days, but believes with only one more day left, he can manage.
"I'm pretty tired; I need a nice long sleep before tomorrow," Wiersholm said. "But it's just one more match, and then I'm done. [One title] feels awesome, let's go for one more though."
Novikov will also be going for his second title on Sunday, with he and Michael Redlicki, the No. 4 seeds, taking the 18s doubles championship Saturday afternoon 7-6(3), 6-1 over No. 3 seeds Mackenzie McDonald and Trey Strobel.
A first set without any breaks came down to a tiebreaker, and Redlicki and Novikov used their superior size and power to take it. Once they had the first set in hand, they were able to relax.
"We were a little more relieved that we got that first set out of the way," said Redlicki. "Not as many nerves in the second set. We went for our shots, weren't scared, we were happy, because in the finals if you're up, it's always happy times."
Redlicki did have to fight off a break point serving at 2-1, which he did with a big first serve, and he and Novikov weren't challenged after that.
The big prize for the 18s doubles champions is a main draw wild card to the US Open, and neither Novikov nor Redlicki has any preference as to their opponents.
"The fact that we're going, nothing excites me more right now," said Redlicki, who will be entering Duke University in a few weeks. "Whoever we play, we're going to make them earn it, for sure. We're not going to give it away because we think we're done. No, we've made it, and we want to go further."
Novikov and Redlicki played together in the Futures in Rochester this summer, and decided to team up for Kalamazoo. That has led to a berth in the US Open, and Novikov has no interest in playing a high-profile team like the Bryans.
"I want to play someone we can beat," said Novikov. "To get a win would be nice."
Third place in 18s doubles went to No. 8 seed Brendan McClain and TJ Pura, when Shane Vinsant was unable to play due to injury, and he and Mitchell Krueger, the top seeds, lost in a walkover.
Third place in 18s singles went to Hiltzik, when Rubin withdrew from Sunday's schedule match due to injury.
In addition to the bronze ball, Hiltzik was named the winner of the Dr. Allen B. Stowe Sportsmanship Award for the 18s division.
Mihir Kumar was the recipient of the Wes Richards Sportsmanship Award for Feed-In.
The consolation finals are Sunday morning, with Mitchell Krueger playing Austin Siegel for fifth place in the 18s, and Tommy Mylnikov and William Griffith playing for fifth in the 16s division.
For complete results, see the tournament website.