©Colette Lewis 2012--
Last year Noah Rubin's appearance in the ITF Grade B1 Pan American Closed final was something of a surprise, with the then 15-year-old wild card playing in only his second ITF tournament. This year he returned to Tulsa with the No. 1 seeding (and a soccer ball) and emerged with the title, defeating No. 4 seed Hugo Di Feo of Canada 6-2, 2-6, 6-2 in Saturday morning's boys final.
Rubin, remembering the University of Tulsa's soccer field was located adjacent to the Michael D. Case Tennis Center, brought the ball to kick around between matches, but ended up using it as a calming influence during changeovers, spinning it on his index finger like a Globetrotter might do with a basketball.
"It's just to distract me, so I don't think about tennis during the changeovers," said Rubin. "I knew we never had a ball to play with and I was always disappointed, so I brought it, then brought it on the court and started spinning it, and it helped distract me and it was good, so I kept doing it."
Rubin had plenty of changeovers to practice his ball spinning, going to three sets in his final three matches. In the championship match, the 16-year-old New Yorker came out strong, adjusting to the gusty winds more quickly than Di Feo, taking a 4-0 lead before the 17-year-old Canadian got on the board.
With a break in the first game of the second set, Rubin seemed on his way to a routine win, but Di Feo began to make his own adjustments to the conditions, which also included several brief stoppages of play to dry the lines after some sprinkles of rain. Di Feo broke Rubin four consecutive times in the second set, the final time at love to secure the second set. That pattern did not repeat itself in the third set, however, with Rubin getting an early break and holding with relative ease the rest of the way. In the final game, serving for the match at 5-2, Rubin took a 40-0 lead, but double faulted on his first match point. Match point No. 2 was indicative of many of the best points of the match, with a dozen or so ground strokes of all varieties until Di Feo had worked his way into a closing position at the net, only to have Rubin hit a perfect lob against the strong breeze to secure the point and the match.
Di Feo, who lost in the first round of the tournament last year and was playing in his first Grade 1 final, said it was more the conditions than nerves that led to his slow start. He also gave Rubin credit for Rubin's ability to neutralize his own strong net game.
"I know he's a really good baseliner, but he has really good passing shots," said Di Feo. "I'm pretty good at the net, but every time I was coming in, he would make a really good pass, so he did a very good job about that."
Rubin was determined not to have any lapses once he got the early break in the third set.
"I think I just focused a little more in the early points to get that first game in the third and focused really hard not to give it up," said Rubin, who is playing two Futures events later this month. "From then on, I felt loose to get the double break, and move on from there. He's a very good player, so I knew I had to be on my game the whole time, and that's what came out."
Rubin saved three match points in his quarterfinal win over Roy Lederman, and that was one of the highlights of the tournament for him.
"It's not even that I won it, it's just more experience," said Rubin, who lost in the final to Mitchell Krueger last year. "Saving match points I feel is more important than winning a tournament, because you know, at any point in time, you can come back and win a match. It's not about the points, and it's knowing that I can come back, no matter how many three sets I play in a tournament, I'll be okay for the finals."
Top seed Carol Zhao had also come into the final battle-tested, winning three consecutive three-set matches, but unlike Rubin, she was unable to win the final one, dropping a 7-6(5), 4-6, 7-5 decision to No. 2 seed Francoise Abanda in the all-Canadian championship match.
It was nearly three hours before a winner emerged, with each set, and nearly each game, decided by the slimmest of margins.
Zhao served for the first set at 6-5, but didn't earn a set point in the game, with Zhao's unforced errors aiding Abanda's cause.
In the tiebreaker, no more than a point separated the two, until Zhao tried a drop shot that barely reached the net to give Abanda two set points. Zhao forced an error from Abanda with a good backhand to save the first set point, but Abanda came up with a forehand angled sharply just outside the service box. It would have been a clean winner against most players, but Zhao got a racquet on it, although she wasn't able to direct her desperate forehand back over the net.
Abanda took a 3-1 lead in the second set, but Zhao, who lost to Abanda in straight sets less than two months ago in the Grade 1 final in Canada, wasn't ready to concede. Zhao won four straight games to take a 5-3 lead, but again she couldn't get to set point. Abanda couldn't take advantage this time, however, and she was broken quickly thanks to her own unforced errors, leveling the match at a set apiece.
There was no question that Abanda had all the momentum in the third set, breaking Zhao to start the set and getting a 4-1, two-break lead. But again, Zhao fought back, winning the next three games with some outstanding defense and also some aggressive swinging volleys.
At 4-4, it was Zhao who had the momentum, but she couldn't keep it, with a flurry of unforced errors resulting in a break, giving Abanda the opportunity to serve for the match at 5-4.
Just how frustrated Abanda had become with her play was evident after a double fault made it 15-30 and another error gave Zhao two break points. Usually the picture of composure and serenity on the court, the 15-year-old erupted, screaming loudly at herself in French. She lost the next point on a backhand error, and again the match was even.
"It was so tight in the match and I'm not playing well," Abanda said, explaining her rare outburst. "I can't finish the match 5-4 and serving, and it's really frustrating."
Zhao gave Abanda a second opportunity when she was broken at love, and this time Abanda converted. After Zhao had saved one match point, passing Abanda after a drop shot, Abanda had one match point left, and she put everything into a backhand down the line. It was untouchable, even by Zhao, and Abanda gave a shout of "allez" a second after she hit it.
"I just said make it or break it," said Abanda of that final shot. "And I made it."
For all the entertaining points, and there were many, including one early in the third set that had Zhao somehow returning a point-blank Abanda overhead at the net, with one great shot after another until Abanda finally won it with a perfect topspin lob, Abanda wasn't happy with her play.
"I knew it was going to be a grind," Abanda said. "She's a really strong and solid player. But I thought I didn't play that well at all."
Abanda had not played on Friday, the recipient of a walkover for the second time in the tournament, but she admitted to fatigue in the late stages of the match.
"She was really in the match and I was really, really tired," said Abanda, "and I bet she was too a little bit, but she's really fit. I think we're both fit. I train with her and she's really fit, so I was expecting she wouldn't get tired. She's really solid, so I'm happy that I pulled it off."
Zhao was most disappointed about the break at 4-4 in the third.
"When you come back like that, you just want to keep the momentum going," said the 17-year-old from Ontario. "I think I could have done better on the break points and the pressure points, especially in the third set, but overall, I was pretty pleased with my performance."
Zhao said she felt fresh enough in the final few games, and she demonstrated it by taking the court for the doubles final just a few minutes after the completion of the singles final. Due to take a flight out of Tulsa at 4 p.m., Zhao and partner Erin Routliffe, played the first set as if they would make their flight with hours to spare, taking the first set 6-1 over Charlotte Petrick of Canada and Denise Starr, the No. 6 seeds.
At 2-1 in the second set, the rain started to fall again, and the match was moved indoors, where Petrick and Starr took a 4-1 lead. Routliffe and Zhao, the top seeds, won the next four games, but Routliffe was broken at 5-4. The next game went to a deciding point in the no-ad format, with Zhao poaching and putting away the volley to break Starr, and this time there would be no delays, with Zhao holding at love to post a 6-1, 7-5 victory. Zhao and Routliffe avoided the match tiebreaker played in lieu of a third set all week, winning all five of their matches in straight sets.
"We're starting to learn more about each other on the court now," said Routliffe. "So it's working a lot better. We played well."
"We've played together for a while now," said Zhao. "It was fun and we felt comfortable. This was definitely a good tournament for us."
The Canadians swept the doubles titles, with Di Feo and partner Brayden Schnur taking the boys championship with a 6-3, 6-1 win over top seeds Martin Redlicki and Rubin.
Although Di Feo and Schnur have played together for some time now, Schnur describes their first few times together as "rough."
"At first, I used to live in Florida and we weren't really close friends, but when I started training in Montreal at the National Training Center, we grew closer and we're pretty good friends now," said Schnur. "You create a bond in doubles, and it helps us for sure. It takes time to become one."
Di Feo was happy to end his tournament on a positive note.
"It's always good to finish with a doubles win," said Di Feo. "Our goal was to win doubles, so when I stepped on the court I just wanted to win for him and for me. It was a good match today. We played really solid."
Schnur assessed their performance in the finals as their best all week.
"We started out rough, three sets in our first round, and just really weren't motivated for the doubles in the first round," said Schnur, who, like Di Feo, is 17 years old. "We were really pumped up today."
"From the first point, we just made them play," said Di Feo. "We served pretty well, first volley, everything was perfect."