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Saturday, April 6, 2013

Kozlov and Wiersholm in Boys ITF Grade 1 International Spring Championships Final; Mayo and Loeb to Decide Girls Title; Devine, Shibahara Earn 16s Titles

©Colette Lewis 2013--
Carson, CA--

Their rivalry extends back to the 2008 Copper Bowl, when they were nine and ten years old, but unseeded Henrik Wiersholm will be looking for his first win over No. 2 seed Stefan Kozlov when they take the court on Sunday in the final of the ITF Grade 1 International Spring Championships.

"So far it hasn't been much of a rivalry," said Wiersholm, who is 0-7 against Kozlov, his training partner at the USTA's National Center in Boca Raton. "I haven't gotten a win yet, it's pretty ridiculous."

Wiersholm earned yet another shot at Kozlov with a 6-4, 6-3 win over No. 4 seed Naoki Nakagawa of Japan on a warm and sunny day at the Home Depot Center.  After his big win over top seed Noah Rubin in Friday's quarterfinals, Wiersholm was able to refocus.

"Sometimes you have letdowns after big wins, but I still played at a high level today," said the 16-year-old. "It's just how it has to be if you want to win the next match."

Wiersholm was able to keep the ball to Nakagawa's backhand, his less dangerous side, and beat him to the net to finish points.

"He has a great forehand and very solid strokes in general," said Wiersholm, of Kirkland, Washington. "I was trying to hammer his backhand, get in, pressure him and make plays happen."

Kozlov, who lost in last year's final as a 14-year-old, returned with a 6-3, 6-4 win over No. 14 seed Francis Tiafoe in Saturday's other semifinal.

Down 3-1 in the first set, Kozlov saved three break points to keep within striking distance.

"It was a huge game," said Kozlov. "My serve helped me out a lot, I hit a couple, like maybe three, aces in that game and then I kind of got a little bit loose and started playing a lot better."

After all his success against Wiersholm in the past, including last summer when he beat Wiersholm 0-6, 6-3, 6-3 in the first round of the Godfrey Futures, Kozlov still spent some time this week observing Wiersholm's game.

"I watched his match earlier today, and I watch most of his matches," said Kozlov. "He's a good friend and we have the same coach (Nicolas Todero), so we know each other pretty well. We practice sometimes in Boca. I think, to be honest, whoever dictates more is going to win more points tomorrow."

Wiersholm has an idea why he has had been unable to post a win over Kozlov.

"Playing Stefan you have to adapt how you are going to play each point," Wiersholm said. "He's going to change up how he's playing to get that advantage. He's one of the smartest players I know on the court. You have to try to keep up with him, while doing the basics well. It's very difficult to do; it takes a lot of concentration."

The girls finalists do not have as much history, with No. 5 seed Jamie Loeb and unseeded Mayo Hibi meeting for the first time in tournament competition since January of 2012.

But that was also at the last stage of a major tournament, with Loeb defeating Hibi in the final of the USTA Winter National Championships 6-4, 2-6, 6-4, Loeb's first of two singles championships at that event.

Hibi, who is a Japanese citizen, but has lived in Irvine, California since she was a toddler, reached her first Grade 1 final with a 6-4, 6-1 win over top seed Christina Makarova. Hibi, who is playing in her first junior event of the season, was not seeded, falling just short of the WTA ranking of 350 necessary to earn a seed, but she has not lost a set in the tournament.

Hibi fell behind 3-1 in the first set against Makarova, who tries every shot imaginable to frustrate and baffle opponents, but does not attempt ground stroke winners.  Hibi, who has a one-handed backhand and also possesses unusual variety, said she needed time to adjust against Makarova.

"It's hard playing her, because you don't know when you should go, and when you should be patient," said Hibi, who turned 17 on Wednesday. "That balance is really hard. Sometimes it takes a while to get used to playing her."

Once Hibi found that balance she was confident.

"I can finish the points off, but I can also grind and rally with her,"  said Hibi, who defeated Makarova last year at the Easter Bowl. "There were points that sometimes went on forever, and she was the one that would make the mistake, when I'm supposed to be the one making the mistake. Even though I don't want to play like that all the time, on some points I have to and I can do that, so I think that's difficult for her."

Loeb reached the final with a 6-2, 6-4 win over unseeded qualifier Kimberly Yee, although Loeb had to come back from a 4-1 deficit in the second set to avoid a much longer match.

"She was hitting her backhand pretty big, and I was just scrambling to get balls back," said Loeb, also playing in her first Grade 1 final Sunday. "But then she started missing, and I started moving her more, breaking her down a little bit. I started getting the momentum and toward the end, I was going for my shots."

Loeb, 18, has been playing Pro Circuit events since the Australian Open juniors, and won two $10,000 tournaments last year, but she and Hibi have yet to meet at that level.

"Mayo's pretty smart on the court," said Loeb, who trains at the John McEnroe Academy in New York. "She likes to come to net a lot, she loves to serve and volley and slice a lot. So I've just got to be aware and stay patient."

Loeb and Hibi met in the girls doubles final on Saturday afternoon, with Loeb and her partner Maegan Manasse collecting the championship trophies with a 6-3, 6-3 win over Hibi and Denise Starr.

Loeb and Manasse had never played together prior to this week, but had played against each other in doubles and Manasse made an early inquiry about Loeb's availability for this week.

"I asked really early," said Manasse, who defeated Loeb and her partners in the Clay Court doubles final last July and in the Winter National doubles final in January. "It was January, February, right after Winter Nationals."

"Obviously Maegan's a really good doubles player, and I thought we'd be a really good team, and our chemistry is really good," said Loeb. "We're playing Easter Bowl together too, so maybe we'll get another one."

Although they were unseeded, Loeb and Manasse didn't need a match tiebreaker in any of their five wins, and in the final, they were able to withstand a shaky start in the second set to win four of the last five games of the match against No. 7 seeds Hibi and Starr.

"We played pretty solid at the net, both of us," said Loeb. "We hit a lot of volleys, a lot of reflex volleys and Maegan made a lot of good gets. Overall, I think we played really well."

The boys doubles champions also were playing together for the first time, but Tommy Mylnikov and Nakagawa had the advantage of both being IMG Bollettieri Academy students who practice together regularly.

Mylnikov and Nakagawa, the No. 2 seeds, defeated No. 3 seeds Alexander Zverev and Spencer Papa 6-4, 7-5, despite losing their first two service games in the second set to fall behind 3-0.

"We were up 40-0 in the first game and we let that game slip away," said Mylnikov. "We stayed with it and got it back even and then had the momentum going. We were able to break in that last game. It's my first doubles title. I had a 1-6 record before this tournament, so he's gotten me to .500."

Nakagawa thinks he and Mylnikov mesh well because they know what to expect from the other.

"Every day we practice together, so we know each other's game," said Nakagawa. "We're comfortable playing with each other," added Mylnikov.

Unlike Loeb and Manasse, Nakagawa and Mylnikov will not be playing the Easter Bowl together, because Canadian Mylnikov has USTA status and can play the B1 Closed, but Nakagawa, from Japan, does not.

Instead, Mylnikov will team with Justin Butsch in attempt to further enhance his doubles record.

Ena Shibahara took the girls 16s title with a 6-1, 6-2 victory over unseeded wild card Claire Liu Saturday morning.

Shibahara, the No. 13 seed, had beaten Liu 6-0, 6-0 in last year's Easter Bowl 14s division, but she tried to put that out of her mind.

"I went on the court without thinking that I beat her 0 and 0 last year," said Shibahara, who is coached by her father and by Oliver Messerli and Kimberly Po-Messerli at the Peninsula Racquet Club in nearby Rancho Palos Verdes. "I just thought that I hadn't played her in a long time, so basically, it was kind of a new challenge. She's improved a lot since I last played her--she has more power--and I thought she played fairly well."

Shibahara admitted her title at the 16s USTA Winter Nationals gave her additional confidence coming into the match, yet she still felt nerves at the beginning. But she said those nerves were unrelated to any additional pressure from playing Liu, who won't be 13 until next month.

"She doesn't really look 12," said Shibahara.

Liu had difficulty getting into the points in the first set, but extended Shibahara in the second set, forcing her into several long games.  But the versatile Shibahara had too many options, winning ground stroke rallies and net points, and Liu couldn't find a solution.

"It was just a bad day," said Liu. "She just played really well and I wasn't playing my best. I'll just try to learn from it, and try to keep playing like I played in the rounds before."

Liu has no time to dwell on the loss. The No. 1 seed in the 14s at the Easter Bowl, she begins play on Sunday.

In the boys 16s final, Jake Devine overcame his hotel roommate Catalin Mateas 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 in the day's longest match.

Devine, the No. 4 seed, trains with Mateas, the No. 7 seed, at the USTA's Boca Raton National Center, and is sharing a room with him this week.  Their obvious familiarity led to what they both expected: a long, tough match.

"It's a pattern with us," said Devine, 15. "A lot of long matches. Just last week we played a practice match with a two-hour set. I don't think we've ever played a match in a tournament that hasn't gone to three sets. I'm just excited that I was able to pull it out."

Devine couldn't find the court in the first set, but he cleaned up his game in the second and third sets, and once he got the precious break to go up 3-2 in the third, he let his forehand and serve do the rest.

"It took me a while to find my game," said Devine. "But once I got it going I was hitting my forehand well. My first serve percentage was a little low, but once I picked that up, it helped me a lot."

Mateas made Devine serve out the match by holding to make it 5-4, and although Devine didn't make any first serves, he took a 40-0 lead with two winners and a Mateas error.  A double fault made it 40-15, but on the next point Devine's first serve produced a return error and he had survived the two and a half hour contest.

"I was surprisingly relaxed for some reason," Devine said. "I was confident I could hold serve and I was hitting my forehand really well, so I knew if I could get a good first serve in, I could find a forehand and start controlling the point. So I had some confidence that I could serve it out."

Mateas regrets not taking his opportunity to break right back, with Devine serving at 3-2 in the third set. "At 15-40 or 30-40, I had a pretty easy passing shot that I missed and I could have broken him back. It was tough, every chance I missed, he came up with a big serve after. I played well, and I think I'm doing the right things, exactly what I'm working on with my coaches, so I'm happy about that. Every match is a step forward, I've just got to learn from it."

Shibahara made it two titles in one day Saturday, when she and Savannah Slaysman took the girls 16s doubles championship with a 7-6(1), 6-2 victory over Caroline Dolehide and Alexis Nelson. Shibahara and Slaysman were unseeded, while Dolehide and Nelson were the No. 8 seeds.

The boys 16s doubles title went to No. 8 seeds Taylor Fritz and Daniel Gealer, who beat No. 5 seeds Chase Colton and Kyle Seelig 6-2, 6-3.

For complete draws, see the tournament page at usta.com.