©Colette Lewis 2013--
Flushing Meadows, NY--
Friends for seven years, Croatia's Borna Coric and Ana Konjuh have watched each other progress through the junior ranks. In Sunday afternoon's US Open Junior Championships, but both came back from a set down against unseeded opponents to reach the pinnacle of junior success: a junior slam singles title.
Konjuh needed to summon every ounce of poise and experience to outlast wild card Tornado Alicia Black of the United States 3-6, 6-4, 7-6(6), while Coric defeated Australia's Thanaski Kokkinakis 3-6, 6-3, 6-1.
Black and the second-seeded Konjuh battled for over two hours and 45 minutes in front of a large and decidedly pro-American Court 11 crowd before the 15-year-old Croatian secured the final point and her second junior slam title.
Black set the tone early, having no difficulty with Konjuh's ferocious pace, countering it effectively and staying in points long enough for Konjuh to hit a winner, or more likely, an error. Black broke for a 4-2 lead, only to be broken right back, but she got yet another break from Konjuh, whose first serve percentage for the match was under 50 percent.
Black, several months younger than Konjuh and playing in only her second junior slam main draw, easily held the next service game, energizing the crowd, which grew larger with every point Black won. Shouts of "Let's go USA," and "C'mon Alicia" were frequently heard, as both the American empathy for the underdog and Black's determination made her a crowd favorite.
"It was really nice from the U.S. that they came out there and supported me," said Black, who lost to Konjuh at last year's US Open Juniors in three sets and at the Orange Bowl in straight sets. "I was really happy. I loved them out there."
Konjuh said she understood she wouldn't have much support from the spectators during the match, but that only increased her motivation.
"Well, it's always tough," said the right-hander from Zagreb. "I mean, she's American, that's normal. But somehow that gave me even more power to win, and I'm really happy I had my team out there. They were also loud for me."
The crowd helped Black recover from a 2-0 deficit in the second set, and waited patiently for her to return from off-court treatment on her heavily bandaged left thigh with Konjuh leading 4-3 on serve in the second set.
"I was hurting a lot," Black said, "but I was trying to focus on the match, and not my leg."
Black saved a break point to make it 4-4, and had a chance to go up 5-4 in a four-deuce game, but Konjuh came up with a good second serve to save that break point, and held.
Serving at 4-5, Black had a 30-0 lead, but a double fault and two rare unforced errors from Black gave Konjuh as set point, and she converted when Black's forehand sailed pass the baseline after a long and intense rally.
Konjuh was broken to start the third set, but won the next three games, only to get broken again. Black held for 3-3, and Konjuh stayed in front but only after saving another break point, this time with a brave forehand winner in another long game. At 5-5, Konjuh saved another break point with another inside out forehand winner, then had a bit of good fortune when she took the game on a lucky net cord winner.
Black was taken to deuce in the next game, but Konjuh made two unforced errors, and a tiebreaker would decide the championship for only the second time in the 40-year history of the girls tournament.
Konjuh contributed four unforced errors, including a double fault, to go from a 2-0 lead to a 4-2 deficit in the tiebreaker, and Black led 5-3 when Konjuh missed a forehand volley. But Konjuh kept going for the lines, despite what was at stake, and her forehand found a line to make it 5-4. Black missed a forehand long for 5-5, then Konjuh hit a forehand cross court for a winner to give herself a match point. Black saved it with a good backhand that forced a nervous-looking error from Konjuh. Konjuh earned her second match point with a forehand that Black's slice couldn't neutralize, and Konjuh converted it when Black's forehand landed wide.
Konjuh admitted luck played a role in the outcome.
"Luck was also one of the things," Konjuh said. "But I gave 100 percent of myself out there on the court. We played almost three hours, just bad luck for her. She made really good results here, and I just said to myself, don't do stupid mistakes, you know. Just keep the ball in the court, and she's gonna miss somehow."
Konjuh also revealed that Black's aggressive counterpunching style is not the game she likes to face.
"She's really good on the baseline, she doesn't miss a lot," Konjuh said. "That kind of game doesn't suit me. I'm going for a winner a lot, and I don't want to play long points and grind. I had to this match, and I'm really happy that I managed to do it."
Konjuh has said in several press conferences that this is her last junior event, and she will concentrate now on improving her WTA ranking which is now at 284. Black, who is currently unranked, also hopes to move up in the pro ranks, while competing in juniors too.
"I want to play all the junior slams again next year and hopefully start playing some pro tournaments--the 10s, 25s, 50s, and work my way up."
Coric and Kokkinakis are determined to leave the junior ranks behind, and it is Coric who will be moving on to the pros with a junior slam title.
Kokkinakis defeated Coric 6-3, 6-2 in the semifinals of the Australian Open junior tournament in January, and at the beginning of Sunday's final, looked as if he had the formula to repeat that victory, but as he had done against top seed Alexander Zverev in the semifinals, Coric drew confidence from an early break in the second set, and began to play better.
"In the second set, I was very happy to get the first break, and then he broke me back," said the 16-year-old right-hander, who trains in England. "Actually, I lost a little bit of belief when I lost that break. But at 2-all, I saved two break points and I think that's also like yesterday, a key to the match. Then I started to play good. His level a little bit dropped, and that's it."
Kokkinakis was quick to agree with Coric.
"In the first set, I wasn't playing that well, but I was playing smarter on the big points and controlling it well," said the 17-year-old Kokkinakis. "In the second set, I felt the match was pretty much how I played it. If I started playing well, I was winning, if I was playing bad, he was dictating. It's really disappointing for me, because I thought I had a really good chance to win this. Two finals in one year is a little disappointing, but I'm hoping in the seniors, I'll have a bit more success."
Kokkinakis has a serve that is frequently the biggest shot on the court, but with a first serve percentage of only 43 percent, he wasn't able to count on it.
"He didn't serve so well," said Coric. "I think his baseline shots, especially in the first set, was really good. I think his percentage of first serves wasn't so big. I think I returned okay, but I was expecting more, actually, from my return."
Kokkinakis was even more blunt.
"I served terrible," he said. "It doesn't help because a lot of that's my game, and then my forehand when I get easy replies. The second serve, you can't really be aggressive on it unless you have leeway in the game. My serving's a big key, and I didn't do it well at all."
Once Coric secured the second set, getting a break for a 4-2 lead, then holding on, he was determined not to let Kokkinakis return to his previous level of play.
Out to a 4-0 lead, Coric continued to get the better of the backhand to backhand rallies, and a hold for 5-1 moved the title into closer view. At 30-30, Kokkinakis hit a backhand long to give Coric championship point, and a forehand winner, that Kokkinakis didn't move for, delivered Croatia's first US Open boys singles title. Coric threw his racquet in the vicinity of the net, while Kokkinakis destroyed his on the baseline before moving forward to shake hands.
Coric has been named to the Croatia Davis Cup team for the tie with Great Britain coming up next weekend, but he has no idea what his role will be.
"I don't expect anything," said Coric, who believes his ten months with new British coach Ryan Jones has provided him with a better work ethic and attitude, which has led to achieving his goal of winning a junior slam in 2013. "I will just, whatever the captain says, I'm going to do it. It's my first Davis Cup, so I'm there just to be there. If he says, you play, I will play. If he says, just bring the water on the court, I will just bring the water on the court."
|Junior finalists honored on Arthur Ashe Stadium prior to women's final|