Sponsored by IMG Academy

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Tiafoe, Bellis Win ITF Easter Bowl Titles; Stewart and McNally Claim 16s Championships

©Colette Lewis 2014--
Indian Wells, California--

Although CiCi Bellis isn't sporting a necklace with a small crown hanging from it as boys champion Francis Tiafoe is, there's no question the 15-year-old Californian is the queen of the Asics Easter Bowl. After her 6-3, 6-1 victory over No. 9 seed Katie Swan Sunday at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, Bellis has now won two consecutive titles, adding the ITF Grade B1 title to the 16s championship she won last year.

The 16-year-old Tiafoe, who like Bellis is a former Les Petits As and World Junior Tennis Team champion, has never had the success he coveted at the Easter Bowl, but he erased some of those bad memories--and the pain of last week's third-set tiebreaker loss in the final of the International Spring Championships in Carson--with a 7-6(3), 3-6, 6-2 victory over unseeded Nathan Ponwith in Sunday's final.

"Finally, I got over the hump," said Tiafoe, who had won only three matches at the Easter Bowl in the past three years. "I never thought I would. I'm happy I won the title here and happy to go home with a title."

The silver necklace with a tiny crown attached was a gift from another player's parent at the Junior Tennis Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Maryland, where Tiafoe trains, and was meant to commemorate his Orange Bowl title last December.

"A lot of people have been asking about that, and thinking I'm getting big-headed for it," said Tiafoe, smiling. "He gave it to me, saying, you're the king now. I wasn't going to say no to that, I took pride in that as soon as he said it. We had a bet going in before that I would get a necklace, and I thought it was going to be a cross, but he was like, no, you're going to get a crown. You're the king. So I said, all right, I'll wear it with pride."

Tiafoe looked as if he would cruise to the title after taking a 5-2, two-break lead in the opening set, but Ponwith shook off the nerves of playing in his first Grade 1 final. Ponwith, who will be 16 next week, saved two set points with Tiafoe serving for the set at 5-4, but Tiafoe controlled the tiebreaker, ending it with a forehand cross court winner on his fourth set point.

Ponwith broke Tiafoe in the opening game of the second set and never trailed, swinging freely and using his forehand to keep Tiafoe on defense.

Ponwith served the opening game of the third set, and led 40-15, but Tiafoe kept pressing, saving four game points in total, while Ponwith saved two break points before Tiafoe finally cracked a backhand winner to take a 1-0 lead.

"The first game of the third is always huge, always, and even the second game was pretty long," said Tiafoe. "The majority of the time I usually win those games and I'm happy I did today, because I could have been down 2-0 or up 2-0."

Ponwith acknowledged the importance of that game.

"It was a super long game," said the Scottsdale, Arizona resident. "I had a bunch of game points and saved a bunch of break points. I think on my game points, I didn't play aggressive enough, and I think he stepped up and played well."

Tiafoe kept the pressure on Ponwith's serve throughout the final set, and the new balls gave his forehand some extra zip. He hit an 119 mph ace to get to match point at 5-2, but missed a forehand wide.  A big backhand into the corner gave him a second match point and he converted it, with a good first serve leading to a forehand error by Ponwith.

Despite the loss, Ponwith left Indian Wells in a positive frame of mind, after a wrist injury kept him from playing for two months early this year.

"It was a great week," said Ponwith, who received the tournament's Sportsmanship Award. "I'm going to come back next year and be really excited. It's a great place to play and a great town to play in."

Tiafoe will move to No. 2 in the ITF world junior rankings next week, moving past fellow 16-year-old Stefan Kozlov for the first time.

"If I am two in the world, I'll be very happy," said Tiafoe, who will train in Europe for a few weeks, and play a few Futures in Spain before heading to the French Open Junior Championships.

"That's somewhere I'm really looking forward to being. I've seen it every year on TV since I was about six years old, and having a chance to play there is going to be great. I'm going to get on the grounds early, hit with some of the pros, like Sam, Stevie and Jack, so I can get used to the clay before the juniors start the second week."

Bellis, seeded No. 4 this week, has yet to lose in ITF junior play this year, running her winning streak to 18, and becoming the first girl since Kyle McPhillips in 2010 and 2011 to follow a 16s title with an 18s championship.

Although Bellis and Swan are good friends, and spent time together before their match watching the boys final, Bellis showed no mercy on the court. Despite playing 12 singles matches in the past 14 days, with her title at the International Spring Championships in Carson, Bellis didn't display any lack of energy or focus.

"Yeah, I'm tired," admitted Bellis, who had her knee taped a few days ago, but said it wasn't bothering her anymore. "Two tournaments in a row, it's hard."

After falling behind 2-0 in the first set, Bellis won six of the next seven games to take the set, and continued to dictate points with her forehand in the second set, while Swan's serve began to become less effective. Swan called for a trainer at the end of the first set, with her shins the source of the discomfort.

"Yesterday both my shins started to hurt. I think the tissue is rubbing on the bone," said Swan, a 15-year-old from Bristol, England, whose family now lives in Wichita, Kansas. "But it will be okay soon."

Swan had nothing but praise for Bellis.

"She's such a great player," Swan said. "It's great to play against someone like that, so I know the level I need to get to. She's just looking always to dominate, and has a great forehand. She's just an amazing player."

Bellis will head to Europe for the Italian ITF junior swing, which ends with the Grade A Italian Open, before going on to the French Open Junior Championships, and after winning the ITF World Junior Team Championships last year on the red clay in the Czech Republic, she is excited to get on the surface again.

But first, Bellis will take a few days off, leaving the racquet in the bag for two or three days.

"I'm just going to be relaxing," said Bellis, of Atherton, California. "It's going to be nice to just hang out for the next few days, and let my body rest and recover until getting back to training again."

While Bellis had nothing but good memories of Easter Bowls past, boys 16s champion John McNally, who also won the title last week in Carson, had to again relive his loss to Connor Hance in the 2013 14s final. McNally had a match point he failed to convert then; and this year against No. 2 seed Zeke Clark, McNally was serving at 6-3, 5-4, 40-0 only to lose those three match points and another one, before pulling out a 6-3, 7-6(4) victory.

"This year, I've grown a lot as a tennis player," said the ninth-seeded McNally, a 15-year-old from Cincinnati. "Just being able to close that match out is a huge sigh of relief. I'm still shaking from the match."

Clark, a 15-year-old from Tulsa, stayed with McNally throughout the tiebreaker, with the first eight points going to the server.  Clark surrendered the first mini-break, when a McNally forehand forced a short ball that McNally put away to make it 5-4.  On the next point McNally went for the sideline and caught a part of it according to the line judge and the chair umpire, but Clark was not convinced.

With his fifth match point, McNally finally converted, with another forehand forcing a forehand from Clark that sailed over the baseline.

"It was getting hard to breathe after those match points," said McNally, who learned tennis from his mother, the former Lynn Nabors, who played at Northwestern University with Katrina Adams, the USTA first vice president, who was in attendance at Indian Wells. "I was pretty worried. I think I said last year in my interview that all the best players blow match points and bounce back, and I bounced back this year."

McNally credited his serve with his effectiveness against Clark, who he dubbed a "pit bull."

"I think I lost my serve just once, in the second set," said McNally, who hit back-to-back aces in the tiebreaker to win the sixth and seventh points. "It was awesome to see my serve speed--I hit one 120. That was unbelievable. Against Zeke you have to make first serves, because if you give him a second serve, the point's going to last 40 balls. You want to try to end the points as quickly as possible."

The only downside to the win for McNally was the fact that last year the Easter Bowl was a gold ball event, while this year it is not.

"I'm a little disappointed it's not a gold ball," McNally said. "But it's still nice. Back-to-back weeks in California, it has been a great two weeks, two huge tournaments, and I won them both."

Girls 16s champion Katerina Stewart, the No. 1 seed, lost only eight games in her first five matches, but the 16-year-old from Coral Gables, Florida had her hands full in the final, eventually prevailing over unseeded 13-year-old Claire Liu 6-3, 3-6, 6-2.

Up 5-0 in the first set, Stewart couldn't be blamed for envisioning her ninth 6-0 set of the tournament, but Liu took three straight games before Stewart finally served it out.

"Basically up until 5-0 it was all about nerves, who could control it better, I think," said Stewart, who lost in the 14s Easter Bowl final in 2011. "At 5-0, we both started relaxing, and she started playing her game more, and it became more of a battle, like it should have been. She was playing really well in the second set, and I kind of pulled back a little bit. I stepped in there and regrouped in the third set."

Stewart, who turns 17 in July, will now play the 18s Clay Courts and Hard Courts this summer, in hopes of winning a wild card into the US Open junior championships.

"It's my last 16s tournament, so it's a good way to end," Stewart said.

In the girls 14s final, No. 3 seed Rachel Lim defeated Ashley Yeah 6-1, 7-6(2).

"I think I played really well overall," said Lim, who trains at the USTA's National Tennis Center in New York. "She's a really good player, so I had to hang in there and stay tough because she was really consistent and driving the ball really well."

"In the first set, I came out playing really well, I was stepping in and being aggressive, then in the second set I kind of got a little tight, especially when I was up 5-3. I didn't really hit the ball as I'd want to, as I did in the first set, but I hung in there for the tiebreak and I feel like it paid off."

The boys 14s champion is top seed Steven Sun, who defeated No. 2 seed Keenan Mayo 6-0, 4-6, 6-1.

"I think I got too excited in the second set," said Sun, who was down 6-1, 3-1 in his semifinal match with Andrew Fenty on Saturday before posting a 1-6, 7-6(2), 6-3 victory. "I went back to my game plan, got things under control."

Sun, who won the USTA Clay Courts in the 12s last year, said he believes this title was more difficult to secure.

"This one was a lot tougher," said Sun, who trains at the Sly Black Academy in Boca Raton, Florida. "Better opponents, just a lot tougher."

The girls 12s title went to No. 9 seed Kacie Harvey, who beat No. 6 seed Katie Volynets 6-2, 6-1.

"She was a really good runner, so I had to be smart with my shots, move it all around," said the 12-year-old Harvey, who trains in Braintree, Mass. with Calin Mateas, father of Maria and Catalin Mateas. "I couldn't go to the same spot every time, and she's really good at running side to side, so I had to go behind her a lot, and I usually had to hit a couple of extra shots more than I'm used to, so it took a lot of energy."

For Harvey, the Easter Bowl represented a big step forward.

"I usually have lost third round in every other tournament," Harvey said. "So I'm pretty excited that I finally won."

Harvey is also eager to get back home to New England, because her parents were not able to travel to California with her.

"I'm excited to see them," said Harvey. "I wish they were here to watch me, but they keep texting me and calling me, and saying good luck. I haven't talked to them yet, but I'll call them soon."

Unseeded Daniel Sharygin won the boys 12s title, beating No. 16 seed Ronan Jachuck 7-6(4), 6-2.

The 12-year-old left-hander from Indiana said he was not surprised that he wasn't seeded in the tournament.

"Since I've been playing a lot of 14s tournaments, my ranking kind of dropped in the 12s," said Sharygin, who will turn 13 in October. "I kind of expected that, but I didn't really worry about the seeds too much."

Sharygin was well aware of the Easter Bowl's history and importance, with his coach Stephanie Hazlett, who went on to earn All-America honors at the University of Florida, the 16s champion back in 1995.

"She's an excellent coach," said Sharygin, who admitted he was nervous when he took the court for the final after learning of the significance of the tournament from Hazlett.

A veteran of the 12s Spring Nationals, which were played in Delray Beach, Florida prior to this year, Sharygin, who didn't lose a set in the tournament, said he preferred the Easter Bowl.

"I actually like this tournament better," said Sharygin. "It's a much better environment--it's California."

For complete 18s results, see the TennisLink site.

For complete results from the younger age divisions, see the Tennis Link site.

The doubles finals:

Boys 12s: 
Nathan Arimilli and Connor Fu(2) def. Eliot Spizzirri and Billy Suarez(4) 9-7.

Boys 14s:
Paul Barretto and Timothy Sah (5) def. Cody Lin and Kento Perera 8-2

Boys 16s: 
Caleb Chakravarthi and Evan Zhu def. Mark Vasat and Brenden Volk 8-4

Girls 12s:
Carmen Corley and Amber Hochstatter def. Isabella Harvison and Jillian Taggart 8-6

Girls 14s:
Malkia Menguene and Natasha Subhash def. Kolie Allen and Meg Kowalski (6) 8-4

Girls 16s:Katie Chang and Claire Liu (3) def. Abigail Chiu and Elizabeth Porter(4) 8-3


Are you kidding me? said...

GOLD BALL??? So, the USTA made a team event a gold ball ( with boys that were 3 stars and boys that didn't play) and took the gold ball away from Easter Bowl? Colette, truly, can this be any more messed up?

too expensive said...

As mentioned in previous blogs the easter bowl is a very expensive tournament that occurs while many of us are in school. Expense and missed school skews the field. Agree with decision that this should not be a gold ball event.

Igor said...

What was strange for the most prestigious event in the US, besides the Orange Bowl, was the lack of refs.
Matches were only chaired starting in the QF.
I have been to many ITF events and only in the US does this happen. Is it a lack of funding?

Dan said...

To: Too Expensive,

So, yes, the event was ridiculously expensive,
however the ITF event for the 18's had many PD
Players and JCC, and I doubt they paid....
The timing was awful for this coinciding with the
Music festival, no rooms and the few to get were
Off the charts expensive.

Let's get to your Gold Ball comment-
The EB with a draw of 64 ( which occurs when not everyone is off) should not get a Gold Ball,
but the team event ( with a very weak field) that is only
for 32 kids ( when absolutely no one is off) should
be a Gold Ball event where they hand out multiple
Gold balls?

russ said...

Here's some interesting news: Domijan will not go pro after graduation. He's going to become a Navy SEAL: