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Friday, July 18, 2014

Katerina Stewart and Kennedy Shaffer Meet for USTA Girls 18s Clay Court Title Saturday

©Colette Lewis 2014--
Memphis, TN--

A steady rain Friday sent the remaining matches of the USTA Girls 18s Clay Court Championship indoors, to the four indoor Har-Tru courts at the Tunica National Golf and Tennis Club, about 30 miles south of Memphis.  Neither semifinal winner--No. 5 seed Katerina Stewart, who defeated No. 8 seed Caroline Lampl 6-0, 6-1, and No. 17 seed Kennedy Shaffer, who downed No.4 seed Jessie Aney 1-6, 6-1, 6-2--had any complaints about the change of venue.

"I love clay, I could like roll in the clay," said Stewart, who grew up playing on the surface in Miami.  "It's so much slower than the other site (the Racquet Club of Memphis), which is surprising, because I thought it was going to be fast. This is my first time playing an indoor clay court, but I really liked it.  Clay already gives me enough time, and especially this one. It was way slower than the other one, so it helped me a lot."

Stewart, who won the 16s USTA National Hard Court title last year in San Diego, prefers clay, using her topspin and heavy, deep ground strokes to physically wear down her opponents.  Calling her match against Lampl her best of the tournament, Stewart said she was focused and "really feeling the ball well."  Lampl was more error-prone than she had been in her previous matches, and was unable to find any solution to Stewart's depth and power.

Now on a 33-match winning streak which extends back to a $25,000 Pro Circuit event in March, Stewart said so many consecutive wins can add both confidence and pressure.

"I actually didn't know how many matches in a row I'd won until you told me, so I haven't thought about it," said Stewart, who said she feels like Novak Djokovic when he had his 42-match winning streak in 2011.  "It gives you confidence winning and also that pressure of 'wow, I've won so many matches, I don't want to lose this next one'. Everyone's going out there to beat you, so you don't want to add extra pressure to yourself, so I just take it one point at a time."

Unlike Stewart, who has a classic clay court game, Shaffer plays more first-strike tennis, but she too found the Tunica National courts to her liking.

"I loved them," said Shaffer, who chalked up her slow start in the opening set to nerves and a lack of experience in big matches. "Everybody keeps saying they're a lot slower, but I thought they were faster.  Indoor courts are better for me because I was playing on indoor all my life, so the faster the ball came the more I liked it. I loved these courts, they were really easy to move on, I would take these any day."

Shaffer recovered in the second set and began to find her range, but Aney's defense tested her patience, with Shaffer needing to hit three or four extra balls before she could finally get one past the 16-year-old from Minnesota.

Even when Shaffer's big shots drew a short ball from Aney and she closed the net to put it away, she was ready to hit another shot.

"She's so fit and her game is covering everything, wearing you down every possible way, and that's not me, I'm not that kind of player," said Shaffer, who grew up in Ohio, but trains at the Ivan Lendl Academy in Hilton Head. "So I had to work super hard from the baseline until I found a ball I could move in on. I had short balls that took ten short balls to put away, before I could actually finish the point.  But anything that was service line or a little behind it, I was going to move in."

At the 10-minute break between sets, Shaffer had an opportunity to consult with her coach Ana Ceretto, who arrived in Memphis in the early hours of the morning Friday.

"It means the world to me to have her here watching," Shaffer said. "She said it was going to be on me, if I won or lost. If I attacked, and I made my shots, or I didn't play too smart and let her wear me down physically and mentally."

True to her reputation, Aney did not relent even when she was broken for a second time in the third set to give Shaffer a 5-2 lead and an opportunity to serve for the match.  Betraying a few nerves, Shaffer made a couple of errors and was facing a 15-40 deficit, but two exquisite points, with 20-to-30 ball rallies that Shaffer finally ended with a forehand winner each time brought it back to deuce. Both girls took a little extra time after each of those two gruelling break points, but Shaffer did not relax or lose her concentration on the next one. Instead, she pounced on a ball she liked early in the rally, hitting a backhand winner to reach match point, then converted it when Aney's mishit backhand hit the ceiling.

Shaffer said she wasn't aware that the winner of the Girls 18s Clay Courts receives a wild card into the US Open Junior Championships.

"I've always dreamed of that, but I never thought the day would come that I would have a shot at it, to be completely honest," Shaffer said. "This kind of feels like a dream. A Super National, I always wanted to play them when I was younger, wanted to do good, but I never anticipated ever playing for a spot in the US Open juniors. That would mean all the ups and downs, the injuries and time off I've tried to work past have been worth it.  I'm improving and I'm enjoying competing, so that's all that matters to me."

After the completion of the semifinals and a couple of hours of rest for Stewart, the doubles championship was contested between two No. 9 seeds, with Gabby Andrews and Kenadi Hance defeating Stewart and Mia Horvit 6-3, 7-5.

Andrews and Hance had not planned to play together, but when their previously arranged partners pulled out, they paired up at the last minute, when Andrews was checking in prior to the tournament.

Although both are from Southern California, they had not played together since the 12s, and it looked as if their tournament was going to end in the semifinals, when they trailed Jacqueline Urbinati and Melissa Lord 6-3, 5-2 before pulling out a 3-6, 7-5, 7-5 victory, which included saving a match point.

"Down 2-5, I'm hitting underhand serves," said Andrews, who is experiencing pain in her right shoulder. "She said, if we're going to go out, we're going to go out having fun. And somehow we win that game, and then another, and momentum's going our way.  I didn't even care about my arm anymore, my new serve, I don't care what anyone else thinks."

Andrews, who won two junior grand slam doubles titles with Taylor Townsend in 2012, started the final serving conventionally, but by the fourth game of the second set she was back to the underhand variety.

"I was planning on staying with the traditional serve but Kenadi was smart," said Andrews. "She said, you know your underhand serve is working, why don't you just do that for the rest of the time?"

Andrews rarely missed a first serve, and the underhand slice on it made it difficult for Horvit and Stewart to attack it.  That didn't mean Andrews and Horvit held serve--there were five consecutive breaks from 3-3 in the third set--but Andrews used her soft hands and exceptional placement while Hance did a lot of the cross court ground stroke work in rallies.

"We stayed calm and I think we played smart," said Hance, who like Andrews is 17. "We made them play and we weren't making too many mistakes. We only went for shots when we knew it was the right time."

"Patience was key," added Andrews, who closed out the match by holding serve. "We weren't trying to go for shots that weren't there. We were really consistent, didn't go for extreme shots at the wrong time."

There are three matches on the schedule for Saturday, all at 10 a.m. In addition to the singles final, the consolation final between Horvit and Katherine Fahey and the third place match between Aney and Lampl will also be contested.

Complete draws can be found at the TennisLink site.

Below are the results and/or finals matchups for the other Clay Court divisions:

B12s: Zane Khan(5) def. Faris Khan(11) 1-6, 6-0, 6-0
G12s: Cori Gauff(17) v Victoria Hu(7)
B14s: Keenan Mayo(1) def. Bradley Frye 6-3, 6-3
G14s: Sophia Edwards(8) v Victoria Emma
G16s: Ryan Peus(1) v Claire Liu(5)
B16s: John McNally(1) v Jacob Brumm(5)
B18s: Tommy Paul(17) v Reilly Opelka

Complete draws are here:

Boys 12s in Winston-Salem, NC

Girls 12s in Palm Beach Gardens, FL

Boys 14s in Ft. Lauderdale, FL

Girls 14s in Plantation, FL

Girls 16s in Virginia Beach, VA

Boys 16s & 18s in Delray Beach, FL