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Saturday, July 19, 2014

Stewart Claims USTA Girls 18 Clay Court Title, Extends Winning Streak to 34 Matches

 ©Colette Lewis 2014--
Memphis, TN--

After winning her first two matches at the USTA Girls 18s Clay Courts without losing a game,  Katerina Stewart admitted she needed a wakeup call.  That came in the third round, when she defeated Emma Davis, a No. 17 seed, 7-6(3), 7-5, the closest match Stewart had all week. The 17-year-old right-hander was wide awake the remainder of the tournament, finishing it with a 6-1, 6-3 victory over Kennedy Shaffer on a cool and overcast Saturday morning at the Racquet Club of Memphis.

"I needed that match because I needed a rude awakening," said Stewart, who is on a 34-match winning streak dating back to March. "After two 6-0 6-0s, you're like oh, hey, I'm here. And then you get an opponent like that and you're like whoa, okay, hello.  [Davis] played really well, and what's weird is that she plays like an indoor player, but she does well on clay because she has exceptional timing. She was taking my balls on the rise and hitting everything really, really hard. I was panicking, because I hadn't had a tough match. But at 5-all I said, okay let's go, come on, you're used to this, grind it out and I did, thank god.  You always need that, even if you don't want it, which I really did not want it, you need it to prepare you for the tougher matches at the end."

Those matches never came, as Stewart lost only ten games in her last three matches, taking early leads and never losing focus or motivation.

"I had trouble focusing in the first couple of rounds, because I was all over the place mentally, but I really brought it all together," said Stewart, seeded No. 5. "I played really well today also. She's a great player, and she had some really good wins this week, but I'm happy I came through."

The first two games of the match went to deuce, but Stewart won them both, and from there took control of the first set, winning it in just over 30 minutes.

Shaffer could take comfort in the knowledge that she had trailed 6-1 after a set in her semifinal match with Jessie Aney, but when she was broken at love in the fourth game of the second set, another comeback and a third straight three-set win, looked unlikely.

"She's just an incredibly solid player," said Shaffer, a No. 17 seed who had never been beyond the fourth round at a USTA National Level 1 tournament. "I didn't feel like I had much energy left and against a player like her you have to be a hundred percent physically, mentally or she will just wear you down. Corner to corner, heavy balls, pushing you back...she moves well, she has that good slice, she covers the court very well. I just think she's an all around great athlete and she's tough. She's really tough to beat."

Although Shaffer didn't get many chances to get back in the match, making errors that she didn't make against Aney in the semifinals, when she did get a 0-30 lead or have a rare break point, Stewart came up with a big serve, usually drawing a weak return that could be efficiently put away.

"I was focusing on making a very high percentage of first serves," said Stewart, who trains with her father Caesar at Next Level Tennis Academy in Coral Gables and grew up on the same Har-Tru surface used at the Racquet Club. "She's an aggressive player and I didn't want her to attack my serve. So always on the big points, I wanted to serve into the body, to keep her off balance, and it worked for me today, because I was really focusing well on the serve."

"Her serve really kicks up high," said Shaffer, who turned 17 in May. "I felt like if I had taken even just a few more steps in I could have maybe tried to capitalize more off the returns, because that felt like my only chance. As we got farther into a rally, I got more tired, and she could just be out here hours, sliding side to side."

Stewart is delighted to have earned a wild card into the US Open Junior Championships with the title, and to have claimed a Clay Court gold ball after losing in the 14s final in 2011 and the 16s final in 2013.  But her sights are now set on a wild card into the main draw of the US Open, which goes to the winner of next month's USTA Girls 18s Nationals in San Diego.

"It's going to be stacked with really good players," said Stewart, who won the 16s title in San Diego last year. "Everyone wants that wild card--I want that wild card. Even though I'm going to the US Open juniors, that's the big one. I know there are going to be really good players, and I love playing great competition, so that's going to be fun."

Shaffer is excited by the prospect of returning to hard courts, her preferred surface, and by the confidence she's gained this week.

"That's a lot better for me," said Shaffer, who received the tournament's sportsmanship award . "I think confidence-wise this definitely gets me going. I haven't done too well recently, but I'm coming out of my slump. I'll take this result any day if I'm coming back. It was a good run, and I had a really good time, and I got my first [USTA] ball. That's all I really wanted."

In the other two singles matches played on Saturday, No. 4 seed Aney took the bronze ball, defeating No. 8 seed Caroline Lampl 6-2, 6-0.  Katherine Fahey, the No. 6 seed, defeated Mia Horvit 6-0, 6-3 in the consolation final.  In the new consolation draw for quarterfinalists, No. 1 seed Francesca Di Lorenzo won via walkover from No. 7 seed Kelly Chen.

Complete draws are available at the TennisLink site.

In today's other Clay Court finals, two champions stepped up a division, yet retained their titles.  No. 17 seed Tommy Paul, who won the 16s Clay Court title last year, won the 18s title this year, defeating unseeded Reilly Opelka 7-6, 6-1.  Claire Liu, the 2013 14s Clay Court champion, won the girls 16s title this year in Virginia Beach. The No. 5 seed defeated fellow Californian Ryan Peus, the top seed, 6-1, 6-2.  Top seed John McNally added the 16s Clay Court title to his Carson and Easter Bowl championships this year, defeating No. 5 seed Jacob Brumm 6-2, 6-2.  In the girls 14s, unseeded Victoria Emma claimed the title, defeating No. 8 seed Sophia Edwards 6-2, 3-6, 6-0.  Cori Gauff, a No. 17 seed, beat No. 7 seed Victoria Hu 6-4, 3-6, 6-2 to earn the Girls 12s title.  Links to the TennisLink draws for all other divisions are below:

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