Friday, December 12, 2014

Bellis Clinches ITF World Junior Title, Faces Kenin in Metropolia Orange Bowl Semifinals; Kozlov, Opelka and Neel Also Reach Semis; Riffice Aims for Rare Double

©Colette Lewis 2014--
Plantation, FL--

The race for year-end No. 1 concluded Friday at the Frank Veltri Tennis Center, with 15-year-old CiCi Bellis earning the coveted title of ITF World Junior Champion with a 6-3, 3-6, 6-4 win over unseeded Caroline Dolehide in the Metropolia Orange Bowl quarterfinals.

When the tournament started on Monday, China's Shilin Xu was No. 1, but her first round loss to Canada's Katherine Sebov opened the door for Bellis, who needed to reach the semifinals to collect enough points to overtake Xu.

Dolehide didn't make it easy for her, although when Bellis went up 6-3, 3-0 she seemed on track for a routine victory. But Dolehide won the next six games to force a third set, and her big serve and ground strokes kept the outcome in doubt until Bellis broke at 4-4 in the third set.  Even then there was drama, as Bellis went down a break point in the final game. But she saved it by staying in the rally until Dolehide sent a forehand wide and then missed a backhand wide to give Bellis a match point.  Showing no signs of nerves, Bellis went for a forehand on the line and made it, and with that winner claimed the No. 1 spot.

"Thank god, to go through that to get it," said Bellis. "But I'm really happy I could, because that's one of the main reasons I played these two tournaments. Caroline is such a great player and she's improved so much recently and I'm really glad I could win."

Bellis had beaten Dolehide in the finals of the 16s Easter Bowl in 2013, but now that Dolehide has begun playing ITF tournaments, the 16-year-old from Illinois has demonstrated her recent improvement, reaching the US Open junior semifinals, the Eddie Herr semifinals and the Orange Bowl quarterfinals.

Bellis, who won two $25,000 tournaments in South Carolina this fall, said Dolehide's game is bigger than any she has faced on that level.

"She hits the hardest by far, I think," Bellis said. "She's such a great player. Her serve is amazing too. It's definitely hard to play her."

Next up for No. 2 seed Bellis is No. 13 seed Sonya Kenin, who defeated No. 5 seed Gabby Ruse of Romania 6-3, 6-1 to reach the semifinals for the second straight year.

"I love this place, it's my hometown," said Kenin, who lives in nearby Pembroke Pines. "I'm playing really good in this tournament. Today I served really well. She's a really good player, got to the finals at Eddie Herr and I knew if I wanted to have a chance to win, I had to play really good. I'm really surprised by the score though, 6-3, 6-1, but I'll take it."

Bellis and Kenin have met twice this year, with Bellis winning in the semifinals of both the Easter Bowl ITF and the USTA National Hard Court Championships in San Diego, with both matches going three sets.

"It's going to be a battle," Bellis said. "She's always been a tough match for me. It'll be good to get out there, we're going to have fun, have a battle. She's a good friend of mine also, so it'll be fun."

Unseeded qualifier Ingrid Neel is the third American to reach the semifinals, ousting Sebov 6-2, 6-2.  Neel, who needed over three hours to beat No. 8 seed Sandra Samir of Egypt on Thursday, saving a match point in the process, said her level of play was high against Sebov.

"I played really well today, played to gain something with every shot," said the 16-year-old from Minnesota, who trains at the IMG Academy in Bradenton. "I executed really well at the net and at the baseline. I was very aggressive and took control of a lot of the points."

Neel won the Amelia Island $10,000 Pro Circuit tournament in September as a qualifier, an unexpected result that has given her confidence, particularly on the Har-Tru surface.

"Driving to that tournament with my coach, I was just like, we'll see how this goes," said Neel, who won eight matches there. "I wasn't even expecting to qualify. That helped a lot with this tournament too, because I know I can play a lot of matches in a row and keep my level of play consistently high."

Neel will play unseeded 15-year-old Monika Kilnarova of the Czech Republic, who advanced to the semifinals in her first Grade A appearance with a 6-4, 6-2 win over qualifier Kayla Day of the US.

Top seed Andrey Rublev of Russia, who had already clinched the ITF World Junior championship prior to the tournament, reached the semifinals with a 6-3, 7-5 win over No. 5 seed Michael Mmoh.  Rublev, who won the Orange Bowl 16s title two years ago, had lost to Mmoh in the semifinals of the Grade A in Mexico City that started the Junior clay court swing last month, but he played well in Friday's rematch.

Rublev will face unseeded Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece, who beat No. 3 seed Taylor Fritz 6-3, 6-4.

No. 2 seed Stefan Kozlov moved one step closer to the Orange Bowl title that has eluded him, downing unseeded William Blumberg 7-6(4), 6-4.  Kozlov, who has lost in the final of the Orange Bowl in the 12s, 14s and last year's Grade A, needed over 80 minutes to win the first set from his fellow 16-year-old.

Blumberg served for the first set at 5-4, but lost a four-deuce game in which he had one set point.  At one of the ad outs in that game, Blumberg's shoe came off and Kozlov called a let, only to learn that he is not allowed to do that. According to tournament referee Brad Taylor, unlike a hat, or a ball falling out of a pocket, a lost shoe is no longer considered grounds for a let, so the point went to Blumberg.  After Kozlov broke and held for 6-5, Blumberg was tested in his next service game, needing ten deuces and saving four set points before finally getting himself into the tiebreaker. He led it 3-0, but lost the next six points, as Kozlov showed off both his offensive and defensive skills, often on the same point.

In the second set, Blumberg played a sloppy game serving at 4-4, and Kozlov served out the match.

Kozlov said he didn't play his best, but credited Blumberg for some of that.

"He had a really good game plan going in and he used it well," said the 16-year-old, who like Kenin, is from Pembroke Pines. "I was a little bit off, but credit to him, he played amazing. He's starting to click lately, all the guys, Reilly too. I think they've all improved tremendously in the last three months."

Kozlov semifinal opponent will be Eddie Herr champion Reilly Opelka, who collected his fourth win over Alex Rybakov in the past six weeks, this time by a 7-5, 6-3 score.

With temperatures cool and high clouds keeping the sun from being a factor, Opelka seemed fresher physically against the No 9 seed than he had in Thursday's win over unseeded Nam Hoang Ly of Vietnam.

"I got out of some holes," said the 6-foot-10 17-year-old, who faced a break point in three of his service games in the opening set. "I competed well for every point. The second set was one hundred percent on my racquet. I was stepping in as much as I could and he was striking the ball a little bigger, trying to play more aggressive, but I beat him in that, kind of outhit him a little bit."

Opelka remembers losing, when he was 11, 6-0, 6-0 to Kozlov.

"I didn't deserve to be on the court with him when I was 12," Opelka said. "It was ridiculous."

At last year's Eddie Herr, Opelka, a qualifier, took Kozlov to three sets in a third round loss, but even with his recent success, he considers himself an underdog in Saturday's semifinal.

"He's obviously the favorite," said Opelka. "I think he's the best junior in the world. Him and Rublev, obviously, but he's by far the best American junior. But there's going to be an American in the finals of the Orange Bowl, and that's what's important."

The 16s finals are Saturday, with 15-year-old Eddie Herr champion Sam Riffice going for back-to-back titles.  Riffice, the No. 2 seed, has lost only three games in his last two matches, beating No. 12 seed Nathan Perrone 6-1, 6-1 in Friday's semifinal.

Riffice, who has played nine days in a row, on two different surfaces, says he is feeling fine.

"I've been working a lot on my fitness and spending a lot of time stretching before matches, doing a lot of warming up, so my legs feel fine," said Riffice, who is aiming to be the first player since Grigor Dimitrov in 2006 to win the two titles back-to-back.

Standing in his way is No. 10 seed Mattias Siimar of Estonia, who defeated No. 14 seed Vasil Kirkov of the US 4-6, 6-1, 6-3 Friday. Siimar, who had a vocal cheering section of young Estonian players in the area for the upcoming Junior Orange Bowl, said his success this week has surprised him.

"It's incredible," said the 16-year-old left-hander. "I didn't expect it.  I was injured at the end of the summer and I didn't play much.  Today I started a little bit slow, lost my first service game, but I woke up in the second set and started to play aggressively."

No. 8 seed Bianca Andreescu will seek to become Canada's fourth consecutive girls 16s champion, when she meets No. 11 seed Dominique Schaefer in Saturday's final.  2013 semifinalist Schaefer, who lives in the United States, but represents Peru, defeated qualifier Sarah Dreyfuss 6-2, 6-2.

"I played really well, I mixed the ball up a lot because she didn't really like running forward," said the 15-year-old. "Drop shots and slices she didn't really like very much, she likes pace."

Andreescu, the reigning Les Petits As champion, outlasted wild card Ellie Douglas of the US 6-1, 7-5.

"Her serve was really good," said the 14-year-old Andreescu, who won the Grade 4 ITF in South Carolina last month."My returns weren't as good as I wanted them to be. But I think I was putting a lot of pressure on her and that's how I won."

Andreescu and Schaefer have never played, but Andreescu knows what to expect.

"I saw her play a little bit and she slices a lot," said Andreescu. "She gets to a lot of balls. But if I mix up my game, high shots, slices as well, putting her in the corners, then I think that will help me win."

The 16s doubles champions were crowned on Friday, and both the boys and girls titles went to unseeded teams.

Basil Khuma of India and Christian Lakoseljac of Canada won the boys title, beating singles finalist Mattias Siimar and his twin brother Kristofer, the No. 8 seeds, 6-3, 6-4.

The girls title went to Emma Decoste and Kariann Pierre-Louis, who defeated top seeds Sofia Munera Sanchez of Colombia and Camila Vargas Gomez of Peru 6-1, 7-5.

Decoste, 14, and Pierre-Louis, 15, both from Florida, have played together often and did not consider themselves underdogs.

"We tried not to look at how they're seeded, we just go out there and play like they are any other player," said Pierre-Louis. "Today we played pretty good. We started slow in the second set, but shook off the jitters. We just tried to stay positive and keep trying to win point by point."

Decoste and Pierre-Louis had a recent run of form to give them confidence.

"We got to the finals of the Evert ITF a couple of weeks ago," Decoste said. "We train all year for this last tournament and it meant a lot to us to win," said Pierre-Louis.

For complete draws, including the quarterfinal results in the 18s doubles, see the tournament website.