©Colette Lewis 2015--
Indian Wells, CA--
One arrived at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden after a 15-hour flight from China, the other, too young to drive herself, came by car from her home in Thousand Oaks, three hours away. Yet by mid-afternoon on another brilliant day in the Coachella Valley, the journeys of Taylor Fritz and Claire Liu both ended with ITF Grade B1 Easter Bowl titles.
No. 12 seed Liu, who will be 15 next month, defeated No. 2 seed Katie Swan, also a finalist in 2014, 6-2, 3-6, 6-2, while Fritz, who reached the ITF Junior Masters final last Sunday in Chengdu, China, overpowered No. 14 seed Sam Riffice 6-2, 6-3.
Both Liu and Swan had captured their first titles on the professional circuit last month, so were full of confidence, and they had lost only one set between them in their 10 matches en route to the final.
In the opening set, Liu used her willingness to finish points at the net to her advantage, and took control of points early when she got her first serve in.
Liu saved a break point in the third game, but Swan couldn't do the same in the next game, and Liu broke again with two return winners to make it 5-2. Liu had to save another break point serving for the set, and again Swan got a second serve to work with, but she couldn't get it in play and Liu hit two good first serves to secure the first set.
"She was kicking her second serve, so it was a good kick, so it was bouncing pretty high for me," said Swan, a 16-year-old Wichita, Kansas resident who competes for Great Britain internationally. "I was struggling to find the right court position, whether to take it early or stand back a little."
In the second set, it was Swan's serve that dominated. She didn't lose a point in her first three serving games, and Liu definitely had the tougher holds, saving break points in the sixth game, and getting broken in the eighth. Swan took advantage of some loose play by Liu in those final two games to even the match.
"In the second set, I kinda just wasn't there," said Liu. "She played well, but she didn't have to do as much. Later in the third set, I just got pumped up more, came to the net more, and that helped."
In the second game of the third set, Liu hit a blistering forehand winner to break Swan at 30-40 and that was enough for Liu, who didn't face a break point in the third set.
"In a lot of close matches, just a few points make the difference," said Liu, who lost to Katerina Stewart in three sets in the 16s final last year. "Even though the score doesn't seem like it. Capitalizing on the game points and the break points really helped."
Liu said she was nervous at the start of the week, disappointed in her performance in Carson and needing a good result at the Easter Bowl to assure herself a place in the qualifying in the summer's junior slams, but there was no sign of it in the last game.
Liu attacked with her backhand early, got a double fault, then hit a sharply angled cross court forehand to give herself two match points. Swan saved the first with a near miraculous backhand, but on the second, Liu ripped a forehand winner to capture her first ITF Grade 1 title.
A deep-knee bend, clenched fists and a loud "c'mon" showed how important the win was to the normally subdued Liu, whose coach from Thousand Oaks, Mike Gennette, was on hand to see her victory, as was her USTA coach Leo Azevedo.
"After every match I got better, said Liu, who had lost to Swan last September in the first round of the US Open juniors. "I was nervous, but as I started to get into it I just played a lot better. I was more relaxed and I started playing my game more."
Liu said she will return home to her schoolwork, while Swan is heading to Northern California to train for a week with friend CiCi Bellis, last year's Easter Bowl ITF champion, before heading to Europe for the ITF junior clay court season there.
"I'm disappointed in today's match, of course," Swan said. "But I'm just happy to have gotten this far. I think it was a positive that I didn't let the pressure get to me to get the finals."
Although he was the top seed, Fritz was not looking at his performance this week with any expectations, although after coming back from 6-4, 5-0 in the third round against unseeded qualifier Patrick Kypson, Fritz was more determined than before to leave with the title.
"After you have one of those, you have to give it your all to win the tournament," said the 17-year-old from Rancho Santa Fe, California. "It's crazy to think how early that was in the tournament, with so many matches to go. But I just got better and better each match after that. And it woke me up, to focus on not getting down like that before I get super into it."
Fritz had no problems with jet lag, focus or his game in Sunday's final, saying it was the best he had played all week.
"It reminded me of how I was playing before I got all jet lagged," said Fritz, who trains with his father, Guy Fritz. "I was playing great in China, and I felt really good today.
"Everything but the serve was working extremely well, but the serve was better than it had been all week," added Fritz, who didn't face a break point all day. "I can't complain about any of that, I just played a really good match today."
The match featured several outstanding points, leaving the approximately 150 spectators gasping then applauding at the defensive skills and big hitting. During one fantastic point with Fritz serving for the first set, Riffice hit an excellent tweener, and although it wasn't an outright winner, he did win the point, to loud whistles and cheers from the crowd. But Riffice knew that style of play wouldn't help him beat Fritz.
"I really wanted to dictate more and be on the offensive," said Riffice, a 16-year-old from Sacramento, who trains with the USTA in Boca Raton. "I just didn't have a chance. Right off my serve, he was pushing me back. And off his serve I couldn't get any good chances. I was trying to be aggressive but I didn't have a chance."
Riffice had beaten No. 3 seed Ulises Blanch in the third round and No. 2 seed William Blumberg in the semifinals, but Fritz, who had beaten Riffice in the second round at the Pan American Closed last October by a 6-3, 6-2 score, was too good on Sunday.
"His first serve percentage is higher [now] and he is a lot more consistent," said Riffice. "Today he was making more balls."
Fritz said Riffice's game resembles his own.
"Sam and I play pretty similar," said Fritz, whose mother, the former WTA Top 10 player Kathy May, was in Indian Wells for the final. "He moves better than I do, but we both try to be aggressive, so I was most of the time taking the first strike before he was able to."
Asked what he learned about himself this week, Fritz answered: "I can play pretty well jet lagged. And I also learned I don't always have to be playing my best tennis, as long as I can just fight and keep my head in it. Sometimes that's all you need, the heart to win the matches."
Fritz is debating whether to play the Tallahassee Challenger at the end of the month, but his aversion to Har-Tru makes that a less than attractive option to him.
"I'm going to go with the USTA to Spain," said Fritz, of the annual trip the federation organizes to play in Futures on the red clay before the Roland Garros juniors. "Then Italy, I'll play the Grade A, and then French Open, so I've got a pretty busy couple weeks. I really like red clay, I just hate Har-Tru."
The Tory Fretz/Jackie Cooper Sportsmanship awards were given out on Saturday, with Swan taking the girls award, and 14s champion Adam Neff named the boys recipient.