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Sunday, April 10, 2016

Gianni Ross and Alexandra Sanford Claim Easter Bowl ITF Titles; Ponwith Defends Boys Doubles Title

©Colette Lewis 2016--
Indian Wells, California--

For over two hours, Gianni Ross and John McNally, Midwest rivals for years, fought for the boys ITF Grade B1 Easter Bowl championship, with the outcome in doubt until the final few minutes. It was the unseeded 17-year-old Ross who emerged with the title, his first in ITF junior competition, in a 6-4, 7-6(3) slugfest that was a point away from a third set.

The 100 or so spectators who enjoyed the mild conditions Sunday morning at the Indian Wells Tennis Center saw Ross claim the first set with his second break of No. 4 seed McNally, hitting two excellent returns at 4-5, 15-30. That set took only 45 minutes, largely because Ross was playing extremely quickly on his service games.

The pace slowed in the second set, especially in the sixth game, when McNally saved five break points in the nine-deuce game, eventually holding with an ace.

Ross, who had had less trouble holding in the set, double faulted on game point serving at 3-3 and was broken to give McNally a lead, which he held until serving at 5-4.  McNally, a 17-year-old from Cincinnati, needed to save two break points before he finally earned a set point.  Ross, who had been controlling many of the points from the baseline, hit an unexpected drop shot after a long rally on that set point, and the ball spun back toward the net, giving McNally no chance to reach it.

"I have dump truck hands, would be the best way to put it," Ross said. "I got very lucky in that game. I was fortunate to get that game, at break point, I hit a good backhand down the line, but all in all, it was luck and luck."

McNally agreed that fortune favored Ross in that game.

"We had a 36-, 40-ball rally and he comes up with a drop shot at his shoestrings," said McNally, who was playing in his third and last Easter Bowl final. "A half-shank drop shot, you can't really do anything about that. It was a pretty lucky game. A shank drop shot and the next point at deuce, he gets a let cord. You can't really do anything about that, it kind of sucks."

Ross held for 6-5, and McNally put himself in peril right away in the next game, double faulting twice to start it.  Ross could be telling himself to "use it," and after a forehand error to make it 15-30, he did, with another good return, this off a rare McNally first serve, giving him two match points. 

On the first Ross hit a backhand long. On the second, McNally hit a good first serve and went on to take the game to force a tiebreaker.

"He's very good in tight moments, he has a big serve," said Ross, who moved from Illinois to Florida last fall. "When I lost both those, I had to accept it, I guess, and tell myself that he did a very good job getting back, and when he got that game, I had to get ready for the breaker."

Ross lost the first point of the tiebreaker, when McNally smashed a ball right at him on a net putaway. McNally then took a 2-0 lead, but that was when his backhand, in particular, began to let him down. Ross got the mini-break back when McNally hit a backhand long, made a forehand error, then three straight backhands went wide, giving Ross a 5-2 lead. Ross missed a volley to make it 5-3, but a good first serve forced McNally's backhand return to go long.  With three match points, Ross needed only the first, when McNally netted a slice backhand a few shots into the rally.

"In the tiebreaker I was up 2-0 and missed a forehand, made five unforced errors in a row there, went down 5-2," said McNally. "You can't do that if you're going to beat those kind of guys.  But it's a little bit unfortunate. If I win that second set, I think I'm taking that match. That 5-4 game will haunt me for a couple of weeks."

Ross said he couldn't remember the last time he had won a tournament.

"I proved a lot, though I guess just one tournament," said Ross. "I played very well this entire tournament and I can't stop now. I've got to keep going, and hopefully the next one I play will be the same. There's a long way ahead, and this is a good starting point."

Ross's title may put his ITF junior ranking, currently 192, in the vicinity of main draw acceptances into the French and Wimbledon junior championships, but McNally is already in those events, after reaching the Grade A final in Porto Alegre Brazil last month.

"I've had a good month, the finals of a Grade A and finals here, that's good stuff," said McNally, who will turn 18 in October. "I thought I was going to win today, but that's just how it goes. I think the plan is to play Milan or Belgium, a warmup tournament and then go to France....[Roehampton], Wimbledon. I'm not going to play too many more junior tournaments, but focus on some Futures, see if I can get some wild cards or something like that would be nice."

Ohio did get an Easter Bowl champion on Sunday, despite McNally's loss, when No. 8 seed Alexandra Sanford collected her first ITF Grade 1 title with a 6-4, 1-6, 6-1 win over No. 13 seed Ellie Douglas.

Sanford, a 17-year-old from Westerville, a Columbus suburb, got a late break to take the first set from the 15-year-old from McKinney, Texas, and broke to start the second set, but Douglas reeled off six straight games to even the match.

"We hit very similar balls and I felt like she was just hitting them better than I was," Sanford said of her performance in the second set. "She was pushing me back and hitting really aggressive and deep and catching me off guard with some down the lines, and some very, very aggressive shots."

Sanford, who had not lost a set all tournament until that one, said she may have let down in that set.

"I may have relaxed a little too much," said Sanford, who is committed to North Carolina for the fall.  "I was trying to think a lot on the court, mix up my pace, and in the second set, I think I got too comfortable and was just banging back and forth with her. That gave her a kind of a rhythm and she swung for it and her shots were going in, and most of them were winners."

Sanford got a break to take a 3-1 lead in the third set, then came from 15-40 down to consolidate it.  Douglas's drop shots were very effective in the first two sets, but Sanford used one of her own to save the first break point and hit a good first serve to save the second.

Douglas's impressive serve was becoming less reliable as the match went on and she was broken again, starting the sixth game with a double fault. She would save two break points in that game, but not the third, and Sanford stepped to the line to serve for the match.  She earned two match points when a Douglas return went long, and although Sanford missed the first with a backhand long, she didn't get tentative, hitting a backhand winner to close out the nearly two hour match.

"I feel like I had several chances, many, many game points that I didn't convert on," said Douglas, who was also playing in her first Grade 1 final. "A few dumb errors, and my serve was really off, way too many double faults. I think she stepped into the court very well and was very aggressive. I think I played too short, gave her too much of an opportunity to do that. I played really well up until this match, in the quarters and semis, I was very happy with that, because I hadn't been doing so great. I wish I could have played a little better today, but that's OK."

Sanford noted that the level of play was not consistently outstanding.

"I don't think either of us played as well as we would have hoped," said Sanford, who has been working with USTA coach Henner Nehles since the beginning of the year. "I think there were a lot of unforced errors, but then again, we're both very aggressive players and that happens when you go for the shots you go for."

Sanford has not decided whether she will play the junior slams this summer or stay in the United States and play Pro Circuit events.

All four of the finalists received $750 vouchers for use in upcoming travel expenses, a pioneering effort by the Easter Bowl's tournament director Lorne Kuhle, who hopes the concept will be adopted by other junior tournaments, to defray some of the costs associated with junior tennis competition in the United States.

The doubles finals were also held on Sunday this year, and both were exciting matches decided in match tiebreakers.

In the girls final, unseeded Elysia Bolton and Chiara Lommer came from behind to claim a 4-6, 6-2, 10-8 victory over No. 6 seeds Victoria Emma and Sofia Sewing.

Bolton and Lommer, who played together for the first time in years last week at the Carson Grade 1, trailed 6-2 in the match tiebreaker, but won eight of the next ten points to capture the title.

"We knew our game plan and we knew we had to stay positive," said Bolton, who trains both with the USTA in New York, where she now lives, and in Illinois, returning there often to work with longtime coach Mark Bey.

"We had been pulling out a lot of those tiebreakers, last week too, and we pulled out a tiebreaker against Sewing there," said Michigan recruit Lommer, who is coached by Jason Winegar in Lincolnshire, Illinois.  "We had each others back. We grew up together."

"We've known each other since we were six, seven, so we have good chemistry," said Bolton.

Bolton and Lommer's comeback was impressive, but No. 6 seeds Nathan Ponwith and Jake Van Emburgh topped it, beating Sebastian Korda and Vasil Kirkov 2-6, 7-5, 12-10 while saving three match points.

With Van Emburgh serving at 4-5 in the second set, he and Ponwith fell behind 15-40, but saved all three match points.

"I missed two first serves," said Van Emburgh, who now trains at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. "Pulled out those second serves, made sure not to miss them in the net."

In the match tiebreaker, Van Emburgh and Ponwith led 9-6, but Korda and Kirkov won the two points on Korda's serve. With one more match point on Ponwith's serve this time, Van Emburgh missed a volley, and another change of ends was necessary.  Another match point came and went at 10-9, but after a Ponwith volley winner gave them match point No. 5, they converted when Kirkov's volley hit the tape and dropped back on his side of the net.

"It was a pretty zooted match," said defending champion Ponwith, who trains with Lou Belken in Arizona.

Ponwith and Van Emburgh were a last-minute pairing, although Ponwith should have no trouble getting doubles partners.  In the past two years, in the two big Southern California tournaments, Ponwith, a Georgia recruit, has made the doubles final in all four events, with three different partners.  Last year, Ponwith won the Easter Bowl doubles title with Cameron Klinger, over Kirkov and Sam Riffice. Last week, he and William Blumberg won the doubles title in Carson, after reaching the final there in 2015.

Complete results from the ITF Easter Bowl can be found at the ITF junior website.