©Colette Lewis 2016--
Comebacks were the theme of the day in Sunday's International Spring Championships, with Liam Caruana spotting Sam Riffice and 4-0 first set lead and Kayla Day trailing Claire Liu 6-4, 2-0. Both regrouped to force third sets, however, then showed off their best tennis to close out the titles on a sunny morning at the Stubhub Center, home of the USTA Player Development Training Center West.
Caruana, an 18-year-old who grew up in Texas but now plays under the Italian flag, called for a medical timeout at 5-2 in the first set, and, after that brief consultation, played outstanding tennis en route to his 4-6, 6-0, 6-1 victory.
"Earlier in the tournament I strained my ab and I carried that throughout the tournament," said Caruana, who admitted nerves and low energy were also part of his slow start. "It wasn't an injury where I had to pull out, but it definitely hurt when I was serving. After that medical, I just basically told myself to play loose and free, because if not, I was just getting destroyed."
The tension Caruana felt at the start of the match resulted in a multitude of enforced errors, but the former Texas Longhorn found his form in the eighth game, saving two set points to break Riffice. Riffice held on to take the set, but there was no question Caruana was back in the match.
The second set went to Caruana in less than 30 minutes, with Riffice struggling with his first serve, while Caruana began to control the flow of the points.
"I didn't play as offensive as I would have liked to," said Riffice, 17. "He was dictating most of the points. I didn't really get to pressure him too much. I didn't think my balls had a lot on them and he was just able to step in and dictate. He definitely mixed up the pace a lot, hit a lot of different shots, didn't give me the same ball too many times in a row. I think he played a really good match."
Riffice started the third set with a break, but Caruana immediately broke back, and when Riffice was broken in the fourth game, after having a 40-0 lead, all the momentum was with Caruana.
"I knew, coming out of the second set, if I gave him the same look over and over again, he was going to make me pay," said Caruana. "So I came out attacking his serve, first and second, plus mixing in some serve and volley, trying to take the match to him more. I think that caught him a little off guard and it was working."
Attempting to close out the match at 5-1, Caruana needed to save three break points despite getting eight of his ten first serves in, but Riffice couldn't capitalize on his chances, with Caruana holding to claim his first ITF Grade 1 title.
"I lost four finals in a row in ITF," said Caruana. "Never a Grade 1. This is my fifth final, and I didn't want to go 0-for-5 here. So I put a little extra effort into this one."
Both Caruana and Riffice will head to Indian Wells for next week's Grade B1 Easter Bowl, which will begin for them on Tuesday. Riffice reached the final there last year, losing to Taylor Fritz.
While Caruana and Riffice hadn't played in over three years, Day and Liu have been rivals for nearly as long as they've been playing tennis. Both were developed by Mike Gennette, who is head coach of Division III Cal Lutheran, and both have been assisted by the USTA in recent years.
Day, the No. 2 seed, knew that beating the fifth-seeded Liu would be no easy task, but she fought through some tough moments to record a 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 victory.
"It was a really good fight, definitely a battle," said the 16-year-old Day, who is heading to China for the ITF Junior Masters tournament tonight, accompanied by Gennette. "There were moments when we both played really well, a lot of good points, so I'm really happy I came out on top. We've been playing like since we were eight years old and she's won like the last three times, so I had to just keep fighting."
Day said there was little she could do in the first 12 games of the match.
"At that moment she was playing really well," said Day, who also came from a set down in her third round match against Ann Li. "She was just attacking everything and starting off the points. I really couldn't do anything, because she was playing that well."
Liu couldn't sustain that level however, with Day taking the next four games, including one in which she saved eight break points. Liu did level the match, but dropped serve at 4-5 to send the match, just over two hours long at that stage, to a third set.
Day took a 4-0 lead in the third set when Liu hit one of her five double faults on game point, and Day held for 5-0. But Liu wasn't done.
The 15-year-old held, then saved a match point with a volley winner with Day serving at 5-1. Liu broke for 5-2, then held in a deuce game, finishing it with a backhand volley winner after Day had gotten two consecutive overheads back in play.
"She's not going to give me anything, so if I want to win, I have to control the points and take them, so I just kept trying to do that," Liu said.
In the final game, with Liu surging, Day came up with some great defense to stay in front. Anticipating a volley in the corner--Day said she guessed right--she stayed put and got the ball back over the net, with Liu missing the overhead into the net. At 15-all, Day hung in a net point, normally Liu's strong suit, finishing it with a deft lob volley winner.
"You can't ever think a point or the match is over, especially against her," said Liu, who has lost to Day from match points up. "She's such a good competitor, and she'll fight for every single shot, so you just have to try to play your best on every point. I didn't do that, but yeah, she played well. She'll come back if there's even a sliver of a chance."
After Liu hit a backhand long, Day scrambled again on the next point, and when Liu's shot flew long and wide, Day had kept her record in Grade 1 finals perfect at 3-0.
Day is excited for her trip to China, "the best juniors in the world are there," she said, but is disappointed that it means missing the Easter Bowl.
"If I could win [in China], that would be really good, for confidence, for transitioning to the pros, if I do decide to go that way," said Day, who will be part of an American contingent that features Usue Arconada, Sonya Kenin and William Blumberg. "But I love the Easter Bowl. It's one of my favorite tournaments, and I love the courts there."
Liu is also a fan of the Easter Bowl, having won the title there last year. Asked whether her success this week in Carson would bode well for another title run in the desert, Liu agreed it could, joking, "well, she won't be there."
Complete results and draws for the International Spring Championships can be found at the tournament web page.