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Saturday, April 9, 2016

McNally Meets Ross in Third Asics Easter Bowl Finals Appearance; Sanford and Douglas Reach Girls Championship Match

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

An opportunity to play in an Easter Bowl final comes just once a year, but for John McNally, they are almost a birthright.  In three of the past four years the 17-year-old from Ohio has been in the final, losing in the 14s final in 2013 and winning the 16s title in 2014.  After defeating No. 6 seed Vasil Kirkov 6-2, 6-4 in Saturday's semifinal, McNally will have another chance to put his name on the illustrious list of the tournament's winners.

McNally said he still remembers losing to Connor Hance in the 14s final, when he double faulted on match point up 6-4, 5-4, with Hance taking the title by a 4-6, 7-6(3), 6-4 score.

"Obviously, I remember that match," said McNally, who is in his final year of ITF eligibility. "Losing that big match and the next year coming back and winning the 16s, bouncing back after that tough loss. Last year I had a tough year, lost first round here, so it means a lot."

Against Kirkov, McNally got an early break and held on to it, as Kirkov's errors prevented him from pressuring McNally consistently.  The second set was a different story altogether, with Kirkov, a 17-year-old from Tampa, staying right with McNally in the first six games, until McNally took the lead with a break.  Up 4-3, McNally faced a break point, but saved it with an ace, the shot that proved the difference in the match.

"My first serve percentage was a little low, but I started to serve progressively better on the bigger points, which I can usually do," said McNally. "I can come up with some big shots, some big forehands."

Unlike Friday's quarterfinal against Liam Caruana, McNally had no trouble closing out the match, getting his first three first serves in and hitting a forehand winner to end the 84-minute match.

"I'm happy I held, unlike yesterday," said McNally. "On those big games you've got to make a lot of first serves, first balls, look to be aggressive. I did that, and came up with a match point and got the first one, which is always fun."

McNally's opponent in the final will be unseeded Gianni Ross, who took out Easter Bowl stalwart Nathan Ponwith, the No. 3 seed, 6-4, 6-2. Ross, a 17-year-old from Illinois, saved four break points serving at 2-3 and two more serving at 3-4, then broke and held at love to take a set in which he was constantly under pressure.

"I did sneak my way into a lot of service games," said Ross, who moved to Boca Raton, Florida last fall and trains with Sylvain Guichard at the USTA Training Center there. "But I don't think it was me. I think he got a little tight after the first time I came back after a couple of break points down. It showed he had a weaker forehand return and I didn't really pick on it, but I knew if I got my first serve toward that area, he'd reach and wouldn't really strike it as hard and slice or spray it a bit. I did get a little bit lucky on some of them, but I knew that I if I got there and played a good enough point, he would just break down."

Ross got a break in the third game of the second set, and saved three more break points to take a 3-1 lead and when he broke Ponwith, the 2014 ITF finalist and a semifinalist last year, he was home free. Swinging freely and hitting the lines, Ross closed out the match with a love hold.

Ross said he is looking forward to playing McNally, with whom he won the 16s doubles title in Kalamazoo in 2014, again.

"I know at one point he had beaten me eight times in a row before I finally beat him," said Ross, who lost to McNally in the 2014 Kalamazoo singles semifinals the year they won the doubles together.  "Then I did beat him three or four times in a row, so I've played him at least double digits."

"But no one beats me nine times in a row," Ross joked, echoing Vitus
Gerulaitis's famous quote regarding Jimmy Connors's 17-match winning streak against him.

Ross, who turned 17 in February and has another year of ITF eligibility, is not concerned about his junior ranking.

"Sylvain says you play the slams when you're ready," said Ross, who played mostly Futures tournaments in Florida this winter. "I guess that means getting in, then I'm ready. He doesn't want to go play tons of tournaments and getting points. He wants me to play these tough tournaments, ones that make you better and make you work harder, make you learn, so that when you go to those (slam) tournaments, you'll have some good results there."

The girls final will also feature an Ohio player, with No. 8 seed Alexandra Sanford of Westerville reaching her first Grade 1 final after defeating unseeded Hanna Chang 6-4, 6-0.

Sanford lost only two points on serve in the first set against Chang, and 18-year-old from Fontana, California, holding on to the one break she got in the third game.

But in Sanford's attempt to serve it out, after Chang saved a set point with a volley winner to hold for 4-5, Sanford lost the first three points on her serve.

"I got the early break to go up 2-1 and then both of us served really well," said Sanford, who has dealing with a back injury during the two big California tournaments, but reported that it is feeling better every day.

"She served really smart, kicking it high to my backhand and I struggled with that. Down 0-40 on my serve, I just tried to focus point on point to get it back," said Sanford, who won five straight points in that game to secure the first set.

The second set was all Sanford, who took the opening game after Chang had three game points and rolled on from there.

Sanford, who qualified and reached the quarterfinals of February's ITF Pro Circuit $100,000 Dow Corning Classic in Midland, said she doesn't feel much of a difference in competing at that level and this one.

"It doesn't feel any different," said Sanford, who is starting at North Carolina this fall. "I played so many junior tournaments last year, and Midland, honestly, just gave me confidence, coming into the tournaments following and then these tournaments."

Sanford's opponent in Sunday's final will be No. 13 seed Ellie Douglas, who played nearly flawlessly in a 6-3, 6-4 win over No. 9 seed Caty McNally, John's younger sister.

Douglas, a 15-year-old from McKinney, Texas, admitted that she has been at the top of her game this week in Indian Wells.

"My backhand has been great, one of my biggest weapons," said Douglas, who has struggled with injuries over the past two years. "And my serve has been a lot better. I've just stayed aggressive and stuck with my game, and it's been turning out very well."

Douglas broke McNally in the third game of the match, using both her backhand down the line and her drop shot to keep the 14-year-old guessing.

McNally started the second set with a break, but was broken back immediately, and trailed throughout the remainder of the match. Serving for the match at 5-3, Douglas was broken, but she managed her fourth break of the McNally serve to close out the match and reach her first Grade 1 final.

"Every now and then I have trouble closing out a match, but I was down 0-30 in the last game and just told myself to stick to what I've been doing and it worked out," said Douglas.

Douglas has been without a coach for some time now, saying that her mom "loves to chime in on what I need to be doing."

Douglas quipped that she was considering hiring her mom full time after the success she's enjoyed this week.

Sanford and Douglas have played twice in ITF junior competition, with Sanford winning both times, but have not played in the past year.

The doubles finals are set for Sunday, two unseeded teams, one boys and one girls, aiming for a title.

Unseeded Elysia Bolton and Chiara Lommer advanced to the girls final with a 6-1, 5-7, 10-6 win over unseeded Michaela Gordon and Ena Shibahara.  They will face No. 6 seeds Victoria Emma and Sofia Sewing, who advanced to the final via a walkover from unseeded Kate Paulus and Alana Smith.

The boys doubles final will feature the unseeded team of Kirkov and Sebastian Korda against No. 6 seeds Ponwith and Jake Van Emburgh. Korda, the son of Petr Korda, the 1998 Australian Open singles champion, and Kirkov eliminated top seeds McNally and JJ Wolf 6-1, 6-3.

Ponwith and Van Emburgh prevented a finals matchup of sons of slam champions when they defeated No. 4 seeds Brandon Holt, Tracy Austin's son, and Oliver Crawford 7-6(4), 5-7, 10-7, in a match that took nearly two hours.

The finals will begin at 10 a.m. Sunday with the boys final, followed by the girls.  The girls doubles will begin and 10 a.m. and the boys doubles will follow the girls doubles.

Live streaming of all finals are available at the Easter Bowl website. Rosie Casals and Larry Riggs will be providing commentary.