Riffice and Caruana Reach Boys Final; Day and Liu to Decide Girls Title at International Spring Championships; Muljat, Nefve Win 16s Titles
©Colette Lewis 2016--
The boys semifinals Saturday at the International Spring Championships were expected to be long and competitive, but turned out to be anything but, with Sam Riffice and Liam Caruana surrendering just one game between them in wins over William Blumberg and Oliver Crawford.
The girls semifinals that followed on the bright, cloudless morning provided substantially more drama, with Southern Californians Kayla Day and Claire Liu advancing with victories over Meible Chi and Amanda Anisimova.
Caruana, the No. 11 seed, knew from the warmup that Crawford, who had debilitating blisters on his right foot, was not at his best physically.
"In the warmup he was limping for every ball," said Caruana, who won the match 6-0, 6-0. "Then when he started, he brought good energy, but he was still noticeably injured. In the beginning, I was really nervous, because he was actually making some good shots, but as the match went on, it was too tough for him."
The tenth-seeded Crawford, who won the 16s title last year, continued didn't call a trainer and didn't appear to consider retiring, but his limp was more pronounced as the match wore on, and when it was over, he had won only eight of the 57 points played.
When the 49 minute Caruana-Crawford semifinal was over, No. 4 seed Riffice had built a 6-0, 4-0 lead on defending champion and No. 2 seed William Blumberg. Although Blumberg had called for a trainer to look at his shoulder, it wasn't the same impediment that Crawford's injury had been.
Blumberg did hold serve at 6-0, 5-0, but Riffice closed out the match 6-0, 6-1 in less than hour.
Riffice had beaten Blumberg 6-2, 6-0 in the semifinals of the Easter Bowl last year, but he said today's performance topped that.
"I think today I played even better than last year," Riffice said. "I think I played almost a perfect match. I made less than five unforced errors in the entire match and I executed my game plan perfectly."
Riffice was happy to return to the California hard courts, after winning only one match in the two major junior events in Brazil last month.
"I had a good time seeing two different cities in Brazil, but I didn't do the greatest in the tournaments," said Riffice, who is from Northern California, although he trains with the USTA in Boca Raton. "Being back in California and playing on hard court--I've been playing on clay for the past seven months--it's great to be back on hard courts. And I just love the conditions here."
Caruana and Riffice last played over three years ago in the 14s Winter Nationals, with Caruana, who is a year older, winning 6-4, 6-2. Caruana is looking for revenge for against Riffice for a doubles match this week however, with Riffice and Cernoch saving seven match points to beat Caruana and Ulises Blanch. Caruana, who grew up in Texas, but now represents Italy, is into his first Grade 1 final, while Riffice's only previous appearance in a Grade 1 final was in last year's Easter Bowl.
Last year's girls Easter Bowl champion Liu prevailed over Anisimova in the day's longest semifinal, beating the top seed 7-6(4), 1-6, 6-4.
The 72-minute first set was longer than either of the boys semifinals, with No. 5 seed Liu failing to serve out the set after getting a break at 5-5, but holding on to take the tiebreaker after building a 4-0 lead.
The second set took less than half of time of the first, with Liu donating unforced errors while Anisimova's level stayed high, although she did have 13 double faults in the match. Liu went up 3-1 in the final set, but Anisimova brought it back even at 3-3, only to be broken at love in the next game. Liu held to go up 5-3, and after Anisimova held, Liu needed one more hold, by no means a sure thing.
"Throughout the match I wasn't serving very well," said the 15-year-old from Thousand Oaks, California. "I was missing a lot of first serves so I was just trying to get it in. So (serving it out) I thought, just go big. If you go for it and it's a little bit out, that's OK. I was just hoping I would serve well then and I did."
Liu got three of four first serves in and capped a love service game with a service winner to reach her third Grade 1 final.
Liu was relieved to get past the dangerous 14-year-old from Florida.
"She hits the ball super hard and flat," said Liu. "When she's on, it's so hard to beat her. She plays so well, makes so many balls and they're so good. You just have to wait it out, take a few errors and try to come back from there."
Day's 6-4, 7-5 win over Chi took nearly two hours, which didn't look likely when Day sprinted to a 4-0 lead in the opening set. But Chi settled herself and got one of the breaks back, although she couldn't hold serve consistently enough to challenge the No. 2 seed.
The second set started with four holds, then saw four straight breaks for 4-all. Day saved a break point to hold for a 5-4 lead, then held again to go up 6-5. Chi fell behind 15-40, saving one match point but not the second, putting Day into her third Grade 1 final.
Day felt that although Chi's forehand is a big weapon, avoiding it wasn't the proper strategy.
"It's really big, but she makes more errors on it; her backhand is more solid," said the left-hander from Santa Barbara. "So I definitely tried to mix her up and get her running to her forehand, so she wouldn't feel comfortable. Because when you sit the ball right up to her forehand, you're done."
Day and Liu last played at the Eddie Herr, where Liu ended Yucatan Grade 1 champion Day's winning streak in the third round by a 6-3, 6-3 score.
"It going to be fun," said Liu of the rematch. "We always practice together, play against each other. We know each other's games, so there won't be anything new."
The doubles champions were decided on Saturday afternoon, with familiar faces taking home the hardware, or glassware, in the case of the crystal trophies given out at this event.
Last year's finalists Blumberg and Nathan Ponwith, the top seeds this year, went one step better, with Blumberg getting some revenge on Riffice with a 6-1, 6-1 win over Riffice and partner Brian Cernoch.
"Will is the best doubles player on the planet," said Ponwith. "I showed up for every match and Will did the rest. Will Blumberg for president, 2024."
"We played lights out today," said Blumberg, who is on a plane to China tonight to compete in the ITF Junior Masters. "Me and Nate know each other really well and have good chemistry. We know where the other one is moving, we've played together a couple of years now. Obviously, I've been taking some time off, but coming back and playing with him is always fun. We both played really well."
In the girls doubles final, Ena Shibahara took home the winner's trophy for the third consecutive year, having won the 16s title with Savannah Slaysman in 2014 and the 18s title last year with Caroline Dolehide.
This year, Shibahara asked Hurricane Tyra Black to play with her in Carson, and although unseeded, the pair took the title, beating No. 7 seeds Taylor Johnson and Carson Branstine 5-7, 6-1, 10-3 in today's final.
Shibahara and Black, who had never played together before this week, were quickly up 3-0, but it wasn't until the second set that they found their form.
"I think we kind of lost focus," Shibahara said. "They just didn't start out well and we took advantage of that. They started playing better and we started to get used to it, and in the second set we played our best."
"From the second set, we got a lot of confidence going into the tiebreaker," said Black. "That was a lot of help. And we both started being really aggressive."
"We knew every ball was going to come back, because they have really good hands," said Shibahara. "Tyra was able to close and get really hard shots, and that really helped, because every point counts in the tiebreaker."
Shibahara and Black are both playing the Easter Bowl next week, but not together. Shibahara is playing with Michaela Gordon, while Black will play with frequent partner Caty McNally, who did not play this week in Carson.
The 16s champions were decided on Saturday, with Axel Nefve and Jessi Muljat taking the singles titles with straight-set victories.
Nefve, the No. 2 seed, beat No. 6 seed Adam Neff 7-5, 6-0.
The 68-minute first set was decided by a late break, with Neff broken at love for 6-5 and Nefve holding at love to win it.
The second set saw Nefve take control, with Neff managing to win only five points on his serve.
"He was playing really well in the beginning and I just kind of stuck with him," said Nefve, a 15-year-old left-hander from Hinsdale, Illinois. "He just kind of died down a little bit at the end. He was making a lot more errors toward the end of the first and in the second set."
Nefve is hoping to follow in the footsteps of John McNally and Oliver Crawford who won both the Carson 16s title and the Easter Bowl title the past two years.
"It's great to head into the Easter Bowl with a Carson win," said Nefve, who now lives in Boca Raton and trains with both the USTA and Robbye Poole, when Poole is not traveling with Serena Williams. "Hopefully I can keep this going with my momentum and win Easter Bowl too. That's a goal."
Nefve, who won his first two ITF Grade 4 titles earlier this year in Mexico and Panama, says the level of competition at the Carson tournament is impressive.
"I played like four or five Southern California kids and they're all great," said Nefve. "You don't really hear from them, but they're really good tennis players. The international kids, same thing, but it's definitely another level in the US."
Neff said he views his run this week as a success, after being out so often with injuries.
"It's very positive," said the 14-year-old from Bradenton, Florida. "I've been out a long time with injuries so I'm happy just to make it through a long tournament without an injury. It's a successful tournament even if I do lose the last match. He did play very well in the second set, so it was just too good from him today."
Jessi Muljat took the girls singles title, beating Katie Volynets 6-4, 7-5. Muljat led 5-2 in the second set, serving for the championship twice and unable to get to match point either time.
"I started thinking way too much about closing it out and I got a little too excited," said the 15-year-old from Sacramento, California. "It was 30-all at 5-2 and I made a stupid error, and I started thinking way too much about how she had nothing to lose. I know, it's horrible. "
Muljat said after losing the 5-4 game, she made a decision.
"I said, if you're going to lose, lose playing your game," said Muljat, who broke Volynets to give herself a third chance to serve out the match. "At the game at 6-5, I played it the right way and it worked, luckily."
Muljat said playing younger opponents this week added to the challenge.
"I think every person I played this tournament is younger than me," Muljat said. "It's different, because normally I play up, and I'm always playing older kids. So this is definitely different, the whole pressure and everything, since they were younger."
Volynets, who just turned 14 three months ago, is also from Northern California, but she and Muljat hadn't played in three years.
"I had an idea of her style," said Volynets, the 14s National champion. "She played really well. I feel like I didn't have to force as many directional changes. I just could have put more balls in play."
Although Volynets said she felt a bit tired after the six matches in six days, she was happy with the tournament overall.
"This was a pretty good week for me," said Volynets, who will also play the 16s at the Easter Bowl next week. "Of course I didn't want the outcome of today to be like this, but overall it's a good tournament, a great tournament, actually."
The 16s doubles finals closed out Saturday's action, with Mackenzie Clark and Hailey Baptiste taking the girls title.
The No. 6 seeds beat No. 3 seeds Dasha Kourkina and Michelle Sorokko 6-4, 6-2.
The boys 16s doubles champions were also seeded sixth, with Brandon Nakashima and Jake Sands taking out No. 2 seeds Adam Neff and Tyler Zink 4-6, 6-4, 10-7.
The complete draws are available at the tournament web page.