Sponsored by IMG Academy

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Ayeni Outlasts Korda for Adidas Easter Bowl ITF Title; Liu Earns Second Championship with Win over Douglas

©Colette Lewis 2017--
Indian Wells, CA--

The two boys finalists at the adidas Easter Bowl were heading in different directions after the championship match Sunday morning at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. One was preparing for an overnight flight to Spain, while the other was heading to an LPGA event going on a few miles away to watch his sisters compete in the final round of a major.  But the spectators who saw No. 8 seed Alafia Ayeni come from a break down in the third set to defeat No. 10 seed Sebastian Korda 6-4, 0-6, 7-5 were delighted with the tennis they witnessed in the final of the prestigious ITF Grade B 1 event, celebrating its 50th year in 2017.

Neither player had ever reached a ITF Grade 1 final before, but it appeared that Ayeni, who had been in two ITF junior finals, coped with the atmosphere, which included ballrunners, a full officiating crew and courtside streaming better.  The 17-year-old from San Diego didn't lose a point on serve until his fourth service game, and that was on a double fault, while Korda was having difficulty keeping the ball in play. But there were no breaks until Korda served at 4-5, when Ayeni converted his second break point with a second serve return that handcuffed Korda on the baseline.

Korda, who had lost the first set in his quarterfinal win over Jake Sands and his semifinal win over No. 4 seed Sam Riffice, took a bathroom break after the first set, and it proved as successful as it had the previous day. Korda won all but five points in the second set, needing only 15 minutes to even the match.

"To be honest I was really nervous in the second set," said Ayeni, who is playing in the Grade 1 in Alicante Spain, which starts Tuesday. "I was like, ok, I've got the first set, I'm one set away from winning the Easter Bowl and I think it got into my head a little bit.  It also didn't help that I was sitting down for quite awhile. Sebi took a bathroom break and I allowed myself to get cold and immediately started to hit bombs again, which obviously is not going to work. My first serve was nonexistent and he stepped up his game a lot."

Korda agreed.

"I made a lot more balls and he wasn't expecting it," said the 16-year-old from Bradenton, the son of 1998 Australian Open champion Petr Korda. "I played a lot better."

It was Ayeni's turn to take a bathroom break, but he didn't have the same success when he returned for the third set. He held in his first service game, but Korda hit two backhand winners on the line from 30-all to get the break and held for 3-1.

Ayeni faced three break points in the next game, but found his first serve when he needed it most, hitting one 130 mph, another at 133 and closed out the hold with one clocked at 127.

"At 3-1, a couple of break points, he just hit some unbelievable serves," Korda said. "He served really well in the third set."

Ayeni understood how important it was to stay within striking distance with a hold in that fifth game.

"I knew if he got the break there, it wouldn't be impossible, but it would be very, very difficult to come back from that," Ayeni said. "Sebi's such a good server, it's difficult to break him....But I was just ok, I'm going to let go, start hitting some serves, just believe in my serve and myself. I just started hitting my serve a lot bigger and I think he was kind of startled by the change in pace and I think that gave me a little bit of an advantage to hold serve there."

Ayeni broke in the next game and saved a break point in a four-deuce game to take a 4-3 lead. He continued to serve well, with serves in the high 120s and low 130s and it was Korda who had to come up with some big shots down match points at 4-5.  He saved the first with a forehand putaway and the second going behind Ayeni for a backhand winner and then hit two good serves himself to make it 5-all.

Ayeni hit two aces in the next game to take a 6-5 lead, and Korda went up 30-0 when serving to reach the tiebreaker, but Ayeni won the final four points of the game, with an excellent backhand pass, a net cord winner and two errors, the final one forced, to claim the championship.

Ayeni collapsed on the court, while the crowd gave both players a long ovation, appreciating the high level of play, particularly in the final set.

"He's a little bit younger, not nearly as experienced," Ayeni said. "I know this was his first ITF final and I've played in two before and I think that gave me a little bit of an experience advantage over him."

Korda said he was not surprised by Ayeni's performance, although they were meeting for the first time.

"I know he's an amazing athlete and he gets so many balls back, some incredible shots," Korda said. "I knew what I had to do coming into this today, and he played amazing."

Ayeni was not quite as sure that he would be playing in the final, which is why he had booked a flight to begin his clay season in Europe.

"I was supposed to lose like three days ago," said Ayeni, who is coached by his father Anthony and by Patrick Oyone, who was in attendance all week. "I wasn't thinking yeah, I'm definitely going to win Easter Bowl. But I was a lot more confident in my strokes, especially my forehand. And I knew if I just stayed calm that usually freaks out my opponents. I didn't think necessarily I was going to win, but I expected myself to do quarterfinals, semifinals maybe, at least decently, but this is a nice bonus."

With the title here, Ayeni has already earned a place in the French Open and Wimbledon junior draws and Top 30 ITF junior ranking, while Korda also has positioned himself for the main draw in the junior slams.

But despite dropping the final in two hours of intense play under the desert sun, Korda was off to walk the fairways of the Mission Hills Country Club Sunday afternoon, where his sisters Jessica and Nelly were competing in the LPGA's first major of the season. Jessica, 24, finished tied for 11th and 18-year-old Nelly, playing in her first major, finished tied for 42nd.

The drama of the boys final never materialized in the girls championship match, with 2015 champion Claire Liu dominating 2016 finalist Ellie Douglas 6-1, 6-2.

Liu, the top seed, was broken in the first game, admitting that even for a previous champion, an Easter Bowl final is a daunting prospect. But standing up to the pressure was part of the reason Liu accepted a wild card into the tournament, even though she is in the Top 10 of the ITF junior rankings.

"I was pretty nervous," said the 16-year-old from Thousand Oaks, California. "Every match I was pretty nervous, but that's kind of what I was here for. I wanted to come here to deal with my nerves, be able to keep playing well even though I had pressure and I think I did pretty well."

Liu had a tough match in the third round with Elli Mandlik, going down a set and having to come back the next day when high winds caused play to be suspended when she was trailing 4-6, 3-1.

"The first couple rounds in any tournament is really tough," said Liu, who was playing in her sixth consecutive Easter Bowl. "I think getting through Elli in that really tough match gave me confidence to be more free with my shots and just trust myself, and I think I played a lot better in the last three matches."

Liu, who didn't lose more than two games in any set in the quarterfinals, semifinals and final, lost the first game Sunday afternoon, but then won six straight, as the fourth-seeded Douglas struggled to find the form she had displayed in her quarterfinal win over Hurricane Tyra Black and her semifinal win over No. 2 seed Taylor Johnson.

Douglas dropped the first game of the second set, got the break back, but Liu kept the pressure on, breaking Douglas in a four-deuce game for a 2-1 lead, then winning the next three games.  Douglas saved a match point serving at 1-5 and two more after Liu had gone up 40-0 on her serve, but Liu finished with a fine volley to become the first player to win two 18s titles in non-consecutive years.

"My mindsets were different in both tournaments," said Liu, who is coached by Mike Gennette, who was recently named USTA Player Development Coach of the Year for 2016.  "When I was younger I needed to get into French [juniors] and I had to do well in this tournament. In this tournament, I was just focusing on more my game and improving that, so I can do better in the pro tournaments."

Douglas, who is planning to play the ITF junior circuit in Europe this spring and summer, including the junior slams, was disappointed in her performance in the final.

"It was not my day, definitely," said Douglas, who had fallen in three sets to Alexandra Sanford in last year's final. "So many unforced errors. But she played really well, hit a bunch of lines and I'm happy for her."

Douglas had beaten Liu when they played in the Mexico City Grade A semifinals last November, but Douglas has now lost the last four major junior finals she has played in the past year: in Mexico City to Taylor Johnson, to Kayla Day in Tulsa at the Pan American Closed, and the last two Easter Bowls.

"I don't know, it's something about finals," said the 16-year-old from McKinney Texas. "I'm just not very good at them. My first serve percentage was horrible and I just made way too many errors and you can't compete with that. I've had a great week, but I've got to go home and learn how to close a tournament out."

Liu is playing ITF Women's Circuit events in the near term, confining her junior competition to the junior slams.

"I'm playing the last two $60Ks and then Naples, a $25K, then a couple of pro tournaments in Italy and then the French (juniors)," Liu said.

The finalists not only receive ITF crystal trophies and USTA gold and silver balls, but also travel grants.  Tournament director Lorne Kuhle announced that for the second consecutive year, the ITF tournament will provide $10,000 worth of travel vouchers. The winner and finalist receive $750, semifinalists $500, quarterfinalists $325, and those who reach the round of 16 $150.