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Saturday, August 26, 2017

Fourlis Sweeps Girls Titles, Mejia Wins Both Boys Championships at ITF Grade 1 Prince George's County International Hard Courts

©Colette Lewis 2017--
College Park, MD--

Australian Jaimee Fourlis's first junior tournament in more than a year yielded two titles, while Colombian Nicholas Mejia also doubled up on winner's trophies Saturday on the final day of the ITF Grade 1 Prince George's County International Hard Court Championships.

The weather was perfect for tennis, with partly cloudy skies, little wind and temperatures in the 70s as Fourlis and Mejia took to the courts of the Junior Tennis Champions Center, both experiencing a Grade 1 singles final for the first time.

Fourlis, the No. 7 seed, was up against 13-year-old wild card Coco Gauff, who had beaten four straight seeds and surrendered only four games in her quarterfinal and semifinal matches. But Fourlis was able to do what those before her could not: take time away from Gauff and pressure her into errors.

Gauff was broken in the first game, and fell behind both 2-0 and 4-2 before getting the score back to 4-all.  But struggling with her serve, Gauff was broken again, giving Fourlis an opportunity to serve out the set.  Down 30-40 after missing a volley, Fourlis saved the break point with a forehand winner, then hit a good first serve that Gauff couldn't get back in play.  An aggressive return by Gauff forced an error to deny Fourlis on her first set point, but Gauff missed a backhand pass to set up a second, and after a long rally, hit a winner, while Gauff  was left complaining about a previous ball on the sideline she thought was out.

As in the first set, Gauff was broken in the first game, but this time she got the break back, then held serve for her first lead in the match. Gauff broke to go up 3-1, but that was the first of four straight breaks. Fourlis received a medical timeout before serving at 2-3, emerging from it with her left thigh heavily taped.  She lost that game despite saving two break points, but again, Gauff couldn't hold, and when Fourlis held serve for the first time in the second set to make it 4-all, the momentum Gauff had worked to build faded.

"When I went 4-2 down, I just had to keep playing my game, keep being aggressive," said Fourlis, who last played a junior tournament at Wimbledon last year. "I knew I could break her down slowly, I just had to believe in myself."

Fourlis also determined that closing the net and forcing Gauff to react to that change could provide her with an edge.

"She was timing the ball really well and getting used to what I was doing," the 17-year-old said. "So changing it up and coming into net, she didn't really like that. I had to stick to my guns, had to be positive and had to keep doing that no matter what the outcome was. It ended up in a really good result."

Gauff agreed that Fourlis's strategy had an impact late in the second set.

"When she was down, she started going for it," Gauff said. "She came to net more times in that game than she probably did the whole match. I think that made the difference, because I wasn't used to it. And she has good volleys, obviously, she's in the doubles final."

Attacking Gauff's second serves, Fourlis broke to go up 5-4, but she was down 15-40 before winning the final four points of the match to claim her first Grade 1 title.

"She's an unbelievable player and I knew that coming in," said Fourlis, who took Caroline Wozniacki to three sets in the first round of the French Open this year. "But I knew that I was in great form and with solid mindset to break her down."

Gauff was impressed with the level of play Fourlis displayed throughout the match.

"Today wasn't my best day, but she played well," Gauff said. "She was taking the ball early and hitting winners, coming to the net. She played well and she was serving pretty good too."

After a day of sightseeing in Washington DC, Gauff will return to Florida for a few days to prepare for her junior slam debut at the US Open.

"My confidence has definitely gone up a little, knowing I can compete with these girls," Gauff said. "Pretty much all of them are playing the US Open, so hopefully I'll have another good week there too."

Fourlis didn't enter the US Open junior championships, but is hopeful of getting a qualifying wild card.  Originally scheduled to compete at the Grade 1 in Canada next week, she has pulled out due to the thigh injury she sustained today.

"I think I just tweaked it during the match," Fourlis said. "Nothing to be worried about. It's still really sore now, I'm going to get some physio treatment and have a couple of days' break, as I've played a lot of matches this week."

Mejia's 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 victory over roommate and top seed Axel Geller of Argentina was an unusual contest, with the friends frequently serving as their own line arbiters in spite of a full complement of officials working the match.

Their conversations in Spanish occasionally resulted in conceded points or, more often, in accepting the officals' opinion on a close call.  But often those discussions led to a lack of focus for Mejia or Geller on subsequent points.

Geller took the first set with the only break at 4-4 and saved two break points serving for the set.

The 18-year-old Stanford freshman, who wore his Cardinal hat for the trophy photos, broke Mejia in the first game of the second set, but gave the break right back and then was broken at love serving at 4-5.

In the third set, Mejia went up 4-2, but Geller got the break back immediately.

"When I broke him at 3-2, it was kind of weird, there was a ball I thought was in and I was going to tell him it was in but the referee said it was really wide," the 17-year-old Mejia said. "Then I broke and I was kind of surprised, but I didn't take a lot of time between my serves and I made a lot of mistakes there. I got distracted; I thought I didn't deserve the break, because I thought that ball was in. The lead went away and he could have also broken me in the next game."

Mejia did hold at 30 to go up 5-4 in the third set, and at 30-30 a point had to be replayed due to a chair overrule of a line judge.  Geller lost that replayed point, giving Mejia a match point, but Mejia conceded an ace which the chair had called a let on.

"Even though it's a match point, you've got to be fair," Mejia said.

Geller missed a forehand wide to give Mejia a second match point, and this time there was no controversy, with Geller's backhand sailing long and wide.

"It's a lot easier, whenever you get to a final, to win it the first time, because you never know when your next final is," said Mejia. "It means a lot to me to win my first Grade 1. I've done really well in doubles, for a long time and I never really had a good singles result, so this means I have the level and I have to believe way more in myself."

Geller, who is 1-2 in the three Grade 1 or Grade A finals this summer, said all the practice matches he and Mejia have played at the IMG Academy recently figured into the result.

"He knows me and he knew to change pace more," Geller said. "We've played so many times, I already knew the feelings of what was happening. Many times, with faster balls, I would overpower him, but today I couldn't.  That's why we played long rallies, and I'm not used to that honestly. He's a bit smarter and was more prepared for that. He played very well, and I'm very happy for him. He deserved it."

Mejia is not playing the Grade 1 in Canada, and while Geller is going there, he is not sure he will be able to play, with that depending on how he feels physically prior to his first match.

Both are competing in the US Open, where Geller will be the No. 1 seed. Mejia is just hoping he doesn't get the draw that he had at Wimbledon, where he lost to eventual champion Alejandro Davidovich Fokina of Spain in the first round.

"I've got to be realistic," said Mejia. "At the US Open, there are going to be a lot more top players than a Grade 1. I think [Geller's] going to be the No. 1 seed, so I hope I don't draw him in the first round. But this gives me confidence to believe in myself and hopefully go deep in the US Open."

Mejia will go into the US Open boys doubles competition with another title after he and Sebastian Korda, the No. 2 seeds, closed out the day's schedule with a 6-3, 6-2 win over No. 6 seeds Brian Cernoch and Andrew Fenty.

Mejia said the singles title was particularly emotional for him, and not because he had beaten his friend and roommate to win his first Grade 1 title.

"I was emotional mostly because my dad passed away earlier in the year," Mejia said. "I was happy, but I just wished he could have been here. But we played really good doubles. We went to a couple of tiebreakers this tournament, and we were able to win them, but in the final, thank god, we didn't go to a tiebreak. That would have been tough."

"It's always a fun week playing with Nico," said Korda, who has won three Grade 1 titles this year with Mejia as his partner. "He's one of my best friends and definitely my brother for sure.  I can't wait for many more, and hopefully we'll do big things at the Open."

Fourlis partnered with Emily Appleton of Great Britain to take the girls doubles title, with the No. 3 seeds defeating the unseeded team of I-Hsuan and Yi Tsen Cho of Taiwan 6-1, 6-3.

Appleton and Fourlis had played together only once before this week, at a $50,000 ITF Women's Circuit event on grass in Ilkley.

"We played our first match together last summer in England against two Top 100 [doubles] players," Appleton said of their first round contest against Zhaoxuan Yang and Kai-Lin Zhang of China. "It was a tight two sets and they ended up winning the tournament.

"So this is our second time," said Fourlis. "And we've done pretty well. I think Emily has a really big serve, so that helps me at the net, cross and be active. Her big groundstrokes help me to get involved."

"Jaimee's so reliable from the back; she's never going to miss, so I always have confidence at the net," Appleton said.

Against the Cho sisters, Appleton and Fourlis got early breaks in both sets, winning two deciding points to take a 2-0 lead in the second set.

"I think the sudden death points are crucial," Fourlis said. "If you win two in a row it's a break and a hold up and I think that was crucial in today's match."

Appleton and Fourlis hope to play the US Open junior championships together, if Fourlis gets a qualifying wild card and makes it through to the main draw.

Complete draws and a photo gallery are available at the tournament website.