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Saturday, December 9, 2017

Osuigwe and Bilokin Advance to Girls Orange Bowl Final; Gaston and Tashbulatov to Meet for Boys Title; Saar and Ionel Win 16s Championships

©Colette Lewis 2017--
Plantation, FL--

Top seed Whitney Osuigwe and unseeded Margaryta Bilokin will meet Sunday for the ITF Grade A Orange Bowl title, after claiming victories Saturday in contrasting fashion.

After a five hour rain delay, the schedule was revised and Osuigwe was still under the impression that her match with No. 9 seed Joanna Garland of Taiwan was second on after the 3 p.m. start time. It showed in her game, as she fell behind 5-2, with Garland twice failing to serve out the first set.

"I didn't even get a warmup," said Osuigwe, who went on to post a 7-6(5), 6-2 victory. "I ran for about five minutes. They gave us a longer warmup in the beginning so that helped. But the same conditions I had, she had as well. She told me she only got to hit for five minutes."

Osuigwe looked out of sorts and off her game, but she managed to find a way to get back in the first set.

"I wasn't really playing good tennis," said the 15-year-old from Bradenton Florida, who was facing Garland for the first time. "I started hitting some higher balls, getting more balls in the court and she started missing a couple. I think that took her confidence down and I got a couple of loose points and was able to come back."

Unlike Osuigwe, who will play in her fourth Grade A final Sunday, Bilokin had never won a match in a Grade A until this week, having played in just two.  The 16-year-old Ukrainian's run started with an impressive 6-3, 6-0 win over No. 3 seed Elysia Bolton and also beat No. 15 seed Sada Nahimana of Burundi and No. 5 seed Naho Sato of Japan to reach the semifinals.

"That gave me confidence," Bilokin said of her first round win, "and in the second round I played a girl [Clara Tauson], who I lost to last week at Eddie Herr and I had motivation to beat her and get revenge. But definitely that first match was a confidence booster."

In her 6-1, 6-1 win over wild card Chloe Beck Saturday, Bilokin said she maintained her concentration despite knowing what was on the line.

"I can't say she wasn't playing well," said Bilokin, who has committed to Duke for 2019. "I mean I was very focused and I tried to play every single point like it was my last point. I feel like I played really well, didn't let her play her game, let her step in. We had some long games, but I think those were because I was playing a little shorter, pushing, instead of being aggressive and keeping the ball deep and attacking."

Bilokin, who trains at IMG Academy said she doesn't practice with Osuigwe, who also trains there, but notes that they have played twice  in the past four months, with Osuigwe winning in the first round of the US Open and in the semifinals in at the Pan American Closed, both in straight sets.

"I'm definitely looking forward to that match," said Bilokin. "The finals of Orange Bowl, big stage, I'm definitely looking forward to that."

"She's been playing good this last half of the year," Osuigwe said. "I'm around her a lot, she trains at IMG, and it's always a good match against her so I'm excited."

The boys final Sunday will feature No. 11 seed Hugo Gaston of France and unseeded Dostanbek Tashbulatov of Kazakhstan after both posted tough semifinal victories Saturday.

Gaston defeated top seed Timofey Skatov of Russia 7-6(5), 6-7(6), 7-5 in a match that lasted more than three hours.  Gaston had a chance to close out Skatov in the second set tiebreaker, serving at 6-5, but he netted a forehand and needed to grind out another set.  At 5-all in the third, Skatov played a loose service game, giving Gaston, a 17-year-old left-hander, an opportunity to serve out the match.  Up 40-0, Gaston saw two match points slip away, but he converted on the third when Skatov netted a forehand.

Gaston had earned only one win in four Grade As this year before this week, but he has much more experience than Tashbulatov, who is playing in his first Grade A period, having never cracked the ITF Junior Top 100.

A 6-3, 1-6, 6-4 win over unseeded Daniel Michalski of Poland today was Tashbulatov's third straight marathon match, a run that he admitted was beginning to wear on him.

"It was a very tough match because one day before and yesterday I played three and a half hours," said the slightly built 17-year-old, who took out Americans Brandon Nakashima and Govind Nanda in those two matches. "It was very tough and physical for me. And also my emotions, was unbelievable. My first time in a Grade A, it was so scary."

Tashbulatov, who lost in the second round of the Eddie Herr last week, said he is playing more aggressively and fearlessly this week.

"When I am not scared, I think I can beat anyone."

The weather is expected to be sunny and cool for the 10 a.m. start on Sunday, with the girls final to be followed by the boys final.

The doubles finals are set after two semifinals this evening. The top two seeds will meet for the boys title, with No. 1 Nicolas Meija of Colombia and Uisung Park of Korea playing No. 2 seeds Tomas Machac and Ondrej Styler of the Czech Republic.  The girls doubles final will feature No. 4 seeds Yasmine Mansouri of France and Yuki Naito of Japan against No. 2 seeds Garland and Naho Sato of Japan.

The 16s champions were crowned on Saturday, just in time for girls winner Katriin Saar, who had a flight back to Estonia on Saturday night.

No. 13 seed Saar eased that time pressure by defeating unseeded Fiona Crawley 6-3, 6-3, returning home from her first trip to the United States with the winner's crystal bowl of oranges.

"I'm shaking. To win the Orange Bowl, that's an amazing feeling," said the 15-year-old, who didn't lose a set all week. "To end the year here, on such a high note."

Saar got the first break of the match with Crawley serving at 2-3, but gave the break right back.  She took advantage of a Crawley double fault on game point to earn a 5-3 lead and was able to close out the first set, although both players admitted to having difficulty controlling their nerves in the opening games.

"It's the finals, of course I'm nervous," said Saar, who gradually eliminated the unforced errors from her game and pressured Crawley with her pace and depth throughout the second set.

"I was really nervous, but you've got to let that go," said Crawley, a 15-year-old from San Antonio Texas. "After the first couple of games, I kind of adjusted and figured out her game a little. She hits it really hard and deep. I had never played her and that's part of why I was nervous, because it's scary playing someone you've never known before.  I get nervous every single match, and especially in an Orange Bowl final."

Crawley held to open the second set, but Saar reeled off four straight games to take a 4-1 lead.  Crawley fought back to make it 4-3, but those two games served as a wakeup call for Saar.

"I just had to focus," said Saar, who credited her serve as a key factor in her ability to control points. "At 4-1, I thought that I was going to win, so I was not concentrating enough. But at 4-3, I was like, get it together, finish the game."

Saar held at love, finishing the game with an ace, and broke Crawley to claim the title.

"She was an excellent player and she played very well today," said Crawley, who will play the 18s in the upcoming USTA Winter Nationals later this month. "She was definitely more solid all around than anybody I think I played this tournament."

Asked if she had any expectations that she would leave Florida as the Orange Bowl champion, Saar replied, "well, I didn't come here to lose."

Saar will concentrate on ITF events in 2018, hoping to follow in the footsteps of fellow Estonian Anett Kontaveit, now WTA No. 34, who won the Orange Bowl Grade A title in 2011.

As darkness began to descend on the Veltri Tennis Center, the cool wind and occasional drizzle made for a dreary start to the boys final, especially for champion Nicholas David Ionel.  Facing fellow Romanian and top seed Nini Dica, Ionel dropped the first set 6-0 in less than 20 minutes.

"The conditions were very bad," said the 15-year-old, who eventually posted a 0-6, 7-5, 6-2 victory. "It was pretty cold and I was not really warmed up. At the beginning of the set, he started really well."

Ionel said he was determined to stay positive, despite having suffered a 6-0, 6-1 loss to Dica in the Romanian National 16s championships.

"I just tried to stay focused and come back," Ionel said.

Dica held to open the second set, only to see Ionel take the next three games. Dica got the break back to make it 3-3 and both players held to 5-all.  Ionel then got the break he needed and with the help of a deft offensive lob and a forehand winner, he closed out the set.

"I started not missing so much," said Ionel, who trains at the IMG Academy. "I hit consistent and heavy balls. First set I tried to make more winners and I missed."

Ionel opened the third set with a break and sealed the win with another break to take a 4-1 lead, and closed out the match with an easy hold at 5-2.

A finalist at last week's Eddie Herr Championships, Ionel was happy to get the winner's trophy this time.

"It's a very important tournament and I hope this will help me in the future," said Ionel, who plans to play only ITF tournaments now, starting with the big Brazil tournaments in February. "I have a lot of confidence right now."

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