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Sunday, April 7, 2019

Top Seeds Black and Draxl Fight Through Three-Setters to Claim Titles at ITF Grade 1 International Spring Championships

©Colette Lewis 2019--
Carson, CA--

Anyone expecting top seeds Hurricane Tyra Black and Liam Draxl to breeze through their wild card opponents in the finals of the ITF Grade 1 International Spring Championships Sunday, didn't need long to revise their assumptions, with Draxl needing nearly three hours to outlast Zachary Svajda 7-6(6), 3-6, 7-5 and Black requiring a third set comeback to defeat Connie Ma 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 on a warm and breezy day at the Dignity Health Sports Park.

The boys final was riveting from the opening points, with neither player showing any evidence of nerves.

Draxl, a 17-year-old Canadian, went up 4-1 in the first set, but Svajda broke back and had the easier service games as the set moved to a tiebreaker. Svajda, a 16-year-old from San Diego, had a set point at 6-5 in the tiebreaker, but he succumbed to what both he and Draxl considered poor shot selection, and Draxl passed him to pull even and claimed the next two points for the set.

"On that short forehand I went crosscourt, and he was already cross court, so he didn't have to move," Svajda said. "I should have gone down the line probably, that was a mistake. I'll definitely remember that."

"He hit a huge return and I picked it up at the baseline," Draxl said. "He hit an easy forehand and I guessed right and hit a pass winner. It was kind of lucky, I don't know, if he went the other way, it would have been a winner by a mile."

The second set was not likely to match the first for quality, and when Svajda let a 40-0 lead slip away to give up his first service game of the second set, Draxl was in good position to take control of the match. But Svajda, who shows no emotion, positive or negative, on court, kept his body language neutral and it was Draxl who saw his level slip, losing five straight games.

"That was really bad from me, to be honest," said Draxl, who is as animated on court as Svajda is stoic. "I was mentally frustrated, I was losing it, falling apart a little bit in the second, but I think it was important for me to go from 5-1 to 5-3, getting it a little bit going again."

Draxl broke Svajda serving for the set at 5-1, and Svajda had to save two break points serving for the second set at 5-3 to finally even the match.

The second and third games of the third set took over 20 minutes, with Svajda and Draxl both getting holds after saving break points. Svajda lost his next serve, giving Draxl a 3-1 lead, but he immediately broke back and held for 3-all. Draxl went down 0-30 serving at 4-all, but errors began to creep into Svajda's game, and Draxl claimed the next four points.

Serving down 4-5, Svajda saved two match points, with a backhand winner and a wide backhand from Draxl and closed out the game with a rare ace, one of just three he hit in the match.

Svajda had his chances in the next game, when he blasted a return winner, got a rare netted forehand from Draxl and executed a perfect backhand pass to go up 15-40. But Draxl stepped up, hitting a backhand volley winner and a forehand winner on the line to get back to deuce and he hit his seventh and final ace of the match to put the pressure back on Svajda.

Svajda had shown no signs of faltering throughout the high-pressure situations previously, but Draxl forced him into two errors to start the game. Svajda hit a forehand winner to pull even at 30-all, but made another error to give Draxl a third match point, and this time Svajda couldn't save it, hitting a forehand long to end the match.

"I was a little bit tired, by the end," said the slightly built Svajda. "We had some long points. Every point was long, most of them anyway."

Draxl was impressed by Svajda's performance.

"He was so tough, he was running me around with his angles and big forehands, it was really tough," Draxl said. "If you drop your focus for just one game, it's a completely different story against a good player like him. I had to fight really hard to win that. It's pretty unusual, because usually if you're in a Grade 1 ITF final, it's going to be someone you know and he's playing a bunch of ITFs too. But he's just a local kid."

Draxl, who trains with Peter Billingham at the Saddlebrook Resort in Florida, said he played this event with an eye toward a seeding at the summer's junior slams.

"From what I calculated, I think I'll be 10," Draxl said of his ITF Junior ranking. "That the was kind of the purpose of playing this tournament to be honest, and I needed to play one more tournament and I thought this would be an opportunity to get some more points, and it worked out."

After a ITF World Tennis Tour event in Florida, Draxl will head to the Grade A in Milan and the French Open.

Svajda, who was playing in just his second ITF Junior event, is also headed to Florida, to a playoff being held at the USTA's Lake Nona National Campus for Challenger and $25K wild cards. Currently without a coach in San Diego, Svajda, who considers John Isner as his chief mentor, is spending more time training at the USTA campus, although he is still looking for a full-time training base. He spent most of March at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, serving as a hitting partner, and practiced with Roger Federer the final three days of the tournament.

Black's second straight title in Carson came despite an array of ailments and misfortunes, with the 18-year-old from Florida winning the final four games of the match to overcome Ma.

After a shaky start by Ma, who is not prone to unforced errors but made a slew of them to lose her final two service games in the first set, the 15-year-old from Northern California began calm her nerves and  adjust to Black's unconventional game, especially the slice forehand.

"It is the finals of a big tournament and her style is little bit different from the ones I've usually been playing," Ma said. "I needed to move her a little more and come in a little more on her slices, to give her less time, and to lengthen the rallies and get her moving."

Ma got the first break of the second set, lost it serving at 3-4 then broke Black to serve for the set at 5-4. Up 40-0, Ma couldn't convert her first three set points, but on the fourth, Black's slice went wide, and Ma was even.

"The first game of the second set, I fell on my hand, which I injured last week, and that made it even worse," Black said. "Then I scraped my knee and my shoelace broke off, and I played three games without my shoelaces tied, I had to tie it to the side and I could barely move, so it was really stressful for me."

Black's problems didn't go away in the third set, despite an early 2-0 lead. Ma broke back and held, starting a string of 11 straight points that resulted in a 3-2 lead for her.

"I hit one serve and started cramping in my leg, I started cramping more and more everywhere, then it went to my arm, my calf, my other leg," said Black, who said she vomited after the match, while suffering more cramping. "I honestly didn't think I could do it, after all the stuff that was going on, I was freaking out a lot."

But Black refocused on the changeover at 2-3.

"After those three games, I went back, sat down, took some energy gummies, drank some Gatorade and realized that I had to keep going," Black said. "It's only 3-2, and anything can happen and I knew how much I really wanted this match, so I just fought my ass off for it."

Ma said Black's tumbles on the court and her visits from the trainer, didn't disrupt her focus.

"I've watched her play a couple of matches this week and I saw her fall a lot of times, so I kind of expected it," said Ma, who is coached by Max Taylor at Tompkins Tennis.

But with her ailments mounting, Black played a bit more aggressively, breaking Ma to even the set at 3 and holding at love in the next game. Ma reverted to the pattern of unforced errors that plagued her late in the first set, and after getting broken at love, her usual calm demeanor dissolved, as she berated herself with the demand to "make one ball."

With Black serving for the match, Ma did step up her play, and she had a break point, but Black saved it when Ma's backhand went long. When Ma sent a forehand long, Black got to match point, and converted it, putting a volley past Ma with both players at the net.

Black was impressed by Ma's game.

"I think she's a great player, especially being 15 years old," Black said. "She places the ball better than anybody I've ever seen. Usually you see players trying to play offense or defense, but she's just worried about where she's placing the ball. I thought that was a very good thing for her."

Black, who signed with Baseline Management company in January, said she's headed home to Boca Raton to rest and to find a coach.

"I haven't had a coach in a little bit, but I'm going home to try to work on it and figure stuff out," said Black, who plans to play the junior slams this summer, with Italy or Belgium her first event on the clay. "But I'm definitely going to play some $15Ks, I'm just not sure where yet."

Ma returns to Dublin High School, with her trip to the ITF Spring Championships fitting into her schedule because it was spring break.

"I don't know when my next tournament will be," said Ma, who was playing just her third ITF Junior Circuit event this week. "Probably in the summer-ish, I'm not really sure."

Complete results are available at the tournament website.