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Friday, December 23, 2011

Liu, Stewart and Hong Claim Junior Orange Bowl Titles

©Colette Lewis 2011--
Coral Gables, FL--

Miami’s Katerina Stewart is known as Killer Kat to her friends and family, who wore T-Shirts specially designed by her aunt to announce their allegiance in the girls 14s Junior Orange Bowl championship match.

Stewart, the No. 6 seed, proved the nickname is apt, upsetting top seed and Eddie Herr 16s champion Tornado Black 6-1, 6-3 in an impressive display of ruthless tennis on a warm and sunny morning at the University of Miami’s Schiff Tennis Center.

The 14-year-old Stewart, who trains at her father’s academy in Miami, showed no sign of nerves despite the big occasion, although she admitted after the match that the T-shirts embarrassed her a little.

“I love to have people watch me, so it really helped,” Stewart said of the several dozen supporters, who cheered loudly after her frequent winners. “I was anticipating a harder match, so it was a little surprising, but I stayed in the moment and played my game, and I won.”

Black opened the match with a hold, but Stewart played nearly error-free tennis in the games that followed, and Black could not find any rhythm. Black’s serve is not a weapon, but rather a point-starter, and Stewart was able to keep the rallies neutral, no easy task against the usually rock solid ground strokes of Black. Stewart broke Black in her next three service games, taking the first set with the last break.

In the second set, Black came out firing, holding easily and breaking Stewart to take a 2-0 lead. But rather than signaling a comeback, the lead quickly evaporated, and once again Stewart seized the momentum, winning five games in a row, the fifth a break of Black, who had a 40-0 lead in the game.

Serving for the match at 5-2, Stewart had her only stumble, saving one break point but not the second, as she sent a forehand way long.

“I was getting a little bit tight,” Stewart admitted. “But then I relaxed in the next game.”

Black made a critical error at 30-30, with her slice finding the net, giving Stewart her first championship point. It was the only one she would need, with Black putting a backhand into the net to give Stewart the coveted title, the third straight for an American girl.

“It means everything,” said Stewart, the first Miami girl to win a Junior Orange Bowl 14s title since Mary Joe Fernandez in 1983. “I’ve trained for this for so many years, and I’ve finally won it.”

Black acknowledged that she didn’t play particularly well, but credited Stewart.

“She played really well,” said the 13-year-old from Boca Raton, who admitted to fatigue after her long semifinal match with Ivana Jorovic of Serbia on Thursday. “I didn’t really play my best but I felt I had a really good attitude.”

Black will rest for a few weeks before heading to Teen Tennis and Les Petits As as a member of the USTA’s travel team.

The girls 12s champion, Claire Liu, doesn’t have the luxury of a long rest. The unseeded 11-year-old, who upset fellow Californian Catherine Bellis 1-6, 6-4, 6-3 in Friday morning’s final, is heading to the USTA Winter Nationals in Tucson in just a few days.

Liu, who trains at the USTA’s National Center in Carson, looked nervous and unsure of herself in the opening set against the 12-year-old Bellis, who is the reigning USTA Clay Court and Hard Court champion, but she fought back to take control of the match.

“I wasn’t really that focused and I wasn’t hitting the ball that much, I was just playing her speed, and I needed to play my speed,” Liu said.

That all changed in the second set, when Liu eliminated her unforced errors and began attacking.

“She was being more aggressive,” said Bellis, who will be competing the 14s at the Winter Nationals next week. “Claire played very well.”

Liu agreed that her level rose in the final two sets, and that losing the first set might have actually helped her.

“I just started relaxing a little bit more,” Liu said. “Since I had already lost the first set, I had nothing to lose. I like to hit on the rise and attack, come into the net and I played more aggressively in the second and third set.”

Liu got a late break to take the second set, and in the third maintained her edge, using short angles to Bellis’s backhand to great effect.

With Liu serving for the match at 5-3, she fell behind 30-40, but she didn’t back off or play tentatively. She kept the usually balanced Bellis lunging to her backhand side, forcing errors as she collected the final three points of the match.

“It feels really good,” said Liu, the second consecutive unseeded American to win the girls 12s Junior Orange Bowl title, following Nicole Frenkel's title in 2010. “I don’t know yet how I’m going to celebrate,” she added, although she did indulge in one of the oranges in her winner’s bowl.

Seongchan Hong of Korea collected his second winner’s bowl Friday, beating Stefan Kozlov of the US for the second time in three years in a Junior Orange Bowl final.

In the boys 12s final in 2009, Hong won in straight sets, but Friday’s 6-7(4), 6-2, 6-4 win taxed the physical and mental resources of both players. The pair battled for over three hours in 80-degree temperatures under the midday sun, and it wasn’t until Hong saved two break points at 4-4 in the third set that the match tilted in his favor for good.

The ninth-seeded Hong, with his right knee wrapped, came up with three impressive forehands after Kozlov had hit a perfect lob winner to get a second break point. On the deciding game point, Hong hit a tough forehand angle that Kozlov’s considerable anticipation skills could not detect, and Hong had the lead.

The match often resembled a Davis Cup tie, with several dozen Korean juniors assembled to support Hong, with Korean flags and orchestrated cheers with rhythmic clapping. The fourth-seeded Kozlov, who grew up in South Florida, also had his share of supporters, who waved small American flags while a much larger one countered the Korean flags hanging from the railings.

Kozlov said after the match that the Korean contingent didn’t bother him, but during a tough service game at 3-4 in the third set, he hit a winner and shouted “be quiet” in their direction. Whether they understood him or not is debatable, but they certainly didn’t comply, with their cheers continuing throughout the four-deuce ninth game.

Serving to stay in the match, Kozlov had a lengthy conversation with the chair umpire after he had called a ball long, but continued to play, ultimately losing the point. The chair said he didn’t hear Kozlov’s call, so the point went to Hong, and after a forehand error, Kozlov was suddenly down two match points. Hong missed the first, hitting his finishing volley into the net, but he came up with an overhead winner on the second match point.

With the win, Hong becomes the first 12s winner to take the 14s title since Australia’s Bernard Tomic accomplished that feat in 2004 and 2006, with Tomic also defeating the same opponent—David Souto of Venezuela—in both finals.

After trailing 3-0 in the opening set, down two breaks, Kozlov fought back, winning the tiebreaker, but he lagged in the second set.

“In the second set, I don’t know, I sort of lost all my energy,” said the 13-year-old. “I just wasn’t stable enough and I missed too many free points. Key points, I didn’t play well.”

Hong admitted that he was beginning to cramp, but he didn’t sense any fatigue on Kozlov’s side of the net.

“I didn’t notice that,” said Hong, who trains at the Evert Academy in Boca Raton. “I just focused on my playing.”

Although many points were played in the style of boys 12s, there were many others that displayed the quick reflexes, dazzling court sense and speed of both players. Hong said he had believed he had to be aggressive to win.

“If I approach the match defensive, I lose one hundred percent,” he said. “I was trying to be aggressive today.”

Hong also noted that Kozlov’s style had changed since they last played.

“Two years ago he was really defensive,” said Hong, who led Korea to its first ITF World Junior 14-and-under team championship in August. “Now he can hit the ball hard sometimes and it’s very tough to control that ball.”

Hong reached the Eddie Herr final and won the Nike Masters International the weekend prior to the Junior Orange Bowl, so he is ready for a break from tennis. But although he is tired, he was very pleased with his second Junior Orange Bowl championship.

“It’s better than two years ago,” he said. “I’m really happy.”

Sasha Zverev of Germany finished in third place in the boys 14s when Canadian Alejandro Tabilo did not play. Ivana Jorovic of Serbia took third place in the girls 14s with a 6-0, 3-6, 6-1 win over Chloe Ouellet-Pizer of the US. Fifth place in the boys 14s went to Sameer Kumar of the US, who beat Francis Tiafoe, also of the US, 3-6, 6-2, 6-3 Mathilde Armitano of France took fifth place in the girls 14s, beating Shilin Xu of China 6-3, 6-0.

In the girls 12s, Riley McQuaid of the US finished third, with a 6-4, 6-2 win over American Nicole Conard. Anna Bright of the US finished fifth, beating Andreea Bosca of Romania 6-1, 2-6, 6-4.

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