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Saturday, December 14, 2013

Americans Kozlov and Tiafoe Meet Sunday for Orange Bowl Title; Flink and Jorovic in Girls Championship Match; Chung, Robillard-Millette Win 16s

©Colette Lewis 2013--
Plantation, FL--

A large flock of crows circling over the Stadium and Grandstand courts at the Frank Veltri Tennis Center were cackling and chattering as the boys semifinals were being played early Saturday afternoon. What had stirred the birds interest was hard to say, but the fans gathered to watch the tennis were buzzing, in more muffled tones, about the two 15-year-old Americans, Stefan Kozlov and Francis Tiafoe.

Tiafoe, the No. 13 seed, wore down No. 2 seed Johan Sebastien Tatlot of France 4-6, 6-2, 6-2, while Kozlov again handled top seed and World No. 1 junior Alexander Zverev of Germany 7-6(2), 6-0.

Tiafoe had been up a break at 2-1 and 3-2 in the first set, so when he dropped the first set to the strong 17-year-old, he chose to view it as a positive sign, not an opportunity lost.

"I thought I should have won the first set, so I was going in confident," said Tiafoe, who is coached by Mischa Kouznetsov and Frank Salazar at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Maryland. "I knew I could have won the first set, so I knew I could hang with him. I was really feeling good, the last couple of matches, feeling in good shape, so I thought maybe I could outlast him."

Tiafoe was up 4-0 in the second set before Tatlot won a game, and served it out with little difficulty. In the third set, Tiafoe got the only break he would need in the fifth game, when a Tatlot unforced error gave Tiafoe a break point at 30-40 and he immediately converted it, with a powerful backhand down the line forcing an error.

Another break in Tatlot's next service game, in which he had a 40-15 lead, gave Tiafoe the opportunity to serve out the match. Down 0-30, Tiafoe won the next four points, hitting a backhand winner on match point to reach his first Grade A final.

"In the second set, he wasn't moving as well as he was in the first, and I was really hitting out on my shots, making him really move a lot," said Tiafoe. "I started playing very well and ended up with the W."

While Tiafoe and Tatlot played their three sets in two hours, Zverev and Kozlov needed 80 minutes to complete their first set on the Stadium court. Kozlov, from nearby Pembroke Pines, had the support of the fans, and also the knowledge that he had beaten the 16-year-old German all four times they have played, including twice in the past six months.

Kozlov fought off a set point serving at 4-5 in the first, and then began to make use of his drop shot. He wasn't aiming for a winner, but rather to set up the next shot, always able to anticipate where Zverev would go when he got to the drop shot, and calmly stroking a passing shot by him.

The tiebreaker was played on Kozlov's terms, and he continued to employ the drop shot, after trailing 2-0, Kozlov took the next seven points, ending the set, fittingly, with a drop shot winner.

Once Kozlov got a break and a hold to make it 3-0, Zverev lost interest in his quest for his first victory over his nemesis.

"I think he kind of gave up mentally after 3-0," said Kozlov, who beat Zverv 6-2, 6-0 in the second round of the Mansfield Texas Futures in October. "I know from previous times that if I got a good lead, he wouldn't fight back."

Kozlov, who has long been considered the leader of the Americans players born in 1998, said he is happy to have Tiafoe and Michael Mmoh joining him in the top echelon of junior tennis.

"I'm also very excited for him also," said Kozlov, who joked he wanted to start circulating the hashtag 98trio.  "He's a hard worker and he deserves it also."

Kozlov defeated Tiafoe 6-3, 6-4 in the semifinals of the ITF Grade 1 International Spring Championships in Carson in their last meeting, but Tiafoe has really found his game this week in Plantation.

"I was just trying to get as far as my seeding," said Tiafoe, who lost in the quarterfinals at the Eddie Herr last week. "But I probably played the best I could play [in his 6-0, 6-3 third round win over No. 3 seed Filippo Baldi of Italy], and today I also played very well, down a set."

Tiafoe is looking forward to asserting himself against Kozlov, in the first all-American final since Timothy Neilly beat Donald Young in 2004.

"I think I'm really starting to creep up behind him a little bit," Tiafoe said. "He's always been ranked higher, it's always been about him, talking about him being the top 98. Tomorrow we're both in the finals and we're both 98s, so hopefully I can take my chance and win."

According to the USTA, no matter who wins on Sunday, he will be the youngest 18s champion in Orange Bowl history.

The girls final will feature the top two seeds, with No. 1 Varvara Flink of Russia taking on No. 2 seed Ivana Jorovic of Serbia.

Flink defeated No. 6 seed Ioana Ducu of Romania 6-4, 6-4, while Jorovic ended the run of unseeded 15-year-old Sonya Kenin 6-2, 7-6(6).

Kenin served for the second set twice, at 5-4, and 6-5, and led 4-2 in the second set tiebreaker, but the 16-year-old Serbian didn't allow Kenin to embark on one of her notable comebacks.

Flink and Jorovic are friends and doubles partners, but say that won't matter in Sunday's final.

"We're not going to say nothing about friends or doubles partners tomorrow," said Flink, who turned 17 on Friday. "It's just going to be a match, and who's stronger, they're going to win."

Flink and Jorovic played in the final of the most recent Grade A, at the Osaka Mayor's Cup in Japan in October, with Jorovic winning 6-1, 6-4.

"She beat me like no chance, actually," said Flink. "I played bad and I hope to play a bit better tomorrow, maybe have more chances."

"For sure, me and her will fight for every ball, so it will be a hard match for both of us," said Jorovic.

Jorovic has not lost a match since the US Open Junior Championships, winning Osaka and two $10,000 ITF Women's Pro Circuit events in November, but has needed three sets to win her previous four matches prior to today.

"I didn't play Eddie Herr, so I'm still practicing on this clay," said Jorovic. "For six months, I don't play on clay, so this is good."

Earlier in the day, the 16s finals both went three sets, with Charlotte Robillard-Millette capturing Canada's third straight girls 16s title, and Yunseong Chung winning Korea's second boys 16s title in three years.

Robillard-Millette's 6-0, 1-6, 6-4 win over Alexis Nelson featured some ragged play in the first two sets, but the level rose dramatically beginning with the first game of the final set.

That first game, over 15 minutes long, saw Nelson hold after six deuces and most of the 20 or so points were claimed not by errors but by winners.

In the fifth game, Nelson made a couple of unforced errors and was broken, and Robillard-Millette made the break stand up, although there was drama when she stepped to the line to serve out the match at 5-4.
Down 15-40, Robillard-Millette saved both break points, with Nelson hitting a return long on the first and Robillard-Millette cracking a backhand winner on the the second. Robillard-Millette had two match points she failed to convert, the second a nervous-looking backhand into the bottom of the net. But on her third match point, Robillard-Millette stayed patient, and after a long rally, put away a backhand, then dropped her racquet and fell to her knees, more in relief than in joy.

"She's a great player and a great competitor," Robillard-Millette said of Nelson. "She's amazing, so I wasn't surprised that she'd come back and play that well.[The second set] was all hers, I couldn't do anything, but then I came back, I found solutions, and that's tennis."

Nelson credited Robillard-Millette for recovering from a poor second set.

"She's a tough competitor," said Nelson, a 15-year-old from St. Paul, Minnesota. "The third set was kind of a fight. Once you're down a break in the third set, it's hard to get back, especially when you've already been playing for a couple of hours in the humidity and heat. It's tough to rally yourself. I'm so tired right now."

Robillard-Millette admitted she felt some pressure to replicate the results of Erin Routliffe and Gloria Liang, the past two 16s champions from Canada.

"I had a little pressure and I was a bit nervous at the beginning," said the 14-year-old from Montreal, who had lost in the qualifying of the Junior Orange Bowl 14s last year. "I just played my game, and I'm happy for that, and hopefully next year another Canadian, or even me, can win it again."

Robillard-Millette said she has been inspired by the recent rise of WTA Newcomer of the Year Eugenie Bouchard, also from Montreal.

"I think she's a great motivation," said Robillard-Millette, who knew that Bouchard was training with Nick Saviano on the Veltri Center hard courts, but didn't speak with her. "We're following her path, and it's obviously really good because we know we can do it, because she did the same thing as we are doing right now."

Chung defeated compatriot and doubles partner Chan-Yeong Oh 3-6, 6-2, 6-1.

A tight first set went to Oh, when he saved multiple break points in a lengthy game at 3-3, then immediately broke Chung at love and went on to serve out the set.

From then on, Chung took control, taking a 3-0 lead in the second set and breaking Oh to even the match. Chung lost his serve to open the third set, but that was the last game he would lose, as he took advantage of Oh's fatigue.

"At the beginning of second set, I take advantage of Oh's unforced errors," said Chung, via a translation provided by Korea Federation coach Seung Ri Sohn. "It looked like he was a little bit tired, and so I make him move more."

In 2011, Hyeon Chung became the first Korean to win the Orange Bowl 16s, and Chung (no relation) took inspiration from that performance.

"He motivated me a lot," said Chung. "Two years ago, when I was young, I did hard training because of him, and today I am a champion, and very happy."

The doubles finals for the 18s are set for Sunday with unseeded Kaitlyn McCarthy and Kenin taking on No. 5 seeds Tornado Alicia Black and Naiktha Bains of Australia.  McCarthy and Kenin defeated unseeded Fanny Stoller of Hungary and Jaqueline Cristian of Romania 4-6, 6-2, 10-6, their third consecutive win in a match tiebreaker. Black and Bains completed their quarterfinal match delayed by rain Friday night, then beat top seeds Flink and Jorovic 6-2, 6-1.

The boys doubles final will feature the top two seeds. No. 1 seeds Andrey Rublev of Russia and Zverev survived an entertaining two-hour contest with No. 3 seeds Tiafoe and Mmoh 7-6(7), 6-7(4) 10-8, which didn't end until nearly 8 p.m. Saturday night. Rublev and Zverev will face No. 2 seeds and Eddie Herr champions Baldi and Lucas Miedler of Austria. who beat No. 4 seeds Roman Safiullin of Russia and Nino Serdarusic of Croatia 7-6(4), 6-4.

The boys final is scheduled for 10 a.m., with the girls final to follow. For complete results and draws, see the tournament website.