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Friday, December 13, 2013

Kenin, Tiafoe, Kozlov Reach Orange Bowl Semifinals; Nelson Reaches Girls 16s Championship Match

©Colette Lewis--
Plantation, FL--

Unseeded Sofia Kenin had already picked up an important victory at the Metropolia Orange Bowl, defeating No. 4 seed Helen Ploskina of Ukraine in the first round.  The 15-year-old from nearby Pembroke Pines, Fla. wasn't ready to quit there however, and on a cloudy and cooler day at the Frank Veltri Tennis Center, Kenin again overcame a  second set deficit to beat No. 5 seed Marie Bouzkova of the Czech Republic 6-2, 7-6(5).

Down 5-1 in the second set, Kenin fought back, although unlike several of her previous matches the past two weeks, this time she had the luxury of winning the first set.

"She started playing really good so I knew I had to lift up my game," Kenin said of Bourzkova, who was willing to come forward to finish points, only to see herself victimized by a precise lob or passing shot from Kenin. "I just try to think positive. But if we would have split sets, I would have found a way to win.  My goal was to get to the semifinals of this tournament, and I feel so good. I'm so happy I won."

Kenin will meet No. 2 seed Ivana Jorovic of Serbia, who won her fourth consecutive three-set match, by the slimmest of margins, beating No. 9 seed Akvile Parazinskaite of Lithuania 7-5, 3-6, 7-6(5).

The other girls semifinal will feature top seed Varvara Flink of Russia, who recorded an easy 6-1, 6-1 victory over Julia Terziyska of Bulgaria and No. 6 seed Ioana Ducu of Romania, who fought back to defeat No. 3 seed Tornado Alicia Black 5-7, 6-3, 6-4.  Black took a 4-0 lead in the opening set, then watched as Ducu came back to win five straight games.  In the third set, Black was up 4-1 and serving, only to again lose five straight games, with Ducu's variety, and especially her drop shot, proving the difference.  Ducu refused to hit two balls at the same pace or height, alternating a moonball with a penetrating backhand, a slice or a volley.  But it was the drop shot, executed perfectly regardless of her court position or the game score, that produced winner after winner, and in the final game, with Black serving at 4-5, Ducu hit two drop shot return winners, the final one on match point, giving the 17-year-old her first trip to a Grade A semifinal.

In the boys quarterfinals, No. 13 seed Francis Tiafoe continued his stellar play, defeating No. 7 seed Roman Safiullin of Russia 6-4, 6-4. Although his level may not have approached the one he displayed in his 6-0, 6-3 win over No. 3 seed Filippo Baldi of Italy on Thursday, Tiafoe still managed to wow the local fans with his athletic creativity on the court.

Tiafoe will play his first Grade A semifinal against No. 2 seed Johan Sebastien Tatlot of France, who beat No. 6 seed Michael Mmoh 7-6(4), 7-5.  Mmoh looked as if he would force a third set for the first time in his three meetings with Tatlot, but the 17-year-old Frenchman won the final five games of the match, hitting his powerful but occasionally erratic forehand deep and near the lines, while Mmoh played less aggressively.

The third US 15-year-old in the semifinals is No. 4 seed Stefan Kozlov, who overcame a lethargic second set to defeat No. 8 seed Naoki Nakagawa of Japan 6-1, 5-7, 6-3.

"I had a lot of chances, a couple of break points on his serve, and I didn't capitalize," Kozlov said of his second set lapse. "I got frustrated and lost focus a little bit."

Kozlov didn't regain his focus immediately, dropping serve in the first game of the third set, but with Nakagawa serving at 2-1, Kozlov broke back, then got a second break for 5-3.  Serving for the match, Kozlov looked focused and determined, with the unforced errors that cropped up throughout the second set now infrequent. He hit a backhand drop shot on the run for 30-0, and a big forehand winner on the next point gave him three match points. He missed the first on a forehand error, but Nakagawa shanked a backhand on the second to give Kozlov the victory.

"I knew I needed to focus and that the longer it went, it benefited him," said Kozlov, also from Pembroke Pines, where his father Andrei  has a tennis academy. "I just played aggressive and free, and it worked well."

Kozlov is aware that his position as the top junior from the United States is no longer secure with the recent surge from Mmoh and Tiafoe.

"I think we're all going to be ranked pretty close to each other," said Kozlov, who is now No. 7 in the ITF World Junior rankings. "Mmoh is already high and Francis is going to move up really high after this tournament. Next year I think we'll all be playing similar tournaments and we'll all be battling together.  If you look at it six months ago, these guys were nowhere to be found and now they're on my tail, so I've got to keep it going, and hopefully I'll stay on top."

Kozlov will meet top seed and world No. 1 Alexander Zverev in the semifinals, after the 16-year-old German downed doubles partner and 2012 16s Orange Bowl champion Andrey Rublev of Russia 6-4, 5-7, 6-4.  Kozlov has beaten Zverev twice this year, at the round of 16 at Junior Wimbledon and in the second round of October's Mansfield Texas Futures, the latter by a 6-2, 6-0 score.

"The last time we played, I'm not even going to think about that, because it was lights out for me," Kozlov said. "When we played at Wimbledon it was a close match, and I stepped it up in the third. I think it's going to be a very tough match tomorrow. I'm going to be ready to battle."

The 16s finals will be played on Saturday, with just one American, unseeded Alexis Nelson, contending for a singles championship.  Gordon won a roller coaster of a match with No. 4 seed Lisa Ponomar of Germany in the semifinals Friday 7-5, 4-6, 6-4. 

Nelson, a 15-year-old from St. Paul, Minnesota, was serving at 4-1 in the second set when the wheels came off. In the third set, she again built a 4-1 lead and was serving only to again lose that game, but she didn't panic, breaking Ponomar for a 5-2 lead. Nelson got to match point, but sent a forehand long and was broken. Ponomar held, and after a bathroom break, Nelson served for the match for again. This time her backhand proved too much for Ponomar, with a swinging volley and a down the line winner making it 30-15. Ponomar missed a forehand just wide to give Nelson two match points, but she needed just one, with Ponomar shanking a forehand to end it.

"I've played a lot of these tournaments like this where there are big prizes on the line and I've had a couple of disappointing losses," said Nelson, who was a quarterfinalist in the Junior Orange Bowl 14s last year, beating Kenin in the third round. "It wasn't just the fact that I lost, it was that I was mentally beaten, I gave up. This match could have gone either way, so I'm just glad that I kept fighting."

Although Minnesota is not a hotbed of tennis, Nelson's father is an avid recreational player, and she has been around a tennis club her whole life, starting to play at age 5.  In Jesse Aney and Ingrid Neel, Nelson has peers in her area pushing her, and she also plays with adults in her area, and now beats her father when they compete.

"We used to be the trio that always pushed each other," said Nelson. "But it's not really so much where you are, if you go on the court with the right mindset everyday. You just need someone who is consistent and has decent pace."

Although she is unseeded, Nelson did not feel she was a huge underdog coming into the event.

"I saw the girls who had signed up and I've done well with all these girls, am competitive with them," said Nelson. "There were people who I'd beaten, who I hadn't beaten, who I didn't know. So I came into the tournament really confident in how I was playing and I just wanted to execute my game style."

Nelson will play No. 5 seed Charlotte Robillard-Millette from Canada in Saturday's final, after Robillard-Millette beat unseeded Dominique Schaefer 6-2, 6-4.

Robillard-Millette is attempting to keep the girls 16s trophy in Canadian hands with Erin Routliffe and Gloria Liang winning the title the past two years.

"Obviously I want to continue the tradition," said the 14-year-old from Quebec. "It's the third year in a row with a Canadian in 16s Orange Bowl final, so it would mean a lot to me to follow in their path and do the same thing, represent my nation."

Robillard-Millette has not played Nelson before, but said she knows what to expect.

"I know her a little bit, I've been to tournaments, saw her play, and she's a great player," Robillard-Millette said. "She's pretty solid, hits the ball pretty hard, so we'll see how it goes."

The boys 16s final will be an all Korean affair with No. 1 seed Yunseong Chung facing No. 2 seed Chan-Yeong Oh.  Chung cruised past No. 16 seed Sameer Kumar 6-1, 6-3, while Oh had a tougher time with unseeded Eduardo Nava, eventually taking a 6-3, 7-5 victory.  Oh led 4-1 in the final set, with Nava fighting back to make it 4-4, only to be broken and give Oh a chance to serve for the match. Oh couldn't take it, with unforced errors costing him, but Nava followed suit, missing forehands in the next game to give Oh a second chance to serve it out. Oh did, with the help of a couple more forehand errors from Nava.

Top seeds Oh and Chung teamed for the boys 16s doubles title on Saturday afternoon, defeating the unseeded team of William Genesen and Soon Woo Kwon of Korea 6-1, 6-4. Genesen and Kwon were paired up prior to the start of the tournament by officials when neither had a partner and managed to work their way to the final, beating two seeded teams en route.

The girls 16s doubles title went to unseeded Jaclyn Switkes and Brienne Minor, a wild card team playing together for the first time. Switkes and Minor defeated No. 3 seeds Robillard-Millette and Vanessa Wong of Canada 6-3, 7-6(3), coming from 5-1 down in the second set.

"We just kept making mistakes," said Switkes, a 16-year-old from Ponta Vedra Beach, Florida. "And then we said, we've got to stop messing around."

"We said we're not going to let them get to the tiebreaker," said Minor, a 16-year-old from Mundelein, Illinois. "We just started being more aggressive at the net," added Switkes.

"There was definitely a momentum shift when we were catching back up," said Minor, who won the Easter Bowl 16s and the Clay Court 18s USTA gold balls in doubles this year.

Minor and Switkes decided to play together when Minor received a facebook message from Switkes just two weeks ago, yet they were forced into only one match tiebreaker in the no-ad format used, and not until the third round.

"Throughout the tournament we figured out our strengths and weaknesses and we were able to work with that," said Minor. "I thought we worked pretty well together."

Minor and Switkes agreed the title was that much sweeter for being unexpected.

"It feels really great," said Minor. "For a wild card to win the tournament, it's pretty fun," said Switkes.

The first rain of the tournament arrived Friday night, with three 18s doubles quarterfinal matches unfinished.

For Saturday's order of play and complete draws, see the tournament website.