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Monday, December 19, 2016

Americans Gauff and Scott, Lilov and Kuzuhara Meet in Junior Orange Bowl 12s Finals; Noel, Lee Advance to 14s Championship Matches

©Colette Lewis 2016--
Coral Gables, FL--

For the first time since 1988, all four players in the Junior Orange Bowl 12s final are Americans, with Victor Lilov and Bruno Kuzuhara playing for the boys title and Cori Gauff and Katrina Scott facing off in the girls championship match.

The United States is still alive for 14s titles as well, with unseeded Alexa Noel and No. 2 seed Alex Lee advancing to the finals with straight-sets wins at the Neil Schiff Tennis Center at the University of Miami.

The first all-US boys 12s final since Joe Di Giulio defeated Roy Lederman in 2007 looked unlikely when No. 3 seed Lilov was down three match points serving at 3-5 in the third set against unseeded Aldolfo Vallejo of Paraguay.  Lilov saved those three match points to force Vallejo to serve for the match at 5-4, but when Vallejo went up 40-0, the significance of those previous match points dimmed.  Lilov again came through, however, also saving that trio of match points and getting the break, then pulling out the third set tiebreaker for an improbable 4-6, 6-1, 7-6(2) victory.

"I got lucky, but I'm proud of myself to keep fighting and not give up, even when I was down 5-4, 40-0 with him serving," said 12s USTA National champion Lilov, a 12-year-old from Raleigh, North Carolina. "I kind of felt like I could win the match, because I thought he might get a little nervous, because he was up and he was playing great after the second set, where he wasn't really there because I was up so much. Tough match for me, difficult, but I just fought."

Kuzuhara's 7-6(4), 6-3 win over unseeded Minseong Kim of Korea was not as dramatic, but was far from easy, with the first set taking an hour to complete.

"I was really tired, but I managed to pull it out," said Kuzuhara, a 12-year-old from Florida.  "I felt like if put a little more balls in the court and make him run side to side, then sneak into the net I could probably take the first set.  I felt like I played better in the tiebreaker, and I carried the momentum for the second set."

The boys final will be at 9 a.m. at Salvadore Park, with the third place match between Vallejo and Kim and the fifth place match, between Evan Wen and Gunuk Kang of Korea, also at 9 a.m.

The all-US girls 12s final, the first since Claire Liu beat CiCi Bellis in 2011, is scheduled for 9 a.m. at the University of Miami.  No. 2 seed Gauff, a semifinalist for the past two years, was determined to get past that stage this year, even though she has found success in the 16s and 18s divisions in 2016.

"Winning Orange Bowl is something I always wanted to do," said Gauff, who recently reached the quarterfinals of the 16s division at the Eddie Herr. "I wanted to win 12s Orange Bowl ever since I was 10. I decided I was going to play 18s just to get more experience, then play 12s Orange Bowl and hopefully pull out the win."

Gauff is one match away from that goal after defeating No. 3 seed Vivian Ovrootsky 6-1, 7-5 in today's semifinals.  Gauff has yet to lose a set in the tournament, but Ovrootsky did push her in the second set, becoming the first player to win more than three games in a set.

"She was hitting more flat in the second set, more wide," Gauff said. "Before she would hit it higher and I would be able to take it, so I think she realized that wasn't the right decision. So when she changed it up, it gave me a little trouble, but after a while, I sort of got my rhythm back."

Unlike Gauff, Scott is playing in her first Junior Orange Bowl, and with her 6-3, 6-2 win over No. 8 seed Tatiana Muzykantskaya of Russia, she has now made two finals this month after advancing to the championship match at the Eddie Herr.

"It's a really big tournament and it's really good to get that chance to play other people across the world, so you see where you stand and how you're doing," the No. 4 seed said.

Although her semifinal win was routine, Scott has had several tight matches during the tournament.

"I've been playing really well," said the 12-year-old from Woodland Hills, California. "I had some tough matches where I've been down, but I've fought through them, and I'm happy to be here."

Scott and Gauff have not played before, although they know each other from a Team USA competition in Boca Raton two years ago.

The last time all four 12s finalists were from the United States, according to the Junior Orange Bowl program, is 1988, when BJ Stearns defeated Marcus Fluitt and Chanda Rubin defeated Ali Peshkin. Neither 12s tournament was played from 1989-1997.

The third place match between Ovrootsky and Muzykantskaya and the fifth place match between Dasha Plekhanova of Canada and Daniella Benabraham are also schedule for 9 a.m. at the University of Miami.

Unseeded Alexa Noel continued her march through the tournament, winning her sixth consecutive straight-sets match and the fourth consecutive win over a seeded player, beating No. 7 seed Emma Raducanu of Great Britain 6-3, 6-2.

Noel fell behind 2-0 in the opening set, but soon shook off her nerves and began to assert herself, starting with her serve.

"I was just really nervous," Noel said. "I knew she was a good player and I started off slow, wasn't accelerating through my shots, but as the match went on, it got better and better."

As her game has matured, so has her on-court demeanor. In the past, Noel would let her frustration boil over, with her mistakes leading to a loud conversation with herself about her shortcomings.

"I've grown up a bit," said Noel. "It's just realizing it's kind of just a game. If I do everything that I can control correctly, that's really all you can ask for. I'd get super mad at the beginning of matches, missing balls, now it's just more focus and realizing I can step up and so I don't freak out right away."

Noel will play No. 3 seed Qinwen Zheng of China, whom she defeated in the final of the 2016 Nike International U14 Championships in Bolton, England in January. Zheng advanced with a 6-4, 6-4 win over No. 2 seed Holly Fischer of Great Britain.

"She likes to strike through the court," said Noel, who has recently left the Junior Tennis Champions Center, returning to her home in New Jersey. "So as long as I keep it out of her strike zone and I'm serving well, I think I have a pretty good chance."

Noel said her game style and its execution have peaked this week in Coral Gables.

"Since the US Open, this is probably the best I've played," said Noel. "I think I have more variety, I guess. Use more of the court, hit different shots, instead of the same shot over and over."

The match of day at the University of Miami was top seed Bu Yunchaokete's 6-4, 4-6, 7-6(7) win over No. 5 seed Zane Khan. In the Eddie Herr final, Khan had posted a 6-3, 6-3 victory over China's top 14-year-old, and he was one point from another win over Yunchaokete in the tiebreaker, but as he had done in the fourth round against No. 17 seed Shunsuke Mitsui of Japan, Yunchaokete survived.

Down 5-2 in the final set of the long and physically draining match in 83 degree heat, Khan won four straight games, but serving for the match at 6-5, Khan could muster only one point, and that on a missed overhead from Yunchaokete.  Khan, who had received a point penalty for an audible obscenity in the second set and a game penalty for racquet abuse to fall behind 2-0 in the third set, looked on the edge of another explosion late in the match, but he managed to keep himself from being defaulted, and even took a 4-1 lead in the final set tiebreaker.  Khan had two serves up 4-1, but lost both, the first on an unforced forehand error and the second on a perfect lob winner by Yunchaokete.  Yunchaokete went up 5-4 with a backhand winner, rare for him, and Khan responded with a forehand winner to make it 5-5. Khan went up 6-5 when Yunchaokete's backhand went just wide, but Khan failed to take his opportunity, sending a routine forehand long.

A good first serve by Yunchaokete gave him a match point, but he sent a backhand long to make it 7-7. Khan then netted a forehand to give Yunchaokete a second match point, and this time he won it, with Khan's forehand going wide.

Yunchaokete admitted after the nearly three-hour match that he was exhausted, but said he would be ready for Tuesday's final.

"Yeah, yeah, I'm very tired now," said Yunchaokete. "I need a good rest for tomorrow.

As for the difference between the Eddie Herr final and today's much more competitive match with Khan, he put it down to one stroke, his forehand.

"My forehand better, working better," Yunchaokete said.

His opponent in the final is no. 2 seed Alex Lee, who defeated No. 9 seed Spencer Brachman 7-6(0), 6-4.  Lee, the 14s National champion, lost his serve at 5-all in the first set, but saved a set point with Brachman serving for the set and dominated the subsequent tiebreaker.

Lee said serving from the north court was difficult for both he and Brachman.

"Neither one of us could hold, it was just constant breaking," said Lee, a 14-year-old from Oak Brook, Illinois. "I think it was a combination of sun and wind. In the tiebreaker, I just tried to take advantage of being on the side where both of us could just keep hitting the ball at each other."

In the second set, Lee was unable to serve out the match at 5-2, getting broken at love, but he closed it out on his second attempt, sealing the victory with a forehand winner to hold at love.

Lee, who won the Easter Bowl as well as the 14s USTA Nationals this year, said he's pleased to have reached the Junior Orange Bowl final.

"Not many kids are able to do it," Lee said. "It's one of the biggest tournaments internationally for a junior, so it's a great honor."

The boys final, the third place match between Khan and Brachman, and the fifth place match between Hunter Heck and Benjamin Heynold of Great Britain are scheduled for 11 a.m. at the University of Miami Tuesday.

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