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Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Americans Lilov, Gauff Claim Junior Orange Bowl 12s Titles; Noel Wins 14s Championships

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

Back in 2010, Americans Michael Mmoh and Nicole Frenkel swept the 12s title at the Junior Orange Bowl and Brooke Austin won the girls 14s championship.  Today, those results were duplicated by Victor Lilov and Cori Gauff in the 12s and Alexa Noel in the 14s, with Bu Yunchaokete of China, the boys 14s champion, the sole non-American to claim a title.

The unseasonably warm weather that had been present throughout most of the tournament continued, with the humidity high even for the 9 a.m. start time.  The girls finals were played first, with Gauff, the No. 2 seed, defeating No. 4 seed Katrina Scott 6-4, 7-6(4) in the 12s, while on Court 1, unseeded Alexa Noel got by No. 3 seed Qinwen Zheng of China 6-3, 2-6, 6-4 in the 14s.

Gauff, who was a semifinalist in the 12s as a 10-year-old in 2014 and also last year, was determined to win the title in her last year, but Scott gave no sign that she was conceding the championship.  After a nervous service game from each to open the match, Gauff got a second break, which she immediately gave back, then a third, which she kept, to close out the first set.

Just two games from the title, Gauff went up 4-2 in the second set, but again Scott responded, holding and breaking to make it 4-4.  Gauff was able to break with some big backhands to give herself a chance to serve out the match, but she wasn't able to get to match point then or in her second attempt to serve it out at 6-5, despite starting that game up 30-0.

"Previously in the match my serve wasn't doing well and I think that was just in the back of my head," Gauff said. "I was worried, so I started pushing it in, and that wasn't helping. She was doing what she is supposed to do, hitting winners."

After five straight breaks of serve and some spotty play by both players toward the end of the set, the level of play picked up in the tiebreaker. Gauff double faulted to give Scott a 2-0 lead, but then proceeded to hit four forehand winners in the next five points to go up 4-3. Scott was then overruled by the chair umpire on a baseline call, giving Gauff a 5-3 lead, and a forehand error by Scott gave Gauff three match points. She double faulted on the first, but Gauff made her first serve on the the second match point, with Scott netting a forehand to end the match.

"I told myself in the tiebreaker that trying to make it in (on serve) is not working," said Gauff. "So just go for it. And it went in."

Gauff said she keeps the pressure off in those situations by putting herself mentally back on the practice court.

"I just try to imagine that I'm back at my home court in Delray," said Gauff,  who is coached by Gerard Loglo at the New Generation Tennis Academy there. "I play a lot of tiebreaks in practice, so I just pretended it was another tiebreaker there."

Scott had nothing but praise for Gauff's game, which she was seeing from across the net for the first time.

"She really fights and she hits a really big ball, and she's a good mover," said Scott, a 12-year-old from Woodland Hills, California. "She definitely hit some good shots. She played really well. I played really well the whole week, so it'll be a good memory."

Gauff has no particular plans to celebrate her long-awaited title, but she now already has the Christmas present she wanted.

"I wanted this for Christmas,"  said Gauff, known as Coco to her family and friends.

Gauff's next competition will be at the Nike International in Bolton and Les Petits As in Tarbes, as a member of the 14-and-under team the USTA is taking on that trip in January.  Gauff also will return to France several times this year to train at the Mouratoglou Academy, courtesy of Patrick Mouratoglou's Champ' Seed Foundation.

While Gauff was completing her seventh consecutive straight-sets win, Noel was struggling to avoid going to a third set for the first time during the tournament.  With her first serve, one of her most reliable weapons, not producing free points, Noel was in trouble against Zheng, who was able to break Noel's serve three times in the second set.

"I stood way too far off the baseline, my toss was all over the place, and I was hitting way too many floating slices right into her backhand," said Noel, who used the 10-minute break between sets to get some tips from former coach Ben Cappuccitti of the Junior Tennis Champions Center. "He told me to dig deep, fix my toss, focus on what you can control, the right way to play."

That pep talk helped Noel take a 3-2 lead in the third set, but she lost it immediately with a pair of double faults not helping her mood. Zheng held for a 4-3 lead, but that was the last game she would win, with Noel getting a break to take a 5-4 lead. A deft sliced pass by Noel, a double fault and a netted forehand gave Noel an opportunity to serve out the match, and she didn't miss a first serve, holding at love for the championship.

Noel and Zheng had played in the final at the Nike International in Bolton this January, with Noel winning 6-0, 2-6, 7-5.

"The scores were almost the same, but this was outdoors, so I felt because her game fits more of an indoor surface, I had more of an edge going into this match," Noel said. "She ended up getting it back together in the second, kind of the same thing, but I focused in the third."

Zheng knew what to expect after that previous meeting, but couldn't quite overcome Noel's strategy.

"The second time I lost against her in final," said Zheng. "She change a lot the rhythm and she make me a lot of trouble. But it's first time I got in final of Orange Bowl and I have chance to win, but it's ok. I already did good."

Noel is not playing the upcoming Winter Nationals or the Costa Rica Grade 1, but said she may compete in the major South American events later next month.

The boys 14s championship match, which was played after the two and a half hour girls final, wrapped up the 2016 tournament, with top seed Yunchaokete preventing an American sweep with a 6-4, 6-4 victory over No. 2 seed Alex Lee.

Lee got off to a good start against Yunchaokete, taking a 2-0 lead, but Yunchaokete got the break back for 2-1, and both players held serve until 4-all, when Lee played a loose game and was broken at love. Yunchaokete held for the first set, and was up 3-1 in the second before Lee won the next three games.

At 4-all, Lee was again broken at love, with the second set bearing an uncanny resemblance to the first.

"I think it was just a little bit of nerves, not being able to close out easy shots in those games,"  said Lee, a 14-year-old from Illinois. "Both times, I think that was why I was broken. Overall, I thought I played pretty well. I went for my shots and they went in, but he played a little bit better."

Yunchaokete had survived a tough three-hour semifinal match with No. 5 seed Zane Khan on Monday, saving a match point, and he admitted he was tired from that ordeal and happy to finish the final in straight sets.

He agreed that his level was slightly higher than Lee's at the end of both sets.

"I just make no mistakes, control and move him," said Yunchaokete. "He make mistakes and his first serve a little down, so help for me."

Yunchaokete admitted that winning the Junior Orange Bowl title after losing in the final of the Eddie Herr earlier this month was important to him.

"I'm very happy to be champion," said Yunchaokete. "This better, yes, very good."

Yunchaokete's coach Yu has the distinction of now coaching China's first two Junior Orange Bowl champions, with Xiaofei Wang winning the boys 12s last year.

"I have train these two guys for six years," said Yu, who was especially impressed with Yunchaokete's two wins, in the fourth round and in the semifinals, from match points down. "Bu has so good heart. And mind. Good player."

At Salvadore Park, the site of the boys 12s, Lilov, the No. 3 seed, beat No. 9 seed Bruno Kuzuhara 0-6, 6-2, 6-4 to become the first American boy to win the 12s title on the Har-Tru surface since the boys moved there from Tropical Park in 2011.

Lilov, who had saved six match points in his 4-6, 6-1, 7-6(2) semifinal win over Adolfo Vallejo of Paraguy, had another comeback in him on Tuesday.

"I expected him to come out strong, but not that strong," said Lilov, a 12-year-old from Raleigh, North Carolina. "I was still a little bit sluggish from the last match, but he played too good."

"I was down 2-1 a break, in the second set, but he made a few unforced errors in the fourth game and that definitely turned the match around."

At 4-all in the third set, Lilov held, then found himself with three match points with Kuzuhara serving at 4-5, 0-40, winning the championship on the second of those.

Kuzuhara was pleased with his play during the week, and credited Lilov for his willingness to keep fighting.

"I played good in the first set, I was moving the ball well," said Kuzuhara, a 12-year-old from Coconut Creek, Florida. "But after the first set, he kind of got into the match and started playing better. I thought (before this match) that if I played well I could get to the finals, and probably win this match, but Victor played really well."

Lilov said the best part of his game in the final two days of the tournament boiled down to his willingness to compete.

"I just had to fight, really," said Lilov, who works with Steve Smith and Mat Cloer in North Carolina. "He just dominated me in the first set, played too good. I think I just fought, and that was my strength."

The matches for third place and for fifth place were also played on Tuesday.  Both third place matches in the 14s were decided via walkover due to illness, with Emma Raducanu of Great Britain defeating Holly Fischer, also of Great Britain, and Spencer Brachman defeating Zane Khan.

Fifth place in the boys 14s went to Hunter Heck, who beat Benjamin Heynold of Great Britain 2-6, 6-3, 7-5. Fifth place in the girls 14s went to Kylie Bilchev of Great Britain, who beat Noa Krznaric of Croatia 3-6, 6-4, 6-1.  I'm not sure why three full sets were played in the consolation finals, which are usually decided by a match tiebreaker under USTA rules.

Third place in the boys 12s went to Minseong Kim of Korea, who beat Vallejo 7-5, 5-7, 6-4.  Evan Wen defeated Gunuk Kang of Korea 7-5, 6-1 to take fifth place.

In the girls 12s, Tatiana Muzykantskaya of Russia took third place with a 7-6(3), 6-3 win over Vivian Ovrootsky.  Dasha Plekhanova of Canada beat Daniella Benabraham 6-4, 7-5 for fifth place.

For complete draws, see the TennisLink site.