Saturday, March 25, 2017

Johnson, Branstine Meet in International Spring Championships Girls Final; Ross and Rotsaert Play for Boys Championship; Woldeab Wins Epic 16s Boys Final

©Colette Lewis 2017--
Carson, CA--

Last year Carson Branstine and Taylor Johnson met in the first round of the International Spring Championships, with the unseeded Branstine defeating the eighth-seeded Johnson 6-3, 6-7(7), 6-3.  On Sunday, the two 16-year-old Southern Californians will meet in the final, after top seed Johnson defeated No. 11 seed Hurricane Tyra Black 7-5, 6-3 and Branstine came back from a set and a break down to beat No. 9 seed Elysia Bolton 6-7(2), 7-6(2), 6-1.

"This shows that we're both improving a lot, that's the good news," Johnson said.

"I agree with that," said Branstine, who has recently begun playing under the Canadian flag. "Taylor has been playing unbelievable and I think I'm playing pretty well."

Johnson said Friday's quarterfinal win over No. 12 seed Dominique Schaefer helped her against Black today.

"She's definitely a tricky player, but Dominique also slices a lot, so I got used to it, and I knew what I was in for," said Johnson, who had both Rosie Casals and Billie Jean King watching her match today. "I think I played the best I've played so far here, so I'm happy about that."

Branstine squandered a break in the opening set against Bolton and went on to drop the tiebreaker, and she was broken in the opening game of the second set.  When she failed to convert her break point, allowing Bolton to hold for 4-2, Branstine yelled out, "you're done."

She was wrong, of course. She was not done, breaking Bolton at 4-3, only to lose her serve in the next game, giving Bolton an opportunity to serve for the match.  Bolton went up 30-0, but missed a couple of forehands and double faulted at 30-40 to make it 5-all. In her next service game, Bolton had to save three set points, but she forced the tiebreaker. Branstine took advantage of poor play by Bolton to take a 6-0 lead and then closed out the set, more than two hours after the match had begun.

As for her announcement that she was done, Branstine said she didn't mean it as it sounded.

"I don't think everyone took that the right way," Branstine said. "I meant I'm done not playing the way I want to play. I came out today--it's been a good tournament, I've been playing pretty well--and it wasn't the same level as the other matches. I told myself how badly I wanted to win today and I put my head down and figured out how to win. Credit to Elysia, too. That's some of the best tennis I've seen her play."

Branstine admitted that Bolton's level did fall in the third set.

"I think in the third set it was kind of survival of the fittest," said Branstine. "I think I ended up just being the fitter player and outplayed her at the end. She was making kind of a lot of loose mistakes, so I tried to take advantage of that as much as I could."

Branstine has beaten Johnson all five times they have played in ITF junior events, with only one of those not going three sets.

"It's obviously going to be a great match," Branstine said. "We always have very, very competitive matches, no matter what the score is. Playing Taylor, it's always going to be fun."

The boys finals will feature No. 3 seed Gianni Ross and No. 10 seed Alexandre Rotsaert, after both continued their straight-sets march through the draw.

Rotsaert defeated unseeded Axel Nefve 6-4, 6-3 to reach his first Grade 1 final.

"I'm really happy," said the 17-year-old Floridian. "That training block I did, I didn't think I was going to get the final, I was just hoping to play well. I've played Clay Courts finals twice, Kalamazoo (16s) final and those didn't turn out great, so I'm trying to avenge that a bit."

Ross got past friend and fellow USTA training partner Oliver Crawford, the No. 5 seed, 7-6(5), 6-1, saving six set points serving at 5-6 in the opening set.

"It was a little bit of luck and a little bit of guts," Ross said. "That first set was just brutal. I felt like he was just there, and it's annoying when someone's there every point, wanting to win just as much as you. I was very lucky how I got out of those, I made the ball in the court; I don't think I hit a single winner on any of those. They were all tight, and you can feel it on those big points."

Ross actually did hit a good first serve and forehand putaway to save the sixth set point, but Crawford did make errors, most of them of the unforced variety, on the rest.

Crawford took a 3-0 lead in the tiebreaker, but missed a couple of forehands to give back the minibreaks and Ross converted his first set point when Crawford missed a volley.

"There was a drop off, a big difference from the first set," said Ross, an 18-year-old who now lives and trains in Florida. "It still felt like it was hard. Oliver is very good, I'm not going to take anything away from his game. He beat me the last time we played, and I know how he plays, he knows how I play, so we're out there just battling."

Ross won his previous meeting with Rotsaert earlier this year at the Grade 1 Banana Bowl 6-2, 7-5.

"It was a very tough match," Ross said. "It was close, all these matches I'm playing now are close."

"We had a good match," Rotsaert said. "It was one of those matches where the score did not really indicate the match. But I know him pretty well, and it will be fun, a fun final."

While that may turn out to be true, it's unlikely to be as exciting as the boys 16 final, which saw twists and turns galore before unseeded Siem Woldeab beat No. 6 seed Andrew Dale 4-6, 7-6(4), 7-6(7).

Dale served for the match at 6-5 in the second set, but never got closer than deuce, with Woldeab hitting a forehand winner and Dale missing a forehand wide to send the set to a tiebreaker. Several points in the tiebreaker had the fans scattered around court 5 gasping then applauding, and although he lost one such lengthy point to go down 4-2, Dale said "great playing" to Woldeab as they changed ends. Woldeab went on to claim the next two points as well, claiming the set on his second set point, with Dale netting a forehand.

Woldeab called for a trainer at the end of the set, receiving treatment on his back, but he quickly took a 5-2 lead.  Serving for the match, Woldeab began to show signs that his back was inhibiting his serve and his movement, and Dale pummeled a second serve to earn a break point, which he converted.

Woldeab had a match point in the next game at 30-40, but Dale saved it with a soft drop volley that Woldeab couldn't reach and went on to hold.

Serving for the match for a second time at 5-4, Woldeab made four unforced errors to lose the game, and his recovery seemed doubtful. Dale held easily to take a 6-5 lead, and Woldeab's prospects looked bleak, but he played an excellent game to hold and force a tiebreaker.

Woldeab continued to play well, and Dale matched his level, taking a 5-3 lead in the tiebreaker when Woldeab missed a drop shot badly.  But Woldeab followed with a backhand winner, and when Dale missed a passing shot, it was 5-all.  A Woldeab double fault, a rare occurrence throughout the match, gave Dale a match point, but he missed a forehand volley after a lengthy rally.  After a great lob, Woldeab had his second match point at 7-6, but Dale saved it with a backhand volley winner.  Woldeab hit a backhand that forced an error on the next point to give himself a third match point, and this time he converted when Dale's shot found the net, giving Woldeab the championship.

Woldeab said he had been having trouble with his back throughout the week.

"My back was giving me problems all week," said the high school sophomore from the San Diego area. "Today in the second set breaker, I think I pulled it a little bit and in the third set I was a bit sluggish. It was a really close one, but I happened to just pull it through."

Dale said he did what he could to take advantage after Woldeab had called for the trainer.

"When the trainer was called, I definitely saw," said the 15-year-old from Virginia. "I was maybe looking to step in a little bit, but he came out playing a different brand of tennis and I had to adapt to that. He was struggling on his serve and put a lot of spin on it, dropped it a little bit short, which made it hard for me to attack, which I had done really well in the first set."

Woldeab could have been worn down by another long three-setter, this one three hours in length, but he had beaten both No. 10 seed Leighton Allen and No. 5 seed Faris Khan in the quarterfinals and semifinals from a set down, so he had a history of success under those circumstances.

"The match is not won in the first set, it's the entirety of the match," said Woldeab, who does not play ITF tournaments, sticking to Southern California sectional and USTA events. "Just because you lose the first set, there's no need to panic. It means to just keep pushing and fighting harder."

Although obviously disappointed in the result, Dale was satisfied with how he competed.

"It was really tight, and it could have gone either way," Dale said. "I'm happy that I hung in and fought when I was down in the third set. Previously, I've gotten down on myself and I was happy just to hang in there and keep fighting.  A few points made the difference, he just won the ones that mattered the most.  In the tiebreak, we both played some of the best and toughest points we played in the entire match."

Both Woldeab and Dale are playing the Easter Bowl, which starts on Monday for the 16s division. Woldeab is the No. 3 seed and Dale is seeded number four; if they play there it will also be in the final.

The boys doubles final was decided on Saturday evening, after the semifinals were played Saturday afternoon.  No. 4 seeds Sebastian Korda and Colombian Nicolas Mejia won the title, beating unseeded Boris Kozlov and Karl Poling 6-7(4), 6-4, 10-2.  Kozlov and Poling had taken out top seeds Trent Bryde and Duarte Vale of Portugal 7-5, 4-6, 10-4 earlier.

Korda and Mejia had also won their quarterfinal and semifinal matches in a deciding tiebreaker, having also lost the first set in both of those victories. Against unseeded Christian Alshon and Tyler Zink in the semifinals, Korda and Mejia posted a 4-6, 6-0, 10-7 victory.

"We've played well in the tiebreakers, I don't think we've played well in the first sets," said Mejia. "We've started a little slow, but when you've got a good partner like Sebi, everything is easy."

"We always shine in third set breakers," said Korda. "We have unbelievable chemistry, we're best friends off court and we play well together."

Korda and Mejia had lost their last two Grade 1 finals, in College Park last August and in Tulsa's Grade B1 last October.

"It's a pretty good record, getting to the finals," said Mejia. "This time, we were lucky to win in the third. They played really well, they move a lot and make some volleys, so it was tough, really tough."

Mejia, who trains at the IMG Academy, is not eligible to compete in the Easter Bowl, so Korda will be playing with Vasil Kirkov. Korda and Kirkov reached the finals in Indian Wells last year.

The girls doubles final will be played after the singles final on Sunday, with Branstine competing in both.  Branstine and Ellie Douglas, the No. 1 seeds, will play No. 5 seeds Emiliana Arango of Colombia and Elli Mandlik.  Branstine and Douglas rolled past No. 7 seeds Black and Imani Graham 6-2, 6-1, while Arango and Mandlik took out No. 2 seeds Natasha Subhash and Caty McNally 6-4, 4-6, 10-7.

Both singles finals are scheduled for 9 a.m. on Sunday, with the girls doubles final not before 11:30 a.m.

See the ITF junior website for the draws.