Sunday, March 26, 2017

Rotsaert Claims International ITF Grade 1 Spring Championships Boys Title, Branstine Sweeps Girls Titles; Easter Bowl Grade B1 Qualifying Complete

©Colette Lewis 2017--
Carson, CA--

Carson Branstine and Alexandre Rotsaert were competing in their first Grade 1 finals Sunday morning at the International Spring Championships, and both left the Stubhub Center with their first titles. No. 2 seed Branstine defeated top seed Taylor Johnson 6-4, 6-3, while No. 10 seed Rotsaert took out No. 3 seed Gianni Ross 6-3, 6-3.

Rotsaert's record in important finals was not a good one, with the 17-year-old Floridian settling for the silver ball in the 18s Clay Courts the past two years and the Kalamazoo 16s in 2015.

"I was trying to go out and just play well," Rotsaert said.  "In those last finals, one of those against Sam (Riffice), I started out well but the others I started out pretty bad, so I went out there with the mentality of playing my game and playing aggressive."

Rotsaert worked through his nerves in the first game, held in the second game, and after saving a break point in the sixth game, won the final three games of the set, ending it with a forehand volley.

"I've been practicing coming in and stepping forward," said Rotsaert, who didn't lose more than four games in any set his six victories and was not broken in the final. "I think at 1-all in the second, I had two break points against me, and I hit two really good volleys, one a reaching drop shot volley I was really happy with.  What was good, was when I got a bit nervous, and started making a couple of unforced errors, I was able to calm myself down and use my techniques to really let myself play."

Rotsaert's level was such that Ross was not particularly disappointed in his own play.

"He played really well, it was a good day for him," Ross said. "He hit me off the court, finished points, did well at the net, served well, it was a very solid match from him.  It was tough for me to pressure him. He was always on me, always making me play one extra shot. I'm not going to say I played bad, maybe a little bit too many errors, but I played well."

With the title, Rotsaert has boosted his chances of playing in the junior slams this summer, in his final year of eligibility.

"We'll see in the rankings, I didn't really calculate," said Rotsaert. "But this was pretty much my last tournament, this  and Easter Bowl was my last chance, so I'm really happy I stepped up this tournament. If I wasn't going to be in the main [draw], I wasn't going to go to Europe, I think I was going to maybe focus on Futures, so I'm really happy to have the opportunity and honor to play those tournaments."

Ross is defending champion at the Easter Bowl, and he knows that carries extra weight.

"I'm a little depressed right now, obviously when you lose," Ross said. "But I'll be better by Easter Bowl. I'll learn from my mistakes in this match and move on. I'm defending a lot there, so I'll be playing with a little more pressure, maybe I'll play better with that pressure. It's a new tournament."

Rotsaert, after finishing in first, not second as he did in those other major finals, is determined to go into the Easter Bowl unfazed by this week's title.

"I don't really feel different," Rotsaert said. "When you think of winning a tournament, you think it's going to be amazing, but it doesn't change anything, and it's the same when you lose. Your life doesn't change, that's something I learned. So I'll go to Easter Bowl, try to take tomorrow off--I think I'm getting a Tuesday start--and hopefully take it match by match and try to start again."

Branstine was not only playing in her first Grade 1 final, but also her first tournament as a Canadian.  The 16-year-old Orange California native, whose mother is Canadian, accepted Tennis Canada's offer of assistance last year, and the paperwork was recently completed, resulting in the Maple Leaf flag next to her name.  Her rivalries will still be with US juniors however, given her Southern California roots, and she was playing her friend Taylor Johnson for the sixth time today.

Branstine had won all five previous encounters on the ITF Junior Circuit, with all but one of those matches going three sets, and it looked as if another one would go the distance when Johnson took a 3-1 lead in the second set.  But Branstine reeled off the final five games of the match, using her serve and forehand to maximum advantage.

In the opening set, neither player faced a break point until Johnson faced a set point serving at 4-5 30-40.  Johnson had served and volleyed regularly and effectively, no doubt determined to try a different strategy to get a win over Branstine.  But she missed a volley to drop the first set, and by then Branstine had begun to adjust her game.

"She probably wanted to keep the points short as much as she could," Branstine said. "I thought that was smart. It's something she's really, really good at and has mastered in her game. She does it better than most girls that play tennis, I think. So it definitely wasn't easy, but I kind of figured out how to get the point started, and to break her."

"That's kind of my game style, so I have to stick to it during the match," Johnson said, although she had not used it as consistently in her previous matches this tournament. "I didn't serve as well in the second set, as I did in the first, so it was easier to break."

Johnson, a 16-year-old left-hander from nearby Redondo Beach, couldn't cite any specific reason why Branstine has won so many of their meetings.

"She's just a good player all around," said Johnson, whose rivalry with Branstine goes back to the 12s division. "We've gone back and forth, back and forth. She's come out on top the last times, and today, I think she just played too good."

Branstine can be her own harshest critic, but she didn't find much to fault in her performance Sunday.

"I'm happy with the way I played," said Branstine. "There's of course a few things I'd like to improve on, but that's every match. I thought I served well."

Johnson agreed that facet of Branstine's game was a key factor in the result.

"Carson was serving really well, I have to give her a lot of credit," said Johnson, who is coached by former WTA star Rosie Casals, and had Billie Jean King watching her semifinal and final performances. "She came out firing and she played really well."

Johnson moves on to the Easter Bowl, but Branstine, although eligible to play the  ITF B1 Closed event next week in the desert, is returning to Montreal to train.  She'll do so having won both girls championships, closing out the tournament by taking the doubles title with Ellie Douglas.

The top seeds, playing together for the first time, defeated No. 5 seeds Emiliana Arango of Colombia and Elli Mandlik 6-1, 6-1 in the final, needing just over 50 minutes.

Douglas and Branstine were dominant all week, losing only 20 games in their five wins, with nine of those games coming in a 7-6(1), 6-3 quarterfinal win over Annette Goulak and Dominique Schaefer of Peru.

"Honestly, I think we just have great energy on the court," said Branstine, who reached the doubles final last year with Johnson. "We really get along, hit the ball pretty big, so it works really well."

"This is definitely my favorite partner that I've ever had," said Douglas, a 16-year-old from Texas. "She has a great serve and I love my volleys, so it's a good combo. And she's just so fun to play with. We had a great time."

Douglas and Branstine are planning to play together next at the Grade A Italian Open in May.

See the ITF junior website for complete draws.

The Easter Bowl begins on Monday, and although the draws are not yet posted on the ITF junior website, the qualifying is complete. Those results are below.