Sunday, December 10, 2017

Osuigwe Claims Orange Bowl Title to End Stellar 2017; France's Gaston Wins Boys Championship

©Colette Lewis 2017--
Plantation, FL--

When Whitney Osuigwe won her 62nd ITF Junior Circuit match of 2017 Sunday with a 6-1, 6-2 win over Margaryta Bilokin in the Grade A Orange Bowl final, her celebration was muted.  The 15-year-old from Bradenton Florida had long since clinched the title of ITF World Junior Champion, and after winning the Eddie Herr singles and doubles title last week, an off-season, even a brief one, was an enticing prospect.

"I'm going to take a couple of days, maybe 10 days off," said the top-seeded Osuigwe, who lost only nine matches in 2017 ITF Junior competition. "And then I'm going to start my preseason."

A year ago, just two years removed from her Junior Orange Bowl 12s title, Osuigwe reached the semifinals of the ITF Grade A Orange Bowl, kick-starting a run that saw her ITF ranking go from 111 at the end of last year all the way to No. 1.

"I had a couple of good wins and got a lot of confidence back," said  Osuigwe, who picked up a victory over Marta Kostyuk of Ukraine, who went on to win the Australian Open girls title the following month. "After that, I did preseason, I got better, obviously stronger. I worked on my serve, movement, everything."

The conditions for Sunday's final at the Veltri Tennis Center were decidedly not tropical, with temperatures in the 50s and winds in the 10-15 mph range, although the clear skies were a pleasant change from the drizzle and low clouds of Saturday evening.

Osuigwe, the reigning French Open girls champion, had gotten off to a slow start in her semifinal win over No. 9 seed Joanna Garland of Taiwan, trailing 5-2 in the first set before recovering to post a 7-6(5), 6-2 victory, so she was determined to avoid a similar mistake Sunday morning.

"It was pretty cold today, so I had a good long warmup today so I could get used to it," said Osuigwe, who prefers the more typical Florida heat to what she faced during the weekend. "Today was super windy, and I think I dealt with it better than she did."

Neither player showed signs of nerves in the opening three games, all of which went to deuce, but Osuigwe prevailed in each one.

"I had a lot of game points the first three games," said Bilokin, a 16-year-old from Ukraine. "I was actually playing well and then after that, I feel I lost a little bit of confidence towards the end of the first set. She was playing well, she was going for her shots."

Bilokin, who was playing in her first Grade A final, having gotten her first win at a Grade A this week, recognized the value of Osuigwe's experience in playing big points.

"That's why she's world No. 1," said Bilokin, who, like Osuigwe, trains at the IMG Academy in Bradenton. "Because those points, when it's deuce, on critical important points, she plays really well. That's why she's No. 1, that's why she won the tournament, that's why she's been doing well lately. I feel I stayed in the points, kept up with her pace pretty well, but probably the mental aspect of the game, those game points, were very critical."

Bilokin, who has committed to Duke for 2019 and said her result this week doesn't impact that decision, dropped the opening game of the second set. When she was unable to convert a break point in Osuigwe's service game, a win for the ITF No. 1 began to feel inevitable.

A second break in a deuce game gave Osuigwe a 4-1 lead, and although Bilokin held to force Osuigwe to serve it out, Osuigwe was able to finish her year and her Orange Bowl career by converting her third match point.

"I'm really happy," said Osuigwe, who is coached by her father Desmond. "I've always done pretty well here, getting to the semis last year and winning the time I played before that. I was really excited to win this tournament and finish off my junior career.  Maybe this is my last junior match, I don't know, but to finish off my junior career like this, that's amazing."

Osuigwe, the first girl to win the Eddie Herr and Orange Bowl titles in the same year since Ana Konjuh of Croatia did it in 2012, will start 2018 on the USTA Pro Circuit at the $25,000 events in Florida next month, and is already looking forward to making her WTA debut at the Miami Open in March.  But before she begins building her WTA ranking, she has a more pressing teenage concern: car shopping in advance of her 16th birthday in April.

Hugo Gaston of France, the No. 11 seed, and unseeded Dostanbek Tashbulatov of Kazakhstan had both reached the final after grueling semifinal wins on Saturday. Gaston needed over three hours to get past top seed Timofey Skatov of Russia 7-6(5), 6-7(6), 7-5, while Tashbulatov had beaten unseeded Daniel Michalski of Poland 6-3, 1-6, 6-4, after also going three sets in his third round and quarterfinal victories.  There would not be a fourth straight marathon victory for Tashbulatov, who fell to Gaston 6-2, 6-3.

When your legs are gone from three consecutive fatigue-inducing matches, Gaston is not the opponent you want to see across the net. The ultra quick left-hander has one of the most devastating drop shots on the ITF Junior Circuit and he used it to physically and mentally exhaust Tashbulatov.

"I just played how I can, but it was too tough, I couldn't move," said the 17-year-old Tashbulatov, who was playing in his first ITF Grade A tournament this week. "I wanted to play another, better game in the final, that's why I'm a little bit disappointed. He has one of the best drop shots and today, I wasn't fast."

Both sets started similarly, with each player getting a hold, then Tashbulatov getting broken.  In the second set, Gaston was down 15-40 serving at 2-1, but Tashbulatov could not convert either of those two break points, one of which Gaston saved with an untouchable drop shot.

Tashbulatov held his next two service games to make it 4-3, but Gaston, who didn't drop serve in the match, held for 5-3 and a weary Tashbulatov was broken at love to end it.

Gaston, the first boys champion from France since Gianni Mina in 2009, was able to fight off the fatigue by concentrating on the finish line.

"I'm a little tired," admitted the 17-year-old from Toulouse, who was playing in his first Grade A final. "But it's my last match of the year, so I said, we don't care, go."

Gaston admits that he enjoys having such an effective weapon in his drop shot.

"Yeah, I love this shot," said Gaston. "The backhand too, but the drop shot, yeah, I love it."

Gaston, who lost in the first round of the Eddie Herr last week, said he didn't expect to win the tournament, with his previous best ITF Junior Circuit result reaching the finals of Grade 1s in January and July.

"But I think I play good tournament," said Gaston, who had collected one win in his four previous Grade A tournaments. "I won a Grade A, so I am very happy, and maybe this is not the last one. I hope I win some, in grand slams."

Both players are taking some time off, with Tashbulatov doing his preseason training in nearby Delray Beach, while Gaston heads back to France, with both planning to play the Australian Open Junior Championships in January.

The boys doubles title went to the Czech team of Tomas Machac and Ondrej Styler.  The No. 2 seeds defeated top seeds Nicolas Mejia of Colombia and Uisung Park of Korea 6-4, 6-4.

"We've played together just a few times, but I think we're a good pair," Styler said. "He proved it this tournament, so I think we'll keep playing together."

"He has a better forehand and I have a better backhand," Machac said, when asked why they proved to be such a good team this week. "He has a good serve, I have a good return. It's perfect."

Machac and Styler, both 17, were taken to a match tiebreaker just once, in their quarterfinal win over Andrew Fenty and William Woodall, yet even a straight-sets victory over the top seeds wasn't overly impressive to Styler.

"I think we played good, nothing unreal special, but it was a good performance," said Styler. "We adapt well to the weather and played good in the windy conditions. We are happy to win this event."

The 71st Orange Bowl closed with the girls doubles final, won by Joanna Garland of Taiwan and Naho Sato of Japan.  The No. 2 seeds defeated No. 4 seeds Yasmine Mansouri and Yuki Naito of Japan 6-4, 6-3, winning three of the four deciding deuce points in the second set.

Although Garland and Sato were playing together for the first time, they had already formed the bond they needed.

"She's my best friend," said Sato, 16, who reached the Eddie Herr doubles final with Thailand's Thasaporn Naklo. "We had to enjoy. We keep communicating, keep the chemistry going."

"We were good friends before," said Garland, also 16, on how they got together for this event. "We knew today would be a tough one, and we were prepared for it. Yesterday was a bit shaky (a 6-4, 1-6 11-9 win over Selma Cadar of Romania and Himari Sato of Japan), but we relaxed. I think the chemistry got better throughout the week. We played well; they might have been a bit nervous, but we thought our tactics through."

For complete draws, see the USTA's tournament page.