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Sunday, December 2, 2018

Mejia and Zheng Earn Eddie Herr International ITF Grade 1 Titles; USA Team Reclaims Master'U Title; Andreev and Gauff Top Seeds as Orange Bowl Begins Monday

©Colette Lewis 2018--
Bradenton FL--

In 2014, Nicolas Mejia won the Eddie Herr International Championships 14s title, the most significant accomplishment of his budding junior career. On Sunday, the 18-year-old Colombian closed out his junior career with the Eddie Herr ITF title, defeating No. 16 seed Emilio Nava of the United States 6-2, 6-4 on a warm and breezy afternoon at the IMG Academy.

Mejia gave an emotional speech after the match, thanking all those at the IMG Academy who have helped him in the years he has lived and trained there. But as happy as he was to have bookended his career with Eddie Herr titles, he missed sharing the second one with his father, who died early last year.

"Four years ago I won it here and my dad was really happy," Mejia said. "He's not here with me anymore; I just get used to it, but it hurts. But I was just happy I was able to play in my home in IMG, and being able to win the tournament means a lot to me."

Meija, seeded No. 2, started both sets with a break of serve, so Nava was always in the position of needing to come up with winners, a tricky position with the gusty winds that strengthened during the afternoon.

"He has a really big game and in these conditions, it's really tough to play that kind of game," Mejia said. "It was really windy and the conditions didn't really favor him at all. They were not helping him, but I don't think he played his best either. He played better during the week, but I can't control that. The conditions, they worked a little bit better on my side than on his side."

Nava agreed, yet didn't feel the wind was the whole story.

"My ball, the wind slows it down a lot, and I don't really like that, plus the clay, but no, it's definitely been tough the last couple of days, and that's tennis, you know?"

Nava said Mejia's all-around game and impressive defense contributed to his subpar performance.

"He's a great player and he makes every ball in, makes you play two more, not even one more," said the Los Angeles resident, who was celebrating his 17th birthday in the Eddie Herr final. "I started rushing a bit, I felt I had to work for every point, make winners on every point, because he wasn't going to miss a shot. I was kind of doubting a bit, but I still wanted to compete, of course. I didn't really step up to the occasion for sure."

After going down a break to open the second set, Nava broke right back, and he could envision another comeback, having dropped the first set in both the quarterfinals and semifinals on Friday and Saturday. But Mejia kept the pressure on in Nava's service games, earning at least one break point in the fifth and seventh games, then breaking Nava at love at 4-4.

"He's a good returner, doesn't miss one, makes you play every single one," Nava said. "[My service games] were pretty tough, I had to fight for every one."

Mejia had to save two break points in the final game of the match, with two big serves and a drop shot winner earning him a first match point. He hit another big serve that was called out by the sideline umpire, but the chair quickly moved to check the mark, and before he could get there, Nava conceded the ace and the match.

After playing four weeks in a row, winning a Futures tournament in the first week and the Eddie Herr in the fourth week, Mejia doesn't regret his failure to enter the Orange Bowl quite as much as he might have.

"Honestly, I didn't sign up and the plan was I was supposed to play [Orange Bowl], but all these four weeks, I've won like 15, 16 matches and I don't remember the last time I did that," Meija said. "I'm tired because I've played a lot of matches and that means I've won a good amount of matches, but I'm hurt a little bit in my back and my Achilles tendon, but I take it as it is now. I won this last junior tournament so I'm very happy and I look forward to whatever's coming."

Nava is moving on to the Orange Bowl in Plantation next week, with his expectations high.

"I'm pretty confident for sure," said Nava, who is coached by his mother Xochitl. "And physically, I feel fine, prepared for this, but it is awfully tough on the body, so I'm just going to go out there and compete."

The girls final was a three-hour marathon, with No. 2 seed Qinwen Zheng of China defeating No. 5 seed Elli Mandlik of the United States 6-7(5), 6-4, 6-2.

Zheng, known as Ana to her English-speaking colleagues, came into the tournament lacking in confidence and reluctant to play the event after losing in the first round of the Grade 1 in Campeche and the second round of the Grade A in Yucatan.

"After I lose second round at Grade A, I don't want to play Eddie Herr, because I lose all my confidence then," said the 16-year-old, who is a client at IMG and will remain at the Academy for off-season training. "My agent from IMG and my team from ITF and my mom, they said, you can do it, keep going, you are a really good player."

Zheng said her own low expectations helped her in the her opening match with USTA Girls 18s Clay Court champion Emma Navarro, a 6-1, 6-0 display of high-level tennis.

"I think, just relax, because you're already so bad, it can't be more worse," Zheng said. "The first match make me so surprised, and the second match, I thought maybe I can do something better. I lose first set, but I fight and I continue and then before the final, all the matches are easy."

Zheng brought something of the same attitude to bear in the final, when she led 5-2 in the tiebreaker, but saw Mandlik streak by her with five straight points, that results a combination of Zheng errors and Mandlik winners.

"After the first set, I think both of us are tired," Zheng said of the 87-minute set. "We started to miss much more than the first set and the rhythm started to go down. But after the first set, I can be more relaxed, because I lose already. So I need to focus and I need to fight much more than her."

Zheng went up 4-1 in the second set, served for it at 5-3, and didn't get to set point, but Mandlik couldn't quite pull even. She was broken at love with Zheng hitting a deft drop shot winner on her first set point, a shot that betrayed no fatigue or doubt.

The third set began with four consecutive breaks of serve, with Zheng getting the first hold and taking the final four games of the match from the tiring Mandlik.

"I couldn't even sit down on the last changeover, my leg would have gave out," said the 17-year-old daughter of Hana Mandlikova, who is coached by Gabriel Trifu. "So I just stood up and went back to the next game. Usually when I get tired, my left leg gives out, and I don't really know why."

Mandlik was expecting the big-hitting Zheng to dictate the points in today's first meeting between the two, but said she was able to hold her own until she tired late in the match.

"I expected harder from her," said Mandlik, who is not going to college, but is concentrating instead on a pro tennis career. "I was at most of the balls, but when it got to the third set, I couldn't get to them anymore, so that's how she took over."

Although Mandlik's fatigue played a role in the third set, Zheng said that was not the only factor in her ability to win the final four games.

"It's about mental," said Zheng. "It's not about tactics or technique anymore. It's about who can fight more to get this match. I knew I can beat her, and it's really good for me, this win."

Both Zheng and Mandlik are heading to the Orange Bowl to close out the year, with Zheng the No. 2 seed and Mandlik seeded No. 7.

The Master'U BNP Paribas International Collegiate event in Grenoble France concluded today, with the team from the United States reclaiming the title with a 4-1 win over Great Britain. Last year the United States lost in the final to Great Britain, but avenged that loss this year, claiming its eighth title in ten years.  The members of the US team are Brandon Holt(USC), Oliver Crawford(Florida), Emil Reinberg(Georgia), Ashley Lahey(Pepperdine), Maria Mateas(Duke) and Jada Hart(UCLA).  Mateas and Hart saved four match points in the first doubles match to clinch the victory, after Lahey, Holt and Crawford had won singles matches.  Greg Patton and Cal's Amanda Augustus were the coaches for the team.  For more on the final, see the Master'U website.  Greg Patton's blog from the event can be found here.

The Orange Bowl main draw is already underway with matches in the 16s division today, and the 18s begin play on Monday at the Veltri Tennis Center in Plantation Florida.  Adrian Andreev of Bulgaria is the top seed in the boys draw, with Coco Gauff the No. 1 seed in the girls draw.

Qualifying was completed today with six US girls and two US boys reaching the main draw: Fiona Crawley(last year's 16s finalist), Ali Despain, Jaedan Brown, Jenna DeFalco, Hina Inoue, Abigail Forbes, Mark Mandlik and Neel Rajesh.  Alexis Blohkin received entry as a lucky loser.

I will be on site in Plantation Monday afternoon and throughout the week. The draws and order of play can be found at the tournament website. Live scoring is also available here.