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Sunday, December 13, 2020

Wild Card Krueger Claims Second Straight Orange Bowl Title; Unseeded Fils Defeats Top Seed Fajta to Capture Boys Championship

Ashlyn Krueger did not know the game of Jana Kolodynska of Belarus, her opponent in the Orange Bowl final Sunday morning at the Veltri Tennis Center in Plantation Florida. But the 16-year-old wild card proved a quick study, taking the championship match 6-4, 6-4 to earn her first Grade A title in just her second Grade A tournament.

Both Krueger and Kolodynska had reached the finals of the Orange Bowl last year, with Krueger winning the 16s and Kolodynska falling to Robin Montgomery in the 18s, so neither could claim an advantage there, but their contrasting game styles made for an intriguing final. In the battle between Kolodynska's defense and Krueger's offense, it was Krueger who prevailed, drawing on the maturity she has gained in the past 12 months.

"In the beginning I had to figure it out," said Krueger, who broke Kolodynska in the fifth game, then defended her own serve in three consecutive lengthy games to close out the first set. "But I remembered, I have time, I have time to figure it out. She threw a lot up, so I could hit swinging volleys, volleys. She hits really good lobs, on the back of the line every single time, so I didn't want to get pushed back too much. I had to move forward and figure it out."

Krueger said that her tennis didn't change much over the course of the week, which included wins over the No. 16 seed, the No. 2 seed and Kolodynska, the No. 7 seed, but that her mindset did.

"I think I found a level of fight I didn't know I had, if that makes sense," Krueger said. "In these matches, from the very first one. In the 16s, I kind of worked my way in, but the first match (this week) was tough, and I wasn't used to that. I think it's just mentality now....Last year I did get way more upset than I did this year. And for me, it's really about staying positive. Because when I get negative, I don't play well."

Krueger needed all of those newly acquired skills in the final three games of the match, when she had built a 5-1 lead. Kolodynska held for 5-2, then broke Krueger for just the second time in the match. At 5-3, Kolodynska faced downed a match point to hold, putting the pressure right back on Krueger as she served for the championship for the second time. Although she never faced a break point in the game, Krueger was unable to convert her first three ads. On the fourth, she went big, using the strategy that had proven effective earlier in the match.

"I hit a kick serve and we just had a very long point," Krueger said. "She hit a lob, and I just decided to come in, and I hit a swinging volley."

Krueger was not frustrated by her own play on the preceding opportunities to end the match.

"She played good points on those match points," said Krueger, the first player since Canadian Bianca Andreescu in 2014 and 2015 to win the Orange Bowl 16s and 18s titles back to back. "She didn't quit; she played really well. She's a tough player." 

Kolodynska, who spoke after the match with coach Pavel Kotliarov serving as translator, was determined stay in the match as long as she could, even though the physical and mental strains from beating France's Elsa Jacquemot, the ITF Junior No. 1, in Saturday's semifinal took a toll Sunday.

"She's a fighter so she says she always plays no matter what's happening; so fight, fight, win doesn't matter," said Kotliarov. "If you are on the court, it's a good day. Physically, she had two matches, three sets, three hours every time, so today was tough to play physically, difficult to be ready with full power today. Yesterday, she played amazing, beat first in the world, and it's hard to play next day. It's tennis, sometimes you are up, sometimes down."

Kolodynska also credited Krueger for her play in the final.

"Ashlyn is good, good attack, good thinking, mentally good, aggressive," Kolodynska said. "Congratulations to Ashlyn, keep going."

Returning to a junior tournament as a finalist is rare, but Kotliarov said Kolodynska was eager to make the trip back to Plantation this year, despite all the new pandemic protocols in place.

"I want to take the trophy, I want to take first place," Kotliarov said Kolodynska told him. "We have to go, we must go again. I like to play in America, I like America organization, courts, everything. I love America, I want to come, I want to play, I want to be here."

Kolodynska, who as a 17-year-old has one more year of ITF Junior competition remaining, expects to compete in any junior slams that are held in 2021, and begin playing more lower level ITF World Tennis Tour events. 

Krueger, the fourth straight American girl to win the Orange Bowl title, has set a goal that can't happen now until this coming summer, with the 2021 Australian Open Junior Championships recently canceled.

"I would love to play a junior slam," said Krueger, who has been working with Dave Licker at the Lakes Tennis Academy in Frisco Texas for the past 18 months. "That's been a goal of mine for a really long time. Any of them, I'm not picky."

While Krueger has yet to play her first junior slam, boys champion Arthur Fils owes his Orange Bowl title to his performance at his initial appearance in one, when he received a wild card into October's French Open and won two rounds, earning enough points to assure the 16-year-old's entry into the main draw this week.

Fils, unseeded, took full advantage of that opportunity, surprising top seed Peter Fajta of Hungary 6-1, 4-6, 6-2 in Sunday's final.

Fajta had needed over two-and-a-half hours to get by another unseeded French 16-year-old, Luca Van Assche, in the semifinals, and both players considered that a factor Sunday.

"I was a little bit tired today because I played a very long match yesterday," said the 18-year-old Fajta, who trailed 6-1, 3-0 before holding serve for the first time. "I tried to fight for every point, and I'm very happy that I can win the second set. I'm a bit upset after this match, because I lost, but I think my opponent played very good today, so I have to say congratulations for him and his team also."

While acknowledging Fajta's tough semifinal match, which was followed by the doubles final Saturday, won by Fajta and Zsombor Velcz, Fils was not happy with his own concentration after an easy first set.

"Yes, he was tired," agreed Fils, who does speak English, but not fluently. "I was winning 6-1, 3-0 and then I did some bullshits. I made some mistakes. But in the third set, I was focused, and that was good."

One reason that Fils, who defeated the No. 3, No. 8, No. 12 and No. 1 seeds, was able to play so freely throughout his six wins, was his victory in the first round, after facing a match point against American wild card Michael Zheng.

"I played an opponent who was playing very, very well," Fils said (in French on the Zoom call, which was translated for me by a friend). "And when I saved the match point, I told myself maybe this is where it all kicks in. Maybe this is the moment to take the match and go all the way. With every round, I felt better and better. I had some good rounds; some of them were complicated. But I was quite confident with each match I played."

Fils, who had never played a tournament above the Grade 4 level on the ITF Junior Circuit prior to the French Open two months ago, may not have had the experience of some of his opponents this week, but he has always set ambitious goals.

"I always told myself I wanted to win a junior Grand Slam before turning pro," said Fils, who won his first ITF Junior Circuit tournament, a Grade 4, in September. "So it doesn’t change my goals. I’m just going to continue on the right path, let’s say."

Although Fils had not been one of the top French boys coming into the event, he has now raised his profile among  a talented group of juniors from that country. In addition to Australian Open champion and 2020's ITF World Junior champion Harold Mayot, there is AO boys finalist Arthur Cazaux, who won a $15,000 ITF Pro Circuit tournament today, and five other French boys in the Top 50. ITF No. 52 Sean Cuenin, who reached the Orange Bowl quarterfinals, and semifinalist Van Assche, both 16, will continue to provide Fils with accomplished training partners, even as the older players move into the pro ranks.

"It’s super positive," Fils said of the competitive environment surrounding his peers. "We see one play well and we say to ourselves, ‘Let’s go. We can do just as well.’ Especially this year, I find that we’ve all played quite well. Harold, who won a Grand Slam. Sean, who also played well. It's given us all a push because we train together a lot."

As with all competitive tennis players, Fils is not sure of his 2021 schedule, especially give his unanticipated success this week.

"My goal next year is to try to play all the junior Grand Slams," said Fils, who traveled to the tournament with French federation coach Tarik Benhabiles, who owned a junior academy in South Florida for many years. "In terms of my ranking, it’ll be fine. But I don’t want to get too hung up on the juniors; maybe I’ll move on to the Futures. But I’ll discuss that with my coach."

For the full draws, see the tournament website.