Sunday, April 4, 2021

Top Seed Shang, Qualifier Hovde Claim Adidas Easter Bowl ITF Titles; Wild Cards Razeghi and Rabman Take 16s Championships

©Colette Lewis 2021
San Diego CA--

Top seed Jerry Shang added an Easter Bowl ITF title to the 14s title he won in 2019, while qualifier Liz Hovde earned her first career ITF title in one of the biggest events on the junior calendar Sunday on the Stadium Court at Barnes Tennis Center. Both came from behind to get those titles, with Shang defeating unseeded Ethan Quinn 6-7(5), 6-1, 6-2 and Hovde beating No. 3 seed Elvina Kalieva 4-6, 7-5, 6-1.

Hovde, who leaves San Diego on a nine-match winning streak, had dropped the first set in her quarterfinal match with Sarah Hamner on Friday, which provided her with a road map for coming back in the final.

"I had to start out super strong in the second and not let it get me down," said the 15-year-old from McKinney Texas, who was playing in just her fifth ITF event. "She has a really solid overall game style so you have to play the right way to beat her. I had to stay super aggressive on the baseline."

Hovde also stayed positive in another frustrating moment, when she failed to serve out the second set at 5-3, then didn't convert a set point with Kalieva serving at 4-5. But Hovde got back on track quickly, holding at love for a 6-5 lead, then breaking to even the match.

Hovde got off to a quick 3-0 lead in the third set, and she began to play more confidently with every winner she hit and every error Kalieva made.
Kalieva, who did not know Hovde's game prior to the match, regretted the strategy she chose.

"She played really good, obviously," said the 17-year-old from Florida. "I think I should have played more aggressively, she was playing very aggressively against me, and I think that's why she won. I was just putting balls back in instead of playing aggressively. I was hitting more balls in the middle and I think I should have made her move more, hit a lot deeper."

Kalieva was generous in her assessment of Hovde's game.

"I love how she plays," Kalieva said. "She hits a lot of winners, she's aggressive, I like it."

Hovde couldn't decide which was more important to her title, her physical stamina or her mental toughness. 

"I think I just stayed strong throughout the whole tournament," said Hovde, who trains with Phil Dent at his academy in the Dallas area. "I think I had nine matches in total, so I had to stay super strong. I had to keep playing every match and think really positive."

Even with all that matter-of-fact optimism and confidence, Hovde admitted some surprise as she looked back at what she accomplished over the past week.

"It's shocking," Hovde said. "It's crazy."

As the favorite, Shang could hardly call his second Easter Bowl title in three years unexpected, but he knew coming into the tournament after playing the Miami Open qualifying the week before that he would face some tough opponents.

"I'm like the one that everyone's focusing on," said Shang, currently No. 4 in the ITF World Junior rankings. "I'm really happy with the result this week and I played some really good tennis. Some of the Americans, they don't play outside the US, so they come to this tournament as qualifiers, or wild cards, or getting in by USTA ranking. But they're really good players; some of them, honestly, are better than the Top 50 in the ITF, so this is one of the toughest tournaments."

As in the third round, when he lost the opening set to wild card Rohan Murali of San Diego in a tiebreaker, Shang had to change his strategy.

"The most important thing is to make him play," said Shang, who played defense much better than Quinn's previous opponents. "He likes to have those free points on the serve, one serve, plus one forehand winner, those kind of points, so make him play as much as possible, and try to get him tired."

Shang served for the first set after breaking Quinn at 3-4, but didn't get to set point, then had to save two break points serving at 5-all. In the tiebreaker, serving was no advantage, but Quinn managed to hold both his serves at 4-5, and when Shang's backhand went wide, Quinn had the first set.

Shang's strategy to keep the ball in play and tire Quinn out began to pay dividends in the second set, with Quinn, who won the title at the IOSC Grade 1 last Saturday and had only one day to rest before his first Easter Bowl match Monday, showing signs of fatigue.

"In the second set, he started being negative after a few mistakes, and at that point, I know that I have a chance to keep going like this and he'll just keep making mistakes and I'll be able to break him soon," said the 16-year-old from China, who trains with Johnny Parkes at the IMG Academy in Bradenton Florida.

Quinn recognized that his self-criticism was making the hole he had dug himself even deeper.

"I felt good in the beginning, but I kind of got a little complacent after winning the first set," said the 17-year-old from Fresno. "I thought he would hand it over; Jerry was starting to play a lot better, and my attitude definitely got very very negative, which I'm not very proud of. Jerry just played too well, and I wasn't finding an answer to him, running down balls, even if I was hitting big forehands."

In the third set, Quinn was again broken early, going down 2-0, but he got the break back, and had game points serving at 1-2, only to surrender that game to Shang after five deuces.

"I was up 2-0, and then I started rushing again, like I was in the first set," Shang said. "Then I got my second set mentality back, making more balls, stepping in more aggressive. Overall it was pretty good in the third."
Shang said the feeling after winning an Easter Bowl title doesn't change.

"It's just as important as the 14s, and I'm just as happy," said Shang, who is the first boy to win the 14s and 18s since Mackenzie McDonald in 2009 and 2012. "It's a really important tournament and I'm very happy to win it."

Shang will head to Europe for clay court events this spring and summer, while Quinn is planning on playing a Grade 3 in Central America later this month. Shang's plans were always going to include the junior slams this summer, but Quinn's horizons on the junior tennis front have widened considerably after his 11-match winning streak this fortnight.

"That was something completely, not even on the table," Quinn said of the possibility he could qualify for junior slams this year. "I wasn't even thinking about it when I came into the tournament. It's definitely crazy. But I can compete with anyone on the other side of the court, it doesn't matter their ranking or anything like that, I can still play my game and if I'm doing that I can beat anyone really."

The boys and girls 16s singles finals were played at the same time as the girls 18s final, with wild cards Alexander Razeghi and Theodora Rabman earning their first Easter Bowl titles.  Razeghi defeated the last Southern Californian left in the tournament, wild card Learner Tien 7-5, 6-1, while Rabman beat No. 4 seed Tatum Evans 6-2, 6-1.

Razeghi and Tien, two left-handers with big games, were able to bring out the best in each other during the first set.

"He's more of a hard-hitter, finding his forehand a lot," said Razeghi, a 14-year-old from Houston. "I'm more of a grinder, but finding my forehand; it was a good match because both of our games kind of link together, so it was really fun. One time, at the changeover, it was like 5-4 maybe, I was like, this is really good tennis, I was like, wow."

Once he secured the first set, Razeghi was able to play with less anxiety.

"It was good for me to get that first set, because that was a really tight first set," Razeghi said. "Whoever won that first set was going to go on with the match. It was really important...I was getting my return game in, especially late in the first set and went on from there in the second set."

Razeghi, who was one of eight No. 9 seeds, needed a wild card due to his lack of play in 16s over the past year.

"I haven't played a [USTA] National in over a year, so it was good for me to get that wild card," said Razeghi, who won back-to-back ITF Grade 5 titles in January. He also received a wild card into the ITF Grade 1 the week before the Easter Bowl and won two matches, which helped his confidence.

"I had a really good tournament in the J1," said Razeghi, who trains with Jon Glover and the USTA's National Campus in Lake Nona. "And it gave me a lot of momentum and confidence for this tournament. It was a really good boost playing people at a higher level than I am, so I can get a feel of every game."

Tien, who trains at the USTA's Player Development Center in Carson, was happy with his run to the final as an unseeded wild card.

"I feel like this was a pretty good tournament," said the 15-year-old from Irvine. "I played really well. I couldn't really find a way to come through that, but I'm proud of the tournament I've had."

Razeghi added another gold ball to his collection, although he wasn't sure of the exact number he has back home. 

"Six, seven?," he guessed. "I won a lot of doubles in 12s, maybe about five, something like that."

Razeghi will now return to ITF tournaments, with the three Grade 4s in Florida next on his schedule.

Rabman and Evans are good friends and frequent doubles partners, although they did not play doubles together this week due to Rabman's status as a wild card. They know each other's games well, however, and on this day, Rabman used that knowledge to her advantage.

"I think I played well, and I think I played smart against a girl who is a big hitter," said Rabman, who turns 16 later this month. "A lot of slices, high balls, nothing special, just stay the route."

As with Razeghi, Rabman did not have any 16s matches on her record, so she needed a wild card.

"I haven't played 16s in over a year," said Rabman, who trains at with Greg Lumpkin at the John McEnroe Academy in Syosset New York. "I play 18s, but I didn't want to play 18s at Super Nationals, so I'm grateful for the USTA giving me a wild card."

Rabman, who won the last girls 14s Nationals in August of 2019, has played in important finals before, but she said the most nerve-racking match was in the semifinals.

"I was more nervous yesterday for the semis, just because you're competing for a ball in the semis," Rabman said. "In the final, I was like, you know what, whatever happens, happens. I'm playing well out here. Of course there are some nerves, it's a final, but I've learned how to handle them better throughout the tournament. I played a lot of hard-hitters this tournament and I was playing smart, not letting them get into the match, just playing my game."

Evans, who shared a long, emotional embrace with Rabman at the net, won the doubles title with Natalie Block, which helped her get past the disappointment in singles.

"I just needed to recover quickly, which was good," said Evans, who lost in the Orange Bowl 16s final last December. "I had to force myself to get over it, which I did a good job of, and just play well in doubles."

Evans credited Rabman for her approach in the final.

"She played a really solid match," said Evans, a blue chip freshman from Virginia. "She did what she needed to do to beat me. She obviously knows me very, very well, I've known her for years, since I picked up a racquet."

Rabman wasn't sure she had grasped the reality of winning her second gold ball.

"I'm still in shock, not really processing it," Rabman said. "I feel that a lot of good things will come from this, I feel like it will really help me in the future and hopefully I can keep it going, the good results."

In the girls doubles, top seeds Block and Evans defeated unseeded Vivian Miller and Lexington Reed 4-6, 6-2, 6-3.

The boys 16s doubles title went to unseeded Ethan Schiffman and Emon van Loben Sels, who defeated unseeded David Saye and Eli Stephenson 6-7(5), 6-1, 6-1.