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Saturday, August 28, 2021

Lajal's Comeback Leads to ITF College Park J1 Title, Fruhvirtova Sweeps Girls Championships

©Colette Lewis 2021--
College Park MD

Playing a final with the crowd firmly on the side of his opponent was a new experience for Estonia's Mark Lajal, but even in the most pressure-packed moments of his three-hour 6-4, 4-6, 7-5 win over local favorite Ryan Colby in the championship match of the ITF College Park J1, Lajal enjoyed himself.

"It was the first time I played with everyone in the crowd against me," said the 18-year-old, seeded No. 6. "Honestly, it was fun in a way. The way it was, was the way I imagined it to be. I always wanted to experience it, and it was nice. Whatever you do, no matter how bad it is, someone is going to cheer for him, even a double fault. But you do something really good and no one cheers for you, that's good, because you have to cheer for yourself."

Lajal sensed that the unseeded Colby was nervous in the first set, with no previous experience in a J1 final to draw on, while Lajal had already claimed two titles at that level this year. Colby, who trains at the Junior Tennis Champions Center, the tournament's host, recovered from going down 3-0 at the start to get back to 4-all, but he was broken in the final game of the set.

Colby had come back from a set down twice in earlier matches, crediting the home crowd's support with boosting his energy when the heat and humidity threatened to sap it. 

The 17-year-old was on a path to replicate those comebacks, going up 4-0 in the second set, with Lajal making errors and double faulting, but Colby could not hold on to that lead. Colby failed to convert a set point up 5-2, and when he went down 0-40 serving for the set a second time at 5-4, a collapse looked eminent. He saved those three break points and one more however, drawing errors from Lajal with his excellent slice and hitting a courageous volley winner to finally reach set point. Colby hung in a lengthy rally, and eventually Lajal hit a forehand wide, with the scores of family, friends and fellow JTCC students roaring their approval.

The third set started much like the second, with Colby going up 4-1 and serving for a 5-1 lead. But Lajal immediately broke, held and broke, and when he saved a break point at 4-all, he had the lead for the first time since the first set. Colby held for 5-all as chants of "Let's go Ryan, Let's go" came from the fans in the new bleachers surrounding the Stadium court. Despite two double faults in the game, Lajal held for 6-5, and in the next game, Colby was unable to convert his game point. Unhappy with the lack of two out calls on the baseline by the chair umpire, Colby voiced his displeasure, but the calls stood, and when his forehand found the net on the first match point, the silence that had accompanied Lajal's performance throughout the match seemed even more pronounced.

For all his disappointment, Colby was able to recover his perspective prior to the trophy presentation, taking a few minutes while sitting in his chair with a towel over his head .

"I love those moments, those tight moments," Colby said. "That's why I play tennis really. Even though I lost, I loved it. It was a good experience."

Colby, who will play his first (and last--he turns 18 next month) junior slam next month in New York as a wild card, couldn't channel all the emotion from the crowd as he had done earlier in the week.

"He stepped up and I think I lost a little bit of energy," said Colby, who has verbally committed to USC for 2022. "That was the biggest difference, me losing energy. I couldn't keep it when I was up and he got me."

Prior to this tournament, Colby hadn't played enough at the highest level of ITF junior events to gauge his progress against international competition. But his performance this week has him heading to the US Open with high hopes for more success.

"I'm really confident, I feel I can beat anyone out here," Colby said. "I feel really good going into the US Open."

Lajal, who is now three for three in ITF J1 finals, wasn't happy with his level of play in the final, but never lost faith that he could come back in the third set.

"I knew I could come back," said Lajal, who trains at the Mouratoglou Academy. "Honestly, I didn't play my best tennis throughout the match, I was pushing the ball and making a lot of easy errors, but every game that I lost, I had the lead, so I knew, deep down, if I keep going like this, keep playing, I might have a chance. So I kept trying, fighting for every point."

Lajal gave Colby credit for putting him in difficult positions throughout the match.

"His game is very nice," said Lajal "He has good hands, has a good forehand. If you leave the ball short, he'll put a lot of pressure on you. I was leaving the ball in the box for him, and he was the one dictating the whole match."

Lajal will stay and practice at the JTCC next week prior to traveling to New York for the US Open Junior Championships, with his title here making him one of the favorites.

"This gives me confidence," Lajal said. "It's nice to go into a tournament as the winner of the last tournament. Obviously, I'm going to keep working, but I have the feeling that I can do it."

While Lajal now has three ITF J1 singles titles on his resume, 14-year-old Brenda Fruhvirtova earned her first on Saturday morning, defeating No. 8 seed Mirra Andreeva of Russia 6-1, 6-0.

The 13th-seeded Fruhvirtova got off to a good start in the match going up 2-0, but Andreeva threatened to get right back in it in the third game, going up 0-40 and eventually having four opportunities to get back on serve before Fruhvirtova held after three deuces. Andreeva held in the next game, but could not put any pressure on Fruhvirtova's service games, especially with all the unforced errors piling up.

Andreeva took a bathroom break after the first set, but it did nothing to change her fortunes. She received a point penalty for racquet abuse in the first game that gave Fruhvirtova the 1-0 lead, and her frustration boiled over often, leading to shrieks of despair after yet another unforced error.

Fruhvirtova was able to stay focused while her opponent's commitment waned, and she closed out the second set, and the match, with little resistance from Andreeva.

"I really didn't expect that the score would look that smooth," Fruhvirtova said. "It wasn't as easy as it looked, but I thought it would be a bit closer. But I just played really well today."

Fruhvirtova had been down 4-0 in the third set of her second round match against qualifier Ena Koike of Japan and saved a match point, so she had experienced her adversity at the front end of the tournament, while cruising in her final three victories.

"When it was 0-4, I was already on my way back to the hotel," Fruhvirtova said. "Then somehow it just turned. I didn't really expect then that I would win this tournament, but now my ranking is going to get better, so I can play grand slams, and that is really good."

Fruhvirtova, who is now training with her 16-year-old sister Linda at the Olympic Tennis Center in Prague, is in the qualifying draw for the US Open Junior Championships, as is Andreeva. Andreeva, who like Fruhvirtova is 14, was so distraught after her loss that she declined an interview, leaving the site immediately after the trophy ceremony.

Fruhvirtova capped her week in College Park with the girls doubles title, partnering with Lucija Ciric Bagaric of Croatia to claim a 6-2, 6-3 victory over unseeded Pimrada Jattavapornvanit of Thailand and Yichen Zhao of China. The No. 6 seeds had never played together before, but dropped only one set all week.

"I feel from the first round we clicked," Fruhvirtova said. "I feel we play good together because we're both good players," Ciric Bagaric said. "Today we're doing the same as we've been doing for the past four days--breaking serve early and keep going from there."

"We were better from the baseline," Fruhvirtova said. "It was a smooth match."

"We played a good match," said Ciric Bagaric. "Let's just say that."

The boys doubles champions also were playing together for the first time, and as Fruhvirtova had done in singles, Ozan Colak and Canada's Jayden Templeman won the title after saving match points in a previous round. Colak and Templeman defeated No. 3 seeds Ignacio Buse of Peru and Alvaro Guillen Meza of Ecuador 6-3, 6-4 in the championship match Saturday morning, after good fortune came their way earlier in the week.

In their quarterfinal match with top seeds Gonzalo Bueno of Peru and Adolfo Vallejo of Paraguay, Colak and Templeman had saved one match point at 5-6, 15-40, when the match was moved indoors to finish due to thunder and lightning.

"We were definitely a little lucky," said Colak, describing a net cord winner on one of the two match points they saved after moving indoors. 

Colak and Templeman, the No. 8 seeds, were a very last minute pairing after Samir Banerjee, who was Colak's partner, withdrew when he received a US Open qualifying wild card, and Marko Stakusic, Templeman's Canadian partner, couldn't get into the country for the tournament.

"He had good energy from the start," Colak said of Templeman. "Honestly, I wasn't feeling it too much, and he just brought the energy up and I was like, oh, ok, let's get this. And after that we just kept bouncing off each other, when one was down the other could pick it up."

Against Buse and Guillen Meza, Colak and Templeman started slow but changed the tenor of the match midway through the first set, when they won six games in a row.

"We played more aggressive," said Templeman. "We found our groove and our energy went up," Colak added. "After that it was neck and neck, and luckily we were able to stick with the break we got in the first game of the second set."

Complete draws can be found at the ITF Junior Circuit website.