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Saturday, September 10, 2022

Eala Makes History with US Open Girls Singles Championship; Landaluce Continues Spanish Success with Boys Title; Basavareddy and Baris Cruise to Boys Doubles Championship

©Colette Lewis 2022--
Flushing Meadows NY--

Alexandra Eala was carrying the weight of history on her shoulders, yet the 17-year-old left-hander from the Philippines responded with her best performance of the US Open Junior Championships on Saturday, defeating No. 2 seed and reigning Roland Garros champion Lucie Havlickova of the Czech Republic 6-2, 6-4 to become the first junior slam singles champion from her country.

Eala was playing her first junior tournament of the year in New York, after receiving entry, and the No. 10 seed, based on her WTA ranking of 297. She advanced her first junior slam singles final with five victories in straight sets, cheered on throughout the event by her family, who traveled to New York from the Philippines, and scores of vocal locals.

Havlickova, who played her singles semifinal and two doubles matches Friday, managed to hold in her first two service games but was not connecting with her serve and powerful groundstrokes as she had in her previous matches. Eala, who had only one match on Friday, saved a break point in the fourth game to make it 2-2 and then broke, with Havlickova, her right thigh again heavily taped, double faulting on game point.

Another break and Eala was in control, while a frustrated Havlickova was left searching for any consistency in the rallies.

The first game of the second set wasn't encouraging for Havlickova, dropping serve at love, but she began to reduce her unforced errors, and Eala chipped in with three double faults in the next game to lose her serve. Neither player faced a break point in the next six games, but at 4-all, it was Havlickova who blinked. A double fault made it 0-30 and Eala stepped up and crushed a forehand to make it 15-40. A backhand on the baseline forced and error from Havlickova, and suddenly Eala was serving for the championship.

The pressure of the moment, of the history she could make and  the hopes of those shouting their encouragement from the bleachers on Court 12, could not dent her concentration. She made first serves, she hit out when given the opportunity and she closed out the title on her first match point at 40-15, with Havlickova netting a backhand return.

Asked how she navigated that last game, Eala said she has been working on facing those moments head on.

"I think that's one of the things that I need to develop and learn, because that's a part of mental strength," said Eala, who won Les Petits As as a 13-year-old in 2018 and began training at the Rafael Nadal Academy shortly thereafter. "Not allowing yourself to think of winning, not allowing yourself to think that you can win. I just tried to focus on every single point, visualize what I was going to do. Today I was able to execute that well."

Eala has a role model, and given where she trains, it's not surprising that it's another left-hander.

"I think my idol is obviously Rafa. But I'm not just saying that because I'm in his academy" Eala said, laughing.

"No, he's a very good role model, something a lot of people should idolize and try to be. The biggest thing I notice in Rafa is how he fights till the end, how his thoughts are so clear. He's so calm, but at the same time so fired up. I think I really tried to channel that energy during this whole week."

Eala addressed the Filipino community on site in the post-match ceremony in her native language and by the end of her brief remarks, she was overcome with emotion.

"In the speech I just  thanked my family and everyone who prayed and everyone who supported, and of course my sponsors," said Eala, who has won two junior slam doubles titles, at the 2020 Australian Open and 2021 Roland Garros. "I also said that I fought with my heart for this trophy, that it's not just my win, it's all of our wins. I said that I did this not just for myself; I did it so I could help Philippines tennis."

Eala will return to the ITF Women's World Tennis Tour in the near term, but is not ruling out an occasional junior tournament in 2023.

"Definitely going to focus on my professional career," Eala said. "But as you can tell, a tennis schedule should be very flexible."

Havlickova, who is also expecting to play more Pro Circuit events in the coming months, was able to rebound from her loss in singles to take the doubles title with Diana Shnaider of Russia later in the day. But she admitted that this week's schedule, with Saturday finals and a full day of rain on Tuesday, didn't leave her in the best position, and the partisan crowd didn't help her mood either.

"I was pretty tired," Havlickova said. "We have tough week. The matches were tough. I played two times three matches a day, which isn't usual. It's not easy. This was one of the differences today in the match. But I cannot say it as excuse. I went there and I had to do what I had to do and I didn't make it."

"And the crowd, well, what can I say? I don't think it was, I mean, good," Havlickova said when asked about the support for Eala. "When you make double-fault and people start shouting and screaming, I don't think that is a fair play. I don't think that belongs to tennis. Again, it's not an excuse to lose a match. Alexandra played amazing, she played really good. Congratulations to her."

In the doubles final against the unseeded team of Carolina Kuhl and Ella Seidel of Germany, Havlickova and Shnaider started off a bit shaky, admitting to nerves, even though they had already claimed three previous junior slam doubles titles between them.

They eventually found their form, breaking Kuhl on a deciding point at 3-all and went on to claim a 6-3, 6-2 victory.

Havlickova and Shnaider, playing together for the first time, did not need a match tiebreaker in any of their five wins.

"I wanted even more to win the doubles because you never want to be two times second," said Havlickova, who won the Roland Garros doubles title as well as the singles title in June. "So, yeah, I just refocused and it ended well."

Shnaider was happy to get the note from Havlickova asking if she would like to play doubles, and jumped at the chance to team up with her.

"I was, like, for sure I want to play with her because she's a good player," said Shnaider, who is just beginning her freshman year at North Carolina State. "I was thinking we have a good chances. We just need to find our game, find our connection, what is better to say in the right moment. I think we did a great job and find easy way to finish it in good way."

The boys final also featured a first-time junior slam finalist, and he also took out a more experienced opponent, with No. 5 seed Martin Landaluce of Spain defeating Roland Garros finalist and No. 2 seed Gilles Bailly of Belgium 7-6(3), 5-7, 6-2.

Landaluce, the second consecutive Spanish boy to win the US Open title after Daniel Rincon's victory last year, was twice down a break in the opening set, including at 5-4, but Bailly could not convert that advantage. In the tiebreaker, it was Landaluce who forced errors and came up with the clever kick serves, displaying an uncanny knack for playing his best when the stakes are highest.

"It's his ability to play great on break points down, really good on the important moments," said the soon-to-be 17-year-old Bailly, who lost to Landaluce on in the third round of the Wimbledon Junior Championships in their only previous meeting. "I had set points in the first set at Wimbledon, four or five, and there he managed to do the same, plays great tennis on the right moments, the important moments. That's his strength, and it's difficult to read his game; he plays really fast. I found my tactics, they were working good, but he's so consistent and that was it for me today."

Landaluce agreed that he is able to find that next level when he must.

"I think even though I can be in a situation where I'm not playing good, even more in this tournament I didn't play my best, but in the important moments, in the special ones, I concentrate," said the 16-year-old, who trains with the Spanish federation in Madrid. "Yeah, I play better in that moment. I'm more focused, more aggressive. I try to win the match, not to not lose it. I think that's so important."

In the second set, it was Bailly who stepped up, winning a long grueling rally with Landaluce serving at 5-6 30-40, when Landaluce finally netted a backhand. 

Bailly, who had played four consecutive three-set matches to reach the final, prides himself on his physical style, but what he called "stupid mistakes" resulted in a break in the first game of the third set. When Landaluce broke a second time for a 3-0 lead and then held at love, Bailly's window had closed, especially with Landaluce, sensing victory, playing with even more confidence.

During the set break, Landaluce stayed true to his vow from yesterday to enjoy the moment. Although other juniors may have dwelled on the loss of that 30-40 point, Landaluce used the set break to appreciate his position.

"It was the final of the US Open," Landaluce said. "How could I be, like, down or something? I was just trying to enjoy the moment, try to understand the situation, to change some little things to win the match. I sit down there and think about what should I do in that moment. Then try to be more solid. That's what gives me the win. The only thing I could do is try to enjoy the moment."

Bailly said this loss hurt more than the one at Roland Garros, where he was a surprise finalist, but plans to give himself another shot at junior slam title next year in Australia. He and US Open quarterfinalist Alex Blockx will accompany the Belgium Davis Cup team for their World Group competition next weekend, then he plans to rest and return to school.

Landaluce, who still has two more years of junior eligibility, indicated that he will move on to professional tennis. He has no shortage of role models, with Carlos Alcaraz, just three years older, playing for the US Open men's title Sunday, and of course, 22-time slam champion Rafael Nadal, who exemplifies the Spanish tennis ethos.

"It is the mentality we have as a country. We are fighters," Landaluce said. "Especially I think we have had Rafa Nadal, one of the best persons, best examples of sport management. He's my idol since I've been playing. I think for many people he's such an inspiration. Having him, and now Carlos,...we try to win in every match, in every moment. We have Nadal that is the best example for that."

Not all inspirations are Spanish, however, as Nishesh Basavareddy and Ozan Baris can attest. After watching Rajeev Ram and Joe Salisbury's defense of their US Open men's doubles title Friday, the eighth-seeded Americans went out and defeated both the No. 3 and No. 2 seeded boys doubles teams to reach the final. They continued their dominance in Saturday's final, beating the unseeded team of Dylan Dietrich of Switzerland and Juan Carlos Prado Angelo of Bolivia 6-1, 6-1 in 41 minutes.

Basavareddy and Ram are both from Carmel Indiana, and both are coached by Bryan Smith, who was in New York to witness the 38-year-old Ram's fifth slam title and the 17-year-old Basavareddy's first.

"It was really amazing to see that yesterday," said Basavareddy, who is starting his freshman year at Stanford next week. "We went and watched the end of the second set. He was playing really well. It inspired us. We saw their level, what they were doing on the court. Obviously they're the best doubles team in the world so you can always learn from them.

"I've hit with him quite a bit in the past, practiced with him. He's given me a lot of advice in the past. I've known him for seven, eight years now. He's been a huge role model and important person to look up to, give me good advice. He definitely played a big part in this. I think I learned a lot tennis skills, doubles skills, everything from him. So, yeah, definitely really cool to see him win yesterday."

"I hadn't seen any Grand Slam finals before in person," said the 18-year-old Baris, who has just begun his freshman year at Michigan State.  "Just seeing that winning moment, that's my favorite part of the match. Seeing their reactions, being able to see that I was, like, I really want that feeling. It definitely brought some confidence and motivation for our matches yesterday and today."

Baris and Basavareddy have know each other for many years, having competed against each other in the Midwest section, but they last played doubles together in the 14s. It didn't take long for the pair to mesh this week however, and they played only one match tiebreaker, in the second round.

"I thought throughout the tournament we were playing really well," Baris said. "A lot of times we had a ton of opportunities. I just felt like today they really went our way. Every time we got an opportunity, we were able to capitalize on it. Because of that, I think the match went really steadily in our favor. Also, I think we had really good energy today. Yeah, it was just a really good match."

With their college schedules unlikely to allow them any chance to play together in the next few months, Basavareddy and Baris are still hopeful of continuing their partnership.

"I would love to play with this guy in the future," Baris said. "I think we got some real good potential. Maybe one day win the main thing. That would be pretty nice."

In the other two finals held today, Iga Swiatek of Poland won her third slam title, defeating Ons Jabeur of Tunisia 6-2, 7-6(5) for the women's singles title.

Former Baylor star John Peers won the mixed doubles title with fellow Australian Storm Sanders, defeating Kirsten Flipkens of Belgium and Edouard Roger-Vasselin of France 4-6, 6-4, 10-7.

The women's doubles final at 1 p.m. Sunday will feature the unseeded American team of Caty McNally and Taylor Townsend and five-time women's major doubles champions Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Sinakova of the Czech Republic, the No. 3 seeds.

The men's final between Carlos Alcaraz of Spain and Casper Ruud of Norway will follow at 4 p.m.