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Saturday, March 18, 2023

Rabman and Ngounoue Meet for ITF J300 FILA International Girls Title; Bonding and Woestendick Face Off in Boys Final; Leach and Oyebog Take Boys Doubles; Ngounoue and Lopez Claim Girls Doubles Championship; Kang Reaches Bakersfield $25K Final

©Colette Lewis 2023
Indian Wells CA---

Playing on Stadium 2 in his first ITF J300 semifinal could have been intimidating for No. 11 seed Cooper Woestendick, but the unfamiliar atmosphere didn't faze the 16-year-old from Kansas, in his 6-1, 6-3 win over wild card Rudy Quan at the FILA International Junior Championships.

Although the late morning crowd was sparse, the semifinal featured an on-court announcer introducing the players, stadium musical selections on changeovers and ballrunners, the first time the junior competitors had experienced those standard WTA and ATP amenities. Woestendick took all that commotion in stride, but the court surface itself took some adjustment.

"The court was very, very slow compared to the other courts," Woestendick said. So basically you have to hit the ball huge, swing out, and that's what I did. Early in the match I recognized I had to be really aggressive because the ball doesn't move that far and it moves very slow."

Woestendick never trailed in the match against the 17-year-old Quan, who had saved three match points in his 2-6, 7-6(4), 6-3 quarterfinal victory over top seed Kaylan Bigun Friday. Quan looked sluggish and was not getting any free points on his serve, while Woestendick was holding easily.

"I played super solid, didn't have any lapses, was locked in the whole time," said Woestendick, who defeated No. 4 seed Keegan Rice of Canada 7-5, 7-6(4) in the quarterfinals. "I hit the ball really well today. He had a long one yesterday, so I tried to move him, was all over him and finished a lot of points at the net again. By moving him, he was going to the slice, so I just closed it off at the net."

Woestendick was broken once, directly after getting the first break of the match in the fourth game of the first set, but he had a two-break lead early in the second set and was able to close it out with his third break of serve in the second set.

"I've been waiting for a while," Woestendick said of his first J300 final. "But my tennis has been really good this week and I've been just really confident, so it's very exciting and I'm hoping I can get it done. It's one of the coolest places I've been, it's my favorite tournament to come to, it's tennis paradise."

Woestendick's opponent in the final is No. 5 seed Oliver Bonding of Great Britain, who defeated No. 13 seed Cyrus Mahjoob 6-3, 6-4. 

Much like Woestendick, Bonding held serve with ease in the opening set, increasing the pressure on Mahjoob. Yet the 17-year-old from Maryland dug himself out of numerous holes until serving at 3-4, when Bonding got the break and closed out the set. He then broke Mahjoob in a long third game to go up 3-1 in the second set. Mahjoob, who will join the University of Michigan team this fall, got his only break of the match at with Bonding serving at 4-3, but he double faulted twice in the next game and Bonding took advantage, blasting a backhand winner at 15-40 to go up 5-4. The 15-year-old right-hander closed out the win with a great serve at 40-15 to reach his second J300 final.

"My first serve percentage was really high," said Bonding, who won the ITF J300 title in Colombia last month. "My win percentage off it was good also. I don't mind when guys stand back, because I have a lot of time." Bonding, who defeated No. 2 seed Roy Horovitz 6-3, 7-6(6) in the quarterfinals, faced a contrasting set of tactics from Mahjoob today.

"He brought some different style today," said Bonding, who had not played Mahjoob previously. "Some slicing, he likes to volley, so I had to be ready for anything."

The final will be a rematch of a first round encounter in January at the J300 in Costa Rica, which Bonding won 3-6, 6-3, 6-1. 

"That was also on hard, but it was at altitude, so it will be a different match," Bonding said. "The conditions there were super quick, which favored me a little bit more. But Cooper's a great player and I'll have to play my best again to beat him."

The girls final will feature No. 3 seed Clervie Ngounoue and No. 7 seed Theodora Rabman, who defeated the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in Saturday's semifinals.

The 16-year-old Ngounoue, who won a J500 title in Mexico and reach the final of the Orange Bowl last December, had beaten top seed Iva Jovic 6-3, 6-1 in the semifinals in Plantation, so there was no sense that today's result on Stadium 2 was an upset, although the 6-1, 6-2 score was a surprise.

Ngounoue's power is always a challenge for her opponents, and Jovic's typical counter to that game style is her consistency, her movement and her tenacity. But the 15-year-old made more unforced errors than usual, and with Ngounoue's 75% first serve percentage, she couldn't find a way to put any pressure on Ngounoue.

"Honestly, she brought out the fight," said Ngounoue, who was a teammate of Jovic's on the USA's Junior Billie Jean King Cup championship team last year. "She has that and it's a really huge thing to have. I've seen her come back from so far down, she's a really great player, so I'm really glad I was able to pull through."

Ngounoue, who has yet to lose more than three games in a set, has a WTA ranking of 578, but because of the age restrictions, is playing junior tournaments to keep her competitive edge.

"I don't have that many pro tournaments, so I have to, otherwise I might be training for four weeks, which I don't want to do," said Ngounoue, who works with Jermaine Jenkins at the USTA National Campus in Orlando. "I knew I was going to know a lot of people, but there are some good Americans hiding out there, so coming back to my first junior tournament in a while, I was just hoping to play some matches. It's hard to get that sometimes in practice and just competing is the only way to do that."

On the line in Sunday's final is a qualifying wild card into the 2024 BNP Paribas Open, which would be a first for Ngounoue, but not for Rabman.

The John McEnroe Tennis Academy is sponsored by the BNP Paribas Bank, and for several years they have offered a wild card to a top junior. Rabman received it in 2021 and 2022, with Stephanie Yakoff the recipient this year. As it happened, they met in the second round of the FILA International this year, with Rabman winning 6-0, 2-0 retired.

The 17-year-old from New York earned a chance for a third qualifying wild card today with a 6-3, 6-2 win over No. 2 seed Kaitlin Quevedo on Stadium 3.

"I was just trying to stay the course," said University of North Carolina signee Rabman, who will be playing in her first J300 final Sunday. "I thought we both came out pretty nervous, and rightfully so, but I think I settled in a little better and played my game."

Similar to Jovic, Quevedo relies on her movement and point construction, with unforced errors kept to a minimum. That is also Rabman's game, however, and today she was the player closer to her best.

"I do think we play very similar; she hits a very heavy ball," said Rabman. "I knew I had to be aggressive and capitalize on those short balls and the balls I could take on the rise."

In her 7-6(6), 6-3 quarterfinal victory over No. 4 seed Tatum Evans, Rabman had difficulty holding serve, and was determined to improve on that.

"My coach (Greg Lumpkin) was like, please stop trying to go for aces and just make first serves, so I tried to stick to that plan," Rabman said.

Ngounoue and Rabman have never played, but Rabman is looking forward to the opportunity.

"I know she's really good and it will be an interesting match definitely," Rabman said. "I'm very excited; I'm smiling from right to left and left to right."

Regardless of the outcome of Sunday's girls singles final, Ngounoue will leave tennis paradise with a winner's trophy after she and Qavia Lopez took the girls doubles title.

The top seeds defeated the unseeded team of Kayla Chung and Alanis Hamilton 6-1, 7-5 Saturday afternoon on Stadium 2, an opportunity they were thankful to have after saving two match points in their 6-0, 5-7, 12-10 semifinal win over Valerie Glozman and Anya Murthy Friday.

"That's all still a blur," Ngounoue said. "That was a tight one," said Lopez, who has now won the last three J300 Easter Bowl doubles titles, with three different partners. "A lot of fight, a lot of belief, a lot of energy is what got us through."

Ngounoue, who won a $25,000 Pro Circuit doubles title with Maria Mateas earlier this month, and Lopez took the first set in just 21 minutes, but in the second set, Chung and Hamilton showed the form that had seen them take out three seeded teams, including No. 2 seeds Tyra Grant and Jovic in the semifinal. Holding comfortably for a 4-3 lead in the second set, Chung and Hamilton got their first opportunity to break with Ngounoue serving at 30-40, but a service winner and an ace erased that chance, making it 4-all. At 5-all, Hamilton was broken and Ngounoue finished off the championship with an ace.

"That's Clervie," Lopez said of her partner's clutch serving.

"I just want to say they're both just good doubles players," Ngounoue said of the 15-year-olds on the other side of the net. "They both have really good volleys, so you can't let any ball sit; they're really aggressive and you can feel their presence on the court."

Lopez and Ngounoue are planning to play together again next week at the J300 in San Diego.

In the boys doubles final that closed out Saturday's FILA International Junior Championship schedule on Stadium 2, the unseeded team of Joseph Oyebog Jr. and Jagger Leach took out top seeds Roy Horovitz and Alexander Razeghi 7-6(5), 6-2 in an impressive display of power tennis.

The 15-year-olds, who had already defeated the No. 3 and No. 2 seeds in advancing to the final, found their stride midway through the first set after going down a break after losing a deciding point.

Oyebog, who served well throughout the match, caught fire in the tiebreaker, hitting two aces at 4-3 for three sets points. Horovitz held his two serves, but Leach closed out the set with a deep second serve that Razeghi and Horovitz were not convinced had landed in the box.

Leach and Oyebog then got two breaks for a 3-0 lead, taking a deciding point with volley winner from Leach on the Horovitz serve and they were not seriously challenged after that. With their seamless teamwork, it was hard to believe that they were playing together for just the second time.

Their first tournament as a team was last year's Eddie Herr 16s Championship, when shortly before the event, Leach learned his original partner was playing the 18s qualifying, so would not be able to play with him.

"I was on the phone with my mom (Lindsay Davenport) in the locker room in Orlando and was saying, man, I don't have anyone to play double with, and Joseph overhead me in the locker room and said, oh, you want to play doubles?," Leach said. "That was our first tournament; we got to the semis."

"We're just happy we were able to find each other," Oyebog said. "We were friends beforehand, but we had never played doubles before. It's amazing how randomness led to something like this."

Oyebog sees their different skill sets as the reason for their success as a team.

"I'm an aggressive player at the net and Jagger's a very good baseliner," Oyebog said. "He has a great mind on the court, so it's very useful to have somebody who knows how to think more than me."

Oyebog claimed two J30 doubles titles with Carel Ngounoue, Clervie's younger brother, last year, while this is the first ITF Junior Circuit doubles title for Leach. The pair will go for another J300 title in San Diego next week.

At the $25,000 USTA Pro Circuit tournament in Bakersfield California, 18-year-old wild card Kyle Kang defeated top seed Alex Michelsen 6-2, 6-1 to advance to Sunday's final. Kang, who reached the final of a $15K in Naples Florida last month, will face No. 5 seed Alex Bolt of Australia for his first Pro Circuit title. Bolt defeated No. 7 seed Christian Langmo(Miami) 7-6(0), 3-6, 6-2 in the other semifinal. 

With the points from reaching the final, Kang will move well into the Top 750 in the ATP rankings, assuring himself entry into the remaining junior slams. His ITF junior ranking, currently 21, will fall after he did not defend his San Diego and Easter Bowl points from last year's final and semifinal, respectively. 

Unseeded Langmo and Vasil Kirkov won the doubles title, defeating Sekou Bangoura(Florida) and Great Britain's Blu Baker, also unseeded, 7-5, 7-6(2) in the final.