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Friday, March 24, 2023

FILA International ITF J300 Recap; Top Seeds Bigun and Jovic Meet No. 2 Seeds Horovitz and Ngounoue in Saturday's ITF J300 Finals in San Diego

©Colette Lewis 2023--
San Diego CA--

The first week of the junior version of the Sunshine Double was the new ITF J300 in Indian Wells, which brought the juniors on site during the second week of the BNP Paribas Open. If you didn't follow my daily coverage, make sure to read my recap of the titles for Clervie Ngounoue and Cooper Woestendick at the Tennis Recruiting Network.
For the first time this week, the threat of rain was absent and the courts were dry at 10 a.m. for the singles semifinals at the ITF J300 Youth Tennis San Diego tournament at Barnes Tennis Center. although sweatshirts and warm jackets were still advisable for those not competing.

Three of the four semifinals were straightforward affairs, but top seed Kaylan Bigun and No. 3 seed Alex Razeghi battled for over three hours before Bigun came away with a 6-7(5), 6-4, 6-4 victory and a trip to his second ITF J300 final.

The match was close throughout, with no breaks in the 60-minute first set. Bigun trailed 6-3 in the tiebreaker, but Razeghi couldn't win either of his serves to close it out. The momentum was squarely with Bigun at that stage, but he shanked Razeghi's return to drop the set, and conveyed his frustration with an angry toss of his racquet.

Bigun quickly collected himself in the second set.

"Only a few points decided [the first set], so I knew I could stick to my game style, maybe adjust a few things," said the 16-year-old left-hander. "But since it was so close. I knew I should stick to what I was doing."

That strategy led Bigun to the first break of the match to go up 3-2 and he earned a second break and a 5-2 lead, converting his fifth break point in the five-deuce Razeghi service game. But he quickly lost his service game, and needed four set points to finally close out the second set serving at 5-4.

"Alex is a player that makes you work for every single point," said Bigun, who had lost to Razeghi 6-3, 6-0 in the final of the J300 in Ecuador last month. "So if you're not focusing on a point or so, you'll definitely feel it. It was a marathon."

Bigun lost his serve in a five-deuce game to go down 2-0 in the third set but immediately got the break back. With Razeghi serving at 3-3, 30-40, Bigun came up with the shot of the match, hitting a backhand pass on the run from deep in the court that Razeghi could only watch with disbelief.

Given his struggles closing out the second set, the match was far from over when he stepped to the line to serve for it a 5-4, but three winners gave him the 40-0 cushion, and he converted his second match point with a forehand that forced an error from Razeghi.

"That was my mindset, serve and rip a forehand as hard as I could," Bigun said. "I really got behind those shots and was able to close it out."

It will be No. 2 seed Roy Horovitz who is seeking revenge in the final, with Bigun taking a 6-1, 6-2 decision in the semifinals in Ecuador. 

"The conditions are decently similar, but it's a final so we both have five matches under our belts, so now it comes down to competing and stuff like that, who can physically stay more fresh out there," said Bigun, who had post-match cramping today. "But I'll stick to my patterns; Roy's a good player, so anything's possible."

Horovitz defeated No. 13 seed Max Exsted 6-4, 6-0, spending half the time on court that Bigun did Friday.

Up 5-3, Horovitz looked to be cruising to the first set, going up 40-0. But Exsted hung tough to bring the score back to deuce, and a Horovitz double fault gave Exsted a chance to get back on serve. But Horovitz won a volley competition at the net to get back to deuce, then converted his fourth set point with a passing shot winner to secure the first set.

Exsted was immediately broken in the first game, and Horovitz sailed through the next five games to avenge his loss to Exsted in the round of 16 at Kalamazoo last year.

"That wasn't the greatest match for either of us," said the 16-year-old from Florida, who was the top seed in the 16s at Kalamazoo. "But I definitely wanted to come back and redeem myself from that. But I wasn't thinking about that too much. I had a really good day today, and Max didn't play his best, but I was happy I was able to take advantage of that."

Horovitz, who considers his speed and his consistency as the strengths of his game, said he has worked hard in the past few months at hitting the ball bigger and stepping into his shots more.

"I'm trusting myself and I've been doing a lot better recently," said Horovitz. "I have more confidence now, and there's definitely been a big improvement in my game."

The girls final is also between the top two seeds, with No. 1 seed Iva Jovic and No. 2 seed Clervie Ngounoue meeting for the second time in two weeks, with Ngounoue defeating Jovic in the semifinals at the Indian Wells ITF J300 6-1, 6-2.

Neither girl has lost a set in her five victories; Jovic defeated No. 3 seed Tatum Evans 6-1, 6-4 and Ngounoue beat No. 4 seed Ariana Pursoo 6-3, 6-3.

Ngounoue had beaten Pursoo in the final of the J500 in Merida Mexico last November, so was ready for the pace she would see from the 17-year-old from New York. 

"It was different, because that was on clay; she hits big and she's a really good player, the ball comes very fast," Ngounoue said. "So I was expecting the ball to come faster than it did in Merida, just because the clay takes some of your power away, points become longer, you can't end points as quickly. So I was glad I was able to hold it together today."

Ngounoue said the pace of Pursoo's ball made implementing a strategy difficult.

"It was hard to mix it up honestly, although I think we both threw in some variety," said the 16-year-old from Washington DC, who now trains at the USTA National Campus in Lake Nona. "But it was quick, hard to really think of anything else, you just had to be ready for the ball to come back."

As for facing Jovic again so soon, Ngounoue is not surprised. 

"It's pretty much similar people from the last tournament, so you expect who you're going to meet," said Ngounoue, who also defeated Jovic in the 2022 Orange Bowl semifinals. "Unfortunately some people had to meet earlier, but I'm excited. When you're expecting it, well, we'll see what happens."

Jovic's match with Evans came after the three-hour boys semifinal, and it was Jovic that appeared to better handle that long wait for a court. With the match barely a half-hour old, Jovic was up a set and a break, with Evans unable to get her usually effective serve going. She did break Jovic three times in the second set, including at 5-2, when Evans saved a match point, then held to force Jovic to serve it out a second time. Up 40-15, Jovic netted a forehand on her first match point, but Evans sent a forehand long to put Jovic into her fourth J300 final this year.

"She was making mistakes in the first set, and I was changing directions well," said the 15-year-old from Southern California. "In the second, I was doing a good job on her service games, but at the end, she stopped missing as much. So I had to serve better and earn all the points, so it got a little tight at the end, but I'm glad I got it at 5-4."

Jovic is planning to make some changes after two straight-sets losses to Ngounoue in the past four months.

"Hopefully this time I can do things a little different, put up a good fight," Jovic said. "Yeah, I'm trying to figure something out; I definitely won't do the same thing as last week."

Jovic is happy to be able to try these new options on the Barnes courts.

"These are probably my favorites courts, when it comes to tennis tournaments," Jovic said. "It's decently slow, but not as slow as Indian Wells. I like it, because it doesn't bounce as high; at Indian Wells the ball really jumps up and I like that on these courts it stays a little lower. This is definitely better for me."

Jovic and Ngounoue will not only meet in the singles final, but for the doubles championship as well.

In today's semifinals, top seeds Jovic and Tyra Grant defeated No. 5 seeds Piper Charney and Anya Murthy 6-1, 6-3, while Ngounoue and Qavia Lopez, the ITF J300 Indian Wells champions, defeated unseeded Kayla Chung and Alanis Hamilton 6-4, 6-2.

The boys doubles quarterfinals and semifinals were both played this afternoon, with the local wild card team of ZhengQing Ji and Trevor Svajda and No. 6 seeds Exsted and Nikita Filin picking up two wins to reach the final.

In the semifinals, Ji and Svajda, whose older brother Zachary was in attendance, defeated No. 3 seeds Keegan Rice and Duncan Chan 7-6(3), 7-6(3).  Exsted and Filin defeated the unseeded Canadian team of Kaetan Mehta and Emmett Potter 6-2, 6-3 in the semifinals. Mehta and Potter had defeated No. 4 seeds Oliver Bonding of Great Britain and Max Stenzer of Germany 7-6(7), 6-1 in the quarterfinals, while Exsted and Filin beat No. 2 seeds Atakan Karahan of Turkey and Hoyoung Roh of Korea 6-3, 7-5.

The two singles finals are scheduled for 10 a.m, followed by the two doubles finals, with Jovic and Ngounoue allowed suitable rest between matches.