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Saturday, March 25, 2023

Ngounoue Doubles Up Again, Bigun Earns First ITF J300 Title at Youth Tennis San Diego Tournament

©Colette Lewis 2023--
San Diego CA--

It was deja vu for No. 2 seed Clervie Ngounoue Saturday at the ITF J300 in San Diego, as she matched her sweep at last week's J300 in Indian Wells with a 7-6(5), 3-6, 6-0 win over top seed Iva Jovic in singles, then took the doubles title with Qavia Lopez less than two hours later. 

For boys champion Kaylan Bigun however, hoisting a J300 trophy was a new experience, with the top seed earning a 7-5, 6-1 victory over No. 2 seed Roy Horovitz on the stadium court of Barnes Tennis Center.

Ngounoue, who has not had a day off since Monday March 13, playing 11 singles and nine doubles matches in that stretch, faced her first real challenge Saturday on a clear and cool day in San Diego.

Jovic, who had won only seven games in her previous two matches against Ngounoue, including last week's 6-1, 6-2 loss in the Indian Wells semifinals, went up a break twice in the opening set, only to get broken in the next game. At 5-all Ngounoue saved a break point with a good first serve, a pattern throughout the match, and Jovic held to force the tiebreaker.  A good return put her up 4-2 at the change of ends, and two holds gave her three set points. Jovic held her serves, with Ngounoue breaking a string on each of those returns, but Ngounoue managed to close out the 80-minute set.

The second set was similar to the first, with Jovic going up 2-0 but giving the break back for 2-all. Jovic finally held onto the break she earned at 4-2 and was able to close out the second set with a good first serve.

"She just played better, to be honest," said Orlando resident Ngounoue, who turns 17 in July. "I think she was really solid, seemed pretty confident in herself. She was way ahead of me. She played well throughout the match but in the second set she really stepped it up."

Jovic said prior to the final that she was committed to changing her tactics and although she wasn't at ease with what that required, Jovic saw the results she wanted.

"Last week when I played her, I didn't have the right strategy, just played right into her strengths," said the 15-year-old from California. "So today I decided to do things I'm a little uncomfortable with, mix it up a little more. I definitely wasn't in my comfort zone, but it allowed me to neutralize her serve and get into the return games. It was definitely better than the past two times I played her; I was right there and strategically I played the right way. I don't usually play that way and I'm not comfortable with that, but if I just fine tune that a little bit, I think next time I can win."

The third set went much more quickly than the first two, with Jovic unable to hold despite game points in her first two service games. Ngounoue began to step up her serving, holding easily, which allowed her to swing freely when returning.

Ngounoue appreciates having a serve that can get her out of trouble, although she isn't completely satisfied with that shot.

"It's really important, and it does come when I desperately, desperately need it," Ngounoue said. "I'm just working on it being a little more consistent than that, trying to get it to help me get up, rather than to help me save. But it's a work in progress, something I look forward to improving."

Ngounoue didn't sense any fatigue from Jovic, but Jovic admitted that over two-and-a-half hours of countering Ngounoue's power left her drained.

"To return all of Clervie's balls you need a lot from your legs, because there's a lot of power behind them," Jovic said. "If you're just a little slower, less sharp, you're going to miss more. But ultimately I just made too many mistakes and I wasn't physical enough."

Ngounoue recognized the effort from Jovic, and what she had to do to secure the win.

"I had to give everything, I'm sure Iva had to give everything," said Ngounoue, who is planning to play the Roland Garros Junior Championships, as well as the USTA 18s Nationals in August at the Barnes Tennis Center. "It was a really challenging match. It's been a long, complicated week, but I'm really glad I was able to hang in there."

Jovic is playing the ITF Junior Billie Jean Cup North and Central American qualifying tournament in Lake Nona next month, and then is heading to Europe for the clay season, where she'll compete at the J500 in Milan and at Roland Garros.

The boys final also featured some changes in tactics, with Horovitz making a concerted effort to stay closer to the baseline, a strategy that earned him two set points serving at 5-4 in the first set.

"Last time we played, he gave me a hard time, so I knew I had to start off well," said the 16-year-old Horovitz, who lost to Bigun 6-1, 6-2 in the semifinals of the J300 in Ecuador last month. "Kaylan's a great player on his front foot; when he's dictating points it's tough to get him out of his rhythm. I knew from the beginning I'd have to be the one to move him, so he wouldn't be running me around the whole time."

Bigun found his form just in time, with a backhand volley winner getting him back on serve. Two games later he had the set, relieving the pressure of having to come back from a set down as he had been forced to do in his three-hour semifinal win over Alex Razeghi Friday.

"He was playing really solid, pushing me, staying aggressive," Bigun said of the opening set. "I had to battle him for court position and stuff like that. I really had to stay strong in that 5-4 game, with his set points, but I kept to my game plan, stayed aggressive, and with the break there got the momentum for the rest of the match."

Once he had the first set, Bigun noticed that Horovitz retreated a bit, giving him more time to set up.

"He definitely adjusted; he was standing closer to the baseline this time, playing a little bigger, trying to be in control of more points," Bigun said. "After I broke him there in the first, he took a step back and I was able to take even more control, dictate the points and the pace."

When Bigun got the second break for 5-1 on a double fault from Horovitz, that first J300 title was in sight, but it wasn't an easy final game. Up 40-15, Bigun saw Horovitz dig in, saving those two match points by forcing errors. With the nerves of serving for a championship evident, Bigun made several errors, including a double fault, but saved the two break points with his forehand. The third match point was a another unforced error, but two points later a service winner and a net cord ace ended the suspense.

Bigun admitted his loss to Rudy Quan in the Indian Wells quarterfinals, when he held three match points, surfaced as he struggled in the final game.

"Rudy Quan flashback," Bigun said of Quan, who played the Calabasas $25K this week and won a round there. "Every single match point I get now, I think about Rudy. I'm going to see him in Carson(at the USTA Player Development Center) and I'm going to tell him that."

As for the net cord ace, Bigun had his joke ready.

"I'm not going to lie to you, I was aiming for the tape," Bigun said. "No, just kidding. But even if I had won it with a great shot, I wouldn't have celebrated. I wasn't feeling it."

Horovitz, who was also playing for his first J300 title, said the California tournaments are his two favorite events of the year.

"Last week was a pretty decent week, and this week I made some good points and I'm happy with that. It didn't go my way in the final, but it was still a great week for me."

Both Bigun and Horovitz will be training for several weeks before heading to Europe for the Milan J500 and Roland Garros Junior Championships.

The boys doubles final featured local wild cards ZhengQing Ji of China and Trevor Svajda, both of whom train at the Steve Adamson Academy at Barnes Tennis Center, and No. 6 seeds Max Exsted and Nikita Filin, with Exsted and Filin earning a 7-6(5), 6-2 victory. 

Exsted and Filin trailed 4-2 in the first set, and had to break to get into a first set tiebreaker, but they seized the momentum with the point of the match at 5-all in the tiebreaker. Ji and Svajda sent overhead after overhead back, with Filin hitting three or four before Exsted finally bounced one out of the stadium court.

"That was a great point," said Filin, a 16-year-old from Illinois. "That definitely made the match, and we got more confidence and started playing more free in the second set. We started returning better and putting the pressure on them."

Exsted and Filin's first match as a team was last week in Indian Wells, where they lost in the quarterfinals, but they did not lose a set in their five victories this week, improving with each match.

"Our chemistry is good, we suit each other well, me at the baseline and he at the net," said Exsted, a 16-year-old from Minnesota. 

Their nearly instant success didn't surprise Filin.

"I was pretty confident in what we could do," Filin said. "As Max said, it was a good fit and it came together at the right time."

The girls doubles closed out the day of tennis, with No. 2 seeds Ngounoue and Lopez earning a 4-6, 6-4, 10-8 victory over top seeds Jovic and Tyra Grant.

Jovic and Grant dealt Ngounoue and Lopez their first loss of a set in the tournament to open the match, but got a break on a deciding point to go up 4-3 and closed out the second set. 

Leading 7-6 in the match tiebreaker, Lopez lost both of her serves, with Grant poaching to make it 7-7 and Jovic hitting a forehand volley winner to take an 8-7 lead with two serves coming. But Jovic gave the mini-break back with a backhand wide for 8-all and Lopez executed a perfect stop volley for a match point, which Ngounoue then converted. 

Ngounoue and Lopez, the Indian Wells ITF champions, were in such a groove after two weeks of winning doubles matches that they didn't sweat the late stages of the match tiebreaker. 

"We trusted ourselves, tried to hang in there, just do what we know," Ngounoue said. "There wasn't much else to do."

"Just trust your shots and go for it," said Lopez, a 17-year-old from Florida, who has won four doubles titles in Southern California J300s in the past three years. "There's always a little pressure of course, but whatever happens, happens. Let's go out with a bang, make it fun to watch."

"We've been here for a while," said Ngounoue, who has won five championships this month, including a Pro Circuit doubles title. "It's kind of like you're doing everything over and over again, so the pressure isn't even pressure. It's just another one."