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Sunday, March 19, 2023

Woestendick Saves Two Match Points to Claim ITF J300 FILA International Boys Title; Ngounoue Completes Sweep of Girls Titles; Kang Falls in Bakersfield $25K Final; Borges Captures Phoenix Challenger; Stearns and Navarro Win as Miami Open Qualifying Begins

©Colette Lewis 2023
Indian Wells CA--

Cooper Woestendick's wait for his ITF Junior Circuit breakthrough tournament is now officially over, with the 16-year-old from Kansas saving two match points in a 6-7(6), 7-6(5), 6-2 victory over Oliver Bonding of Great Britain in the final of the ITF J300 FILA International Championships. 

As fans began arriving at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden for the women's and men's singles finals on a cool and cloudy day in the desert, a few hundred made their way into Stadium 2 to see No. 11 seed Woestendick and No. 5 seed Bonding in a rematch of a meeting earlier this year at the J300 in Costa Rica, which went to Bonding 3-6, 6-3, 6-1.

"I've been kind of waiting for this, waiting for a breakthrough this year, and this week has been great," Woestendick said. "Every match I've been super confident and mentally I've been positive. I'm happy with my play right now and happy in general."

The nerves of playing on the 8000-seat Stadium 2, and for a qualifying wild card into next year's BNP Paribas Open, were evident at the start of the match, with both boys unable to build any momentum. Woestendick was broken to start, immediately got the break back, and that same pattern repeated in the fifth and sixth games.  As the jitters subsided the quality rose, and although the points were short--the first 12 games of the first set took only 39 minutes--many ended with winners rather than errors.

Woestendick led 5-3 in the tiebreaker, but couldn't hold onto it, and had to save a set point at 5-6 with a forehand volley winner. After passing Woestendick for a 7-6 lead, Bonding converted his second set point with a deft drop volley.

"I got a little passive," Woestendick said. "I was up 5-3 and had a couple of points when I didn't take my chances, and he's very good when he's aggressive."

There were no breaks of serve in the second set, although Woestendick was struggling mightily with his first serve percentage, saving break points in both the second and fourth games. Woestendick could be seen wincing with an ab problem that he has dealt with throughout the week, but he did not call a trainer and he said that paradoxically, it might have helped him in the long run.

"I served really well in the first, but in the second I started missing firsts and then the ab started to come in," Woestendick said. "It was getting better, but today it was a little worse. I had slowed it down too much, so I started swinging a little bigger. I've had some of my best tournaments with this ab; you have to play better in other ways."

Serving from behind wasn't a problem for Woestendick in the second set, and once he started to swing more aggressively on his serve, he held with no problems for 4-4 and 5-5. Bonding came up with three aces in the eleventh game to take a 6-5 lead.

Woestendick fell behind 15-40, giving Bonding two chances to get through in straight sets, but Woestendick's serve came through when he needed it most, with Bonding missing a pass on the first match point and unable to return the second.

"I just wanted to make him play. I made two big first serves that were good; first one, I hit a first ball and came to the net, put pressure on him and it worked perfectly," Woestendick said. "On the second one, I hit an ace, I like going T on match points, and I've saved some hitting an ace T on the ad side. I wanted to make him play and just not give it to him."

Bonding then made two errors to send the match to a second tiebreaker. Neither player led by more than a point throughout, and after Woestendick's backhand forced an error to go up 6-5, Bonding needed a first serve, but didn't get one, nor a second, and the double fault put the match back at even once again.

In the third set, Woestendick held and broke, and soon was up 3-0. Although both players had begun to doubt the chair umpire's judgment in the second set, their lack of confidence really began to surface in the third. A particularly obvious out ball on the far sideline that Woestendick had hit to make it 15-40 was called good by the chair, who had no other officials on court to assist him in calling that far sideline.  Bonding was broken on the next point to go down 4-0, but to his credit, he found the mental strength to put it behind him and broke Woestendick back for 4-1.

"After he got it to 4-0, I just wanted to leave it all out there," said Bonding, who will turn 16 in June. "I think at 4-2 I got shafted again with the calls. I think it was both ways, but when it happens it's tough."

After holding for 4-2 despite two double faults, Bonding got two unforced errors from Woestendick for 0-30, then got it to 15-40, but Woestendick saved them both with a good first and then a forehand volley winner, and after one more deuce had his 5-2 lead.

Bonding fell behind 0-40 in the final service game but saved all three, the third on an ace call that Woestendick vociferously objected to, as he even pleaded with Bonding to acknowledge it was wide. Bonding was understandably not inclined to donate that point, drawing Woestendick's attention to the sideline call in the fourth game that he did not concede.

"The serve was pretty far wide," Woestendick said of the 30-40 serve that was called an ace. "I was really tight, so I overreacted a little bit, but thankfully I locked in and in the next two points made my returns and focused."

Woestendick will receive a wild card into the 2024 BNP Paribas Open qualifying next year, a prize that he was determined not to affect his play.

"I didn't really know that until yesterday, and then I tried to keep it out of my mind," Woestendick said. "Honestly I forgot about it today, which is good."

Bonding took the match points lost and the bad calls in stride as he assessed his run to the final.

"It was obviously a tough match, with the match points, but you've got to say hats off to Cooper today; he got through in the end," Bonding said. "I don't think it was either of our best matches of the tournament, but it's not always like that in finals either. This was a very positive week for me, a lot of good stuff, a lot of positives to take. Obviously, this one will sting a little bit, but I think I should be happy with how I did here."

The girls final was a less dramatic affair with No. 3 seed Clervie Ngounoue defeating No. 7 seed Theadora Rabman 6-1, 6-2. Ngounoue, who did not lose more than three games in any of her five victories this week, won the first eight points of the match and although Rabman recovered to hold serve in her second attempt, the outcome of match never appeared in doubt.

Rabman continued to battle, particularly when serving in the sixth game of the first set, which went to eight deuces before she double faulted to fall behind 5-1.

Ngounoue closed out the 33-minute set by holding serve and then went up 1-0 in another lengthy game, with Rabman again double faulting on game point, this time after four deuces.

"Double faults always creep in here and there, but I'm definitely working on it," said Rabman, a 17-year-old from New York. "But it's tough, when you're playing a girl with so much power, I feel like I have to go for a lot."

Ngounoue was broken in the fourth game of the second, with Rabman converting the second of the two break points she had all morning with an excellent return, but she lost her serve at love in the following game, sealing her fate.

Ngounoue, who won the FILA International doubles title with Qavia Lopez Saturday, now has three titles already this month, adding these two to a doubles title on the USTA Pro Circuit in Texas. Going back to junior competition is not easy for any player with professional aspirations, but Ngounoue is satisfied with the competition she received in this event.

"It was definitely worth my time, I got experience from every single match," said the 16-year-old, who is originally from Washington DC, but now lives and trains in Orlando. "Where some were more challenging than others, each one challenged me in a way others couldn't. I'm really glad I played the tournament; I got what I was looking for."

Like Woestendick, Ngounoue will receive a qualifying wild card into the BNP Paribas Open next March, although she expressed hope that she wouldn't need it.

"Hopefully, let's see how the next year goes, but if I can grab a couple of points, maybe I can get in on my own," said Ngounoue, who is currently 578 in the WTA rankings. "We'll see."

Rabman, who was playing in her first J300 final today, doesn't doubt Ngounoue's prospects for pro success.

"I got overpowered and I got outsmarted," said Rabman, who was surprised by her father and sister, who flew in for the final from New York. "It was tough competition out there. She's an incredible player, a step ahead of everyone."

Rabman's father Louie, who often accompanies his daughter to tournaments but ceded that responsibility to Thea's mother this week, had promised Thea earlier that he made the trip if she made the final. But her sister's presence was totally unexpected.

"I knew my dad was flying out, because before the tournament we made a promise to each other, if I made the finals he was going to fly out," said Rabman, who joins the North Carolina Tar Heels this fall. "But my sister surprised me; she lied to me, I didn't think she was coming and I'm very happy."

All four of today's finalists are on Monday's order of play at the J300 in San Diego, with the first round scheduled to begin at 8:30 a.m. at the Barnes Tennis Center. As was the case in Indian Wells, Iva Jovic and Kaylan Bigun are the No. 1 seeds, with Ngounoue No. 2, Rabman No. 6, Woestendick No. 14 and Bonding No. 7.

It has been raining all evening in San Diego, although qualifying was completed today. 

The Indian Wells Tennis Garden and Universal Tennis hosted a dual match between No. 8 USC and No. 44 Pepperdine and it came down to a third-set tiebreaker at line 3 before USC claimed the 4-3 victory. I was able to take in a game or two between the girls and boys singles finals, but am sorry I wasn't able to catch that dramatic ending.

Eighteen-year-old wild card Kyle Kang lost to No. 5 seed Alex Bolt of Australia 6-3, 7-6(3) in today's final of the $25,000 USTA Pro Circuit tournament in Bakersfield California.

Nuno Borges(Mississippi State) of Portugal bested a loaded field at the ATP Challenger 175 in Phoenix, beating qualifier Alexander Shevchenko of Russia 4-6, 6-2, 6-1 in today's final. Borges is now up to 68 in the ATP live rankings. For more on the final, see this ATP article.

Qualifying began today for women at the ATP/WTA Masters 1000 Miami Open, with reigning NCAA singles champion Peyton Stearns(Texas) picking up a 6-2, 6-4 win Rebecca Peterson of Sweden, currently No. 76 in the WTA rankings after reaching the round of 16 in Indian Wells. 2021 NCAA singles champion Emma Navarro(Virginia) also picked up a first round qualifying win, beating Cristina Bucsa of Spain 2-6, 6-3, 6-4. 

Men's qualifying begins Monday, with 2022 Kalamazoo 18s champion Learner Tien, a wild card, playing Jan-Lennard Struff of Germany. Monday's order of play is here.