Americans Lilov, Gauff Sweep Junior Orange Bowl 12s Titles, Noel Wins 14s Championship
by Colette Lewis
, 23 December 2016
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After a sweep of the 16s singles titles earlier this month at the Metropolia Orange Bowl, Americans continued their success this week at the Junior Orange Bowl, with Victor Lilov, Cori Gauff and Alexa Noel claiming the biggest silver bowls of oranges on offer at 12s and 14s event in Coral Gables, Florida.
Although only 12, Gauff had already felt the sting of two consecutive semifinal losses, so her 6-4, 7-6(4) win over fellow American Katrina Scott
in the championship match was full of tension.
When top seed Katerina Dimitrova of Bulgaria was defeated in the first round, No. 2 seed Gauff became the title favorite, and given her success in the 16s and 18s divisions, expectations were already great. She did nothing to diminish them on her way to the final, winning all her matches in straight sets.
Scott, the No. 4 seed, had needed three sets only once, in her third round win over unseeded Minseo Kim of Korea, but she had won three tiebreakers in her next two matches and was ready for the big-hitting Gauff in the final.
After nervous opening service games from each player, Gauff and Scott settled in, with Gauff taking the opening set by virtue of a third break.
In the second set, just two games from the title, Gauff went up 4-2, but Scott responded to the challenge, holding and breaking to make it 4-4. Gauff was able to break with some big backhands to give herself a chance to serve out the match, but she wasn't able to get to match point then or in her second attempt to serve it out at 6-5, despite starting that game up 30-0.
"Previously in the match my serve wasn't doing well and I think that was just in the back of my head," Gauff said. "I was worried, so I started pushing it in, and that wasn't helping. She was doing what she is supposed to do, hitting winners."
After five straight breaks of serve and some spotty play by both players toward the end of the set, the level of play picked up in the tiebreaker. Gauff double faulted to give Scott a 2-0 lead, but then proceeded to hit four forehand winners in the next five points to go up 4-3. And despite a double fault on her first match point, Gauff closed out the title when Scott netted a forehand.
Gauff said she keeps the pressure off in those situations by putting herself mentally back on the practice court.
"I just try to imagine that I'm back at my home court in Delray," said Gauff, who is coached by Gerard Loglo at the New Generation Tennis Academy there. "I play a lot of tiebreaks in practice, so I just pretended it was another tiebreaker there."
Scott had nothing but praise for Gauff's game, which she was seeing from across the net for the first time.
"She really fights and she hits a really big ball, and she's a good mover," said Scott, a 12-year-old from Woodland Hills, California. "She definitely hit some good shots. She played really well. I played really well the whole week, so it'll be a good memory."
Gauff has no specific plans to celebrate her championship, but she said the title was the only Christmas present she wanted.
Lilov had won one of the tournament's most dramatic matches in the semifinals, saving six match points in a 4-6, 6-1, 7-6(2) win over unseeded Adolfo Vallejo of Paraguay. Vallejo had ousted top seed Dino Prizmic of Croatia in the round of 16, and No. 3 seed Lilov had earned an impressive 6-0, 6-3 win over Eddie Herr champion Gunuk Kang of Korea that same day.
The first all-US boys 12s final since 2007 featured Lilov and Bruno Kuzuhara, a No. 9 seed. Kuzuhara had rolled through the draw without dropping a set, and when he took the first set from Lilov 6-0, it looked like his hot streak would continue. But Kuzuhara's level dropped, and with a second comeback in two days, Lilov would take the title 0-6, 6-2, 6-4.
"I expected him to come out strong, but not that strong," said Lilov, a 12-year-old from Raleigh, North Carolina. "I was still a little bit sluggish from the last match, but he played too good."
"I was down 2-1 a break, in the second set, but he made a few unforced errors in the fourth game and that definitely turned the match around," added the reigning 12s National champion.
Kuzuhara, who was pleased with his overall level play on the Har-Tru courts of Salvadore Park during the week, credited Lilov for his willingness to keep fighting.
"I played good in the first set, I was moving the ball well," said Kuzuhara, a 12-year-old from Coconut Creek, Florida. "But after the first set, he kind of got into the match and started playing better. I thought (before this match) that if I played well I could get to the finals, and probably win this match, but Victor played really well."
Lilov said the best part of his game in the final two days of the tournament boiled down to his willingness to compete.
"I just had to fight, really," said Lilov, who works with Steve Smith and Mat Cloer in North Carolina. "He just dominated me in the first set, played too good. I think I just fought, and that was my strength."
The unseeded Noel's 3-6, 6-2, 6-4 win over No. 3 seed Qinwen Zheng of China in the girls 14s final was not the surprise it might appear, with Noel inexplicably not seeded despite winning the 16s Clay Courts this year and having one of the highest ITF junior rankings of any competitor.
Noel ended up beating five seeded players in her seven wins, including a 6-1, 7-5 victory over No. 1 seed Noa Krznaric of Croatia in the quarterfinals, while Zheng had rolled into the final, with her toughest match a 6-4, 6-4 decision over No. 2 seed Holly Fischer in the semifinals.
Noel had beaten Zheng in the final of January's Nike International, a major 14-and-under tournament in England, and the New Jersey resident knew her variety gave the hard-hitting Zheng trouble.
"She likes to strike through the court," Noel said of Zheng prior to the final. "So as long as I keep it out of her strike zone and I'm serving well, I think I have a pretty good chance."
Unfortunately, Noel was not serving well in the championship match, especially in the second set, when her court positioning and unforced errors gave Zheng reason to hope this final would turn out differently.
"I stood way too far off the baseline, my toss was all over the place, and I was hitting way too many floating slices right into her backhand," said Noel, who used the 10-minute break between sets to get some tips from former coach Ben Cappuccitti of the Junior Tennis Champions Center. "He told me to dig deep, fix my toss, focus on what you can control, the right way to play."
That pep talk helped Noel take a 3-2 lead in the third set, but she lost it immediately with a pair of double faults not helping her mood. Zheng held for a 4-3 lead, but that was the last game she would win, with Noel getting a break to take a 5-4 lead. A deft sliced pass by Noel, a double fault and a netted forehand gave Noel an opportunity to serve out the match, and she didn't miss a first serve, holding at love for the championship.
"[It is] the second time I lost against her in final," said Zheng. "She change a lot the rhythm and she make me a lot of trouble. But it's first time I got in final of Orange Bowl and I have chance to win, but it's ok. I already did good."
Noel said her game style and its execution have peaked in Coral Gables.
"Since the US Open, this is probably the best I've played," said Noel, who went on to explain how her game differs from most other players her age. "I think I have more variety, I guess. Use more of the court, hit different shots, instead of the same shot over and over."
The final match at the Neil Schiff Tennis Center at the University of Miami featured yet another US vs. China battle, with top seed Bu Yunchaokete defeating No. 2 seed Alex Lee of Illinois 6-4, 6-4.
Lee had advanced to the final with a 7-6(0), 6-4 win over No. 9 seed Spencer Brachman, and Lee got off to a good start against Yunchaokete, taking a 2-0 lead.
Yunchaokete settled down and got the break back for 2-1 however, and both players held serve until 4-all, when Lee played a loose game and was broken at love. Yunchaokete held for the first set, and was up 3-1 in the second before Lee fought back to take the next three games.
At 4-all, Lee was again broken at love, with the second set bearing an uncanny resemblance to the first.
"I think it was just a little bit of nerves, not being able to close out easy shots in those games," said Lee, the reigning 14s National champion. "Both times, I think that was why I was broken. Overall, I thought I played pretty well. I went for my shots and they went in, but he played a little bit better."
Yunchaokete had survived a tough three-hour semifinal match with No. 5 seed Zane Khan
, saving a match point, the second time in the tournament he had come back to win after facing match points. Yunchaokete admitted he was still tired from his dramatic and emotional win over Khan, who had beaten him in the Eddie Herr final
Happy to win in straight sets, Yunchaokete agreed that his level was slightly higher than Lee's at the end of both sets.
"I just make no mistakes, control and move him," said Yunchaokete. "He make mistakes and his first serve a little down, so help for me."
Yunchaokete admitted that winning the Junior Orange Bowl title after losing in the final of the Eddie Herr earlier this month was important to him.
"I'm very happy to be champion," said Yunchaokete. "This better, yes, very good."
Third Place and Consolation
Neither third place match in the 14s was played, with Emma Raducanu of Great Britain awarded third when Fischer could not compete due to illness. Brachman took third place when Khan did not play due to illness.
Fifth place in the boys 14s went to Hunter Heck, who beat Benjamin Heynold of Great Britain 2-6, 6-3, 7-5. Fifth place in the girls 14s went to Kylie Bilchev of Great Britain, who defeated Noa Krznaric of Croatia 3-6, 6-4, 6-1.
Third place in the boys 12s went to Kim of Korea, who beat Vallejo 7-5, 5-7, 6-4. Evan Wen defeated Kang 7-5, 6-1 to take fifth place.
In the girls 12s, Tatiana Muzykantskaya of Russia took third place with a 7-6(3), 6-3 win over Vivian Ovrootsky. Dasha Plekhanova of Canada beat Daniella Benabraham 6-4, 7-5 for fifth place.
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About Colette Lewis
has covered topflight U.S. and international junior
events as a freelance journalist for over a decade.
Her work has appeared in Tennis
magazine, the Tennis
magazine and the US Open program, and she
provides monthly content for USTA Florida. Lewis is active on
and she writes a weekly column right here at TennisRecruiting.net.
She was named
Junior Tennis Champion
for 2016 by Tennis Industry Magazine.
Lewis, based out of Kalamazoo, Michigan, has seen every National
Championship final played since 1977, and her work on the
tournament's ustaboys.com website
led her to establish
where she comments on junior and college tennis daily.