The Girls 16 finals was the first match on Sunday and in it's own way it was as much a titantic struggle as the Girls 18s the day before. Of all the finals in all the divisions it had the greatest contrast in styles. It was also an amazing example of how a match can swing back and forth as the players struggle to impose their respective games.
Sara Lee, the 12th seed from Los Angeles California, is coached by Tennisplayer.net contributor Craig Cignarelli. It was actually incredible to watch Sara put into practice the sophisticated understanding of tactics that Craig has outlined in his articles. (Click Here.)
Her opponent was Ellen Tsay, from Pleasanton, California, seeded second, a lefty with the toughest defensive game of any junior I saw play the whole week, girl or boy. The bottom line was nobody in the division could stay with Ellen from the baseline. Her groundstrokes were virtually impenetrable and one opponent after another self-destructed trying to hit her off the court. But there was more to her game, because in addition to her lefty serve, she could also finish from the short court, and also at times at the net.
From the first point of the first set, Sara set out to beat her a different way--by going to the net. And she put on an amazing display of attacking tennis, not only tactically, but technically, with rock solid volleys and great touch.
I knew from talking to Craig what she was going to try to do, but even the knowledgeable tennis people watching the match must have been shocked when they saw Sara play her first service game.
On the first point she hit a clean drop shot winner, and then on the second, an angled forehand volley winner to go up 30 love. She backed that up with a service winner, and a masterful low forehand volley. And I could hear Craig's words, "Does anyone really think girls can't volley?"
Well, Sara definitely can, and she kept doing it for the rest of the set. Her second hold ended with a decisive backhand volley winner. This was in a long deuce game in which Ellen shifted her primary backcourt strategy to a series of high, deep loops.
Then with Ellen serving at 1-2, Sara absolutely pulverized an overhead, and later ripped a crosscourt backhand to get an early break. Ellen responded like a champion, hitting two forehand winners and drawing two errors from Sara to break back. But Sara broke her again, running around a serve and smacking a forehand inside in return winner--another page from the Cignarelli book.
Now serving at 4-3 Sara hit two extremely confident forehand volleys, a backhand down the line winner, and another clean overhead winner to go up 5-3. It was virtually pure attacking tennis--and it was working. In the next game, Sara hit a dominating swinging backhand volley, and then got two double faults and a backhand error from Ellen to finish out the set 6-3. Whoa!
At the start, it looked like she might just runaway with the second set and match in the same fashion.
Sara fought off two early break points to hold in the first game. Then they exchanged holds. Then with Ellen serving at 1-2, Sara broke and served to go up 4-1. And in that game everything started to shift. Then played four deuces. On Sara's second ad point, she missed an easy overhead--the kind she had been crushing. Ellen broke back and you could feel the momentum start to move.
Ellen hit a solid backhand volley of her own to hold for 3 all. And then the errors started for Sara. She made three in quick succession, let out a scream, then lost serve. You could see why Ellen was in the final. She never showed a hint of giving up and now the constant pressure she'd put on Sara to hit winner after winner was taking its toll.
With Ellen serving at 4-3, Sara missed an uncertain looking forehand volley from behind the service line, and then basically stopped going in. The rest of the set was mainly quick errors from Sara. So Ellen took the second, 6-3.
So the match had started one way, and then swung the other. As is often the case, the third set mirrored this swing pattern in a more compressed form.
At 2 all, 30 all, Sara smoked two forehand returns and got a break. Ellen got a break point in the next game, but Sara recovered and held with a gorgeous short angled backhand winner. Sara was now up a break in the third at 4-2.
But that was as far as she was able to push it. Those silky looping strokes Ellen played over and over, combined with the occasional winner and volley just proved too daunting.
The match swung suddenly and dramatically back Ellen's way and she ran off the next 4 games. Well, actually, it took a long time, because some of the points were 10 to 20 balls. But the basic pattern of the second set reemerged. Sara had lost just enough confidence to keep her from coming in the way she had in the first. She still hit a number of impressive winners, but this was matched or exceeded by the errors.
The 4-5 game with Sara serving to stay in the match was typical. Sara made two errors, hit a service winner, then a forehand winner to get to 3 all. But she never got to the net. Suddenly Ellen smacked a forehand return for a clean winner to get to match point. They played a superhuman moonball point that ended when Sara missed a backhand. It was an incredible display of determination and craft. The third set and the Easter Bowl title to Ellen 6-4.
After the match, Craig I thought put the perfect spin on it for both kids. You had to realize Ellen had the character of a champion, but for Sara, there was the proof right before her eyes that she had the capacity to play dominating attacking points against the best junior players in the country.
Not every match can have that kind of drama, and not every player who has a great tournament necessarily plays his best when he gets to the last match. That was pretty much the story of the Boys 18 where Chase Buchannan, from New Albany Ohio, took out Alex Llompart from Puerto Rico, impressively in straight sets, 6-1, 6-0.
Chase really imposed his all court game from the start, and Alex for his part was never really able to get it going or string together many good points.
Both players had won some clutch matches to get there. Chase, seeded fourth, had a tough 3-setter in the first round, and another one in the semi-final. Alex was seeded 13th seed and had survived a tough three setter in the first round, then took out the 11th and 3rd seeds to get to the final match.
You could see why he got there when you saw his forehand, which was probably the most extreme stroke I saw in the event. He was quite far under the handle, close to Nadal grip-wise. He had very explosive racket speed, hitting the ball hard, but especially, with very heavy spin. The shot looked heavier than many pro forehands I've studied.
After the match I heard him tell one of the reporters that he'd been having trouble with his back since the third day, and maybe that had something to do with it. Or maybe, like many players who make an unexpected run, he'd come as far as he could and was just out of gas physically, or more likely, emotionally.
Chase served to open the match and promptly hit two forehand volley winners, a forehand winner, and a service winner to hold at love. Then in Alex's first service game, Chase hit a topspin lob for a clean winner and another forehand winner. Meanwhile Alex missed two big forehands and it was very quickly 2-0. And that was pretty much representative of the match.
After Chase held easily, Alex held for the first and only time to make it 1-3. But from there Chase ran out the next nine games.
It wasn't so much that Alex looked outclassed in terms of his shot potential. They had some great exchanges, and there were times where Alex got his forehand going. But in this match for Alex, there were far more forehand errors than winners.
After he ran out the first set, Chase immediately broke serve again to start the second. Alex called the trainer and tired to get his back stretched out, but there wasn't much change in the way the points went. Alex struggled really hard to keep from losing the second break, but after Chase hit a volley winner, he missed a backhand and was down 0-3.
Chase held for 4-0, and they played another tough game. Alex played a serve and volley point and cranked a massive forehand. You might have thought Chase would let the game go since he was up a set and two breaks, but he wanted every point. He eventually broke him for the third time.
Then Chase calmly served it out, hitting two backhand volley winners, the second coming at match point. That had to feel great. It was a tour de force of high percentage, aggressive tennis on a big occasion.
Last year the final in the Boys 16s was the most dramatic of all the final matches, and this year it turned out to be the same. Clay Thompson, the second seed, from Venice California, faced off with Jack Sock, from Lincoln, Nebraska, seeded eighth.
When you observed these two kids there was quite a difference physically, but also in terms of personality. Clay was about 5 or 6 inches taller at 6' 2" or maybe even taller, and very composed, and unassuming. He barely said two words for the whole match--maybe one or two "C'mons" when he hit incredible clutch winners in the third set.
Jack on the other hand was, shall we say, vocal, bordering on cocky but not in a completely unattractive sense of that term. He wore his heart on his sleeve the whole match and you had to admire his passion and intensity.
During the previous match in the Boys 18s while he was waiting to play, Jack happened to come up to the viewing area above the court where I was filming and was talking to one of his coaches.
The kid is in love with tennis--he knows everything about all the players, has opinions on all the different rackets. He knows who is wearing what clothing from what company, what seasonal line it is, and had strong opinions on how it all looked.
He also had over the course of the week apparently made at least a few fans among the girl players. I know because two of them came up to the same viewing area and cheered for him during most of his match.
The match was an incredible struggle involving power shotmaking, sudden changes in tactics, and tremendous emotional resilience on both sides, and it went down to a breaker in the third set. Sometimes even when you get to a breaker in the third, you get a sense of who is going to win, but in this case I had no idea, the match still seemed totally up in the air.
There was no doubt that Clay had a big game, huge in fact. He played in close, took a lot of balls on the rise, and went for his shots unfailingly, time after time. What was a little surprising though, considering the size difference, was how explosive Jack was as well.
He had to play defense at many points, but Jack never backed off an inch when he had a chance to go for it himself. He also had great touch and tremendous variety, qualities that payed off time and again.
Jack served first and held easily, hitting a couple of really big first serves and finishing with an amazing crosscourt short angled pass. Then he immediately took it to Clay in the second game. He blocked back a rocket first serve and when Clay came in, nailed a perfect heavy topspin backhand lob.
He backed that up with a rocket backhand return, to get up 0-30. Then at 15-40, he hit a very confident looking slice forehand return on a wide serve that surprised Clay and drew an error. Right from the start it looked like this was going to be a really high quality match.
They stayed on serve all the way to 5-3, with Clay mixing big first serves, huge groundies and some clean volleys in his service games, and Jack continuing to mix it up with power and variety everywhere on the court.
With Jack now serving for the set, he got out to 40-30 set point, but in one of the few bad errors he made all day, he a forehand into the next court. Clay jumped on the opportunity. On the next two points he ran around second serves and cleaned two forehand winners. Suddenly they were back on serve.
But with Clay serving at 15 all, Jack hit an amazing reflex return, and then a forehand pass. Suddenly Clay missed two forehands and that was the first set, 6-4 Sock.
The second set looked like it might be a repeat of the first when Jack again got an early break and served at 3-2. But Clay broke back to get to 3 all and then just literally ran off the next three games.
The difference was just a slight shift in the number of errors, with Jack making a few more and Clay making a few less and hitting a few more winners. Serving at 3-5, Jack was visibly frustrated. He hit two doubles, then missed a tough low volley. That combined with one huge return from Clay squared it at a set a piece.
The third set was amazing--I filled up10 pages in a notebook recording everything that happened back and forth between these two great young competitors.
Clay started by hitting a forehand winner to hold in a tight deuce game. Then Jack held in his first game which included an amazing drop shot followed by a soft touch lob for a winner--over a 6' 3" opponent.
They both held all the way to 4 all, with Clay serving to get to match game. Clay hit a service winner to start. But suddenly Jack changed it up. He hit two more of amazing forehand slice returns and got errors on both points. He hit a lob that forced another error, and finally a backhand slice return that drew a backhand miss. Bang! Just like that it was Jack serving for the match.
But the match had just seemed too even for Jack to close it out now. You could see the pressure weigh on him just enough to push it back Clay's way. Clay relaxed and hit a gigantic forehand return. Then they played one of the longest points of the match, and Jack missed a forehand. 2 more quick unforced errors followed from Jack and it was right back on serve at 5 all.
Then Clay held, hitting a clutch first serve on game point. And now, Jack went from serving for the match, to serving to force the breaker. You could just feel however, that the breaker was where this match was headed. Clay got to within 2 points of the match at 15-30 with a couple of aggressive forehands, but at 40 all, he missed a backhand, and then Jack hit a service winner, and there it was, 6-6 in the third.
So after more than a couple of hours on court, it was as dead even as it could be, and I had no sense at all who would take the breaker. But then things started happening fast. Clay hit a backhand wide on the first point. Then Jack came up with a tremendous inside in forehand winner--possibly the most explosive shot he hit in the whole match.
Clay missed a forehand and very quickly found himself serving at 0-3. He hit an incredibly clutch backhand volley to get to 1-3, but then missed a forehand by two inches.
So Jack was serving at 4-1. He missed a backhand and then Clay hit a big forehand return--but he missed the second forehand with a chance for a clean winner. So that made it 2-5, with Clay serving. It really felt like the margin might now be too much to overcome, but, I had to rethink that as suddenly Clay hit an ace and backed that with a forehand winner. These guys were playing the kind of big time tennis you usually see usually only the highest levels of the sport.
So now, Jack had the match on his racket, serving at 5-4 in the breaker. Would it continue to swing back toward Clay? Jack missed his first serve, and Clay ran round around the second and tried to crush the return, but missed, barely. Even though he made an error, it was still so impressive, because at the tightest juncture in the match he did not back off one bit. He knew what he wanted to do and he tried to make it happen. So at 6-4, serving for the Easter Bowl title, what happened? Jack stepped up and hit an unreturnable first serve. Title to Jack Sock, 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (7-4).
And here was another example of the ebb and flow of the game, and how tactics play into outcomes, though often in very different ways. One player fearlessly going after ball after ball regardless of the score. And a second player mixing it up just enough to get a few extra points and a major junior title.
So that was it for another incredible Easter Bowl. But there is more to come. Next month we'll hear from some of the country's elite junior coaches. And in the future there is a plan in place to stream the cable television special on Tennisplayer so you can see even more of these amazing kids. Stay Tuned!
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