When Mackenzie McDonald wakes up on Monday morning, his 17th birthday, it will probably have sunk in: he’s the 2012 boys’ 1TF 18s singles champion at the Easter Bowl. Just three years ago, on his final days as a 13-year-old, McDonald won the gold ball in the USTA Springs Nationals in the 14s at the Easter Bowl. “This is so big, one of the most prestigious events we have in the nation,” said McDonald, aware that so few repeat in this tournament in multiple divisions, following his 6-4, 6-1 win over Alexios Halebian on Sunday at Rancho Las Palmas Resort. “It shows all my hard work has paid off. When you’ve been away from the game as long as I have, you begin to appreciate things more.” One year ago, McDonald was at the beginning stages of an eight-month layoff from tennis after suffering from Idiopathic Thrombocytopenic Purpura (ITP), a condition of having an abnormally low platelet count of unknown cause. He missed last year’s Easter Bowl and said he contemplated just driving down from his Bay Area home in Piedmont, Calif., just to watch the event and hang with his friends.
Halebian, the No. 4 seeded player from Glendale, Calif., started the SoCal-NorCal battle fast going up 4-1 and breaking McDonald’s serve twice, even having game points for 5-1. “I started well and was hoping to not drop the first set,” Halebian said. “I was looking good and was hoping to make it 5-1 and he started playing better. That was my best chance to win the match; to win the first set. He started hitting the ball bigger.” Halebian was playing in his first Easter Bowl final. “I’ve been just about every stage except the final,” he said. Now, like McDonald, it’s off to the French Open and Wimbledon junior events. Halebian did manage to come back and win the 18s doubles as a member of the No. 1-team with Mitchell Krueger beating Jordan Daigle and Austin Siegel, 6-2, 6-7 (3), 1-0 (7).
In the boys’ 16s final, Joseph DiGiulio, the No. 12-seeded player from Newport Beach, Calif., defeated Aron Hiltzik, the No. 9 seed from Wilmette, Ill., 7-5, 6-1. Di Giulio also won the doubles gold ball, pairing with Logan Smith to beat Jake Devine and Cameron Klinger 6-3, 6-3. Like Halebian, Hiltzik started fast and also took a 4-1 with a break of serve. But DiGiulio picked up his game and served himself out of some tough situations while Hiltzik’s serve seemed to let him down as the match progressed. “I haven’t really won anything big in the last couple of years so this is great,” said DiGiulio, who was one of four players featured in the junior tennis documentary “50,000 Balls” several years ago.
Hiltzik was all smiles in defeat. “It was a great tournament,” he said. “Every single player I played was really tough. I was just happy to get to where I got although I would have liked to have gotten the win. I was down 6-1, 3-1 in one of my matches and came back to win. So I’m just so happy to get to the final.” It was the first ball of any kind for Hiltzik. “(Joseph) played great today. He got the best of me today. He was very consistent and he didn’t give me any free points. His serve was on and mine not so much.”
In the girls’ 16s final, Brooke Broda, the No. 8 seed from West Chester, Ohio, beat Meredith Xepoleas of Huntington Beach, Calif., 6-3, 6-1. It was Broda’s first trip to the Easter Bowl and one that almost didn’t happen. She is on the mend from a stress fracture in her left foot that kept her in an air cast for a month and a half. “I just decided at the last minute to come and wing it,” said Broda, who trains out of the Queen City Racquet Club in Cincinnati. The match was officially suspended after a young male ball runner fainted. That left the 16-year-old Broda sitting in a chair in the corner of the court with nothing but to think about her one set and 4-1 lead. “I was a little nervous and was thinking I might not be as warmed up but luckily they gave us another warm-up,” she said, adding she spoke to her dad for advice during the stoppage in play while paramedics helped the young boy off the court.
Xepoleas, just 14 years old, just recently stopped training at the USTA Training Center – West and now trains with private coach Eliot Teltscher. “I was bummed about the 8:30 match time,” Xepoleas said. “I was hoping to play later in the day.” She added that the stoppage in play didn’t affect her. “To be honest I pretty much knew I wasn’t going to win the match after the delay and even before,” she said. “Because I was down and I wasn’t feeling it and I didn’t feel like five minutes was really going to do much to help me.”
After more than five hours of tennis and three victories on Saturday, Taylor Townsend just could not continue any longer. Just two days shy of her Sweet 16 birthday, Townsend captured the ITF Grade B1 Easter Bowl Girls’ 18s championship at Rancho Las Palmas, defeating Brooke Austin of Indianapolis, 4-6, 6-0, 6-3 in the final. Earlier in the day, Townsend was stretched in her semifinal in a 7-6 (0), 6-4 victory over Mayo Hibi of Irvine, Calif. The match was played first thing Saturday morning after rain washed out the event late in the day Friday. She wasn’t done there. After an hour of rest, Townsend and doubles partner Gabby Andrews of Pomona, Calif., won their doubles semifinal in straight sets pushing Townsend over the five-hour mark for the three matches. Because of travel plans involving all players, the doubles final had to follow and could not be played on Sunday. Townsend and Andrews, the defending champions and reigning Australian Open champs, fell down 1-3 to Allie Kiick and Samantha Crawford before Townsend decided to retire from the match because of an injured foot. “I just have to take them one at a time today,” said Townsend, of Stockbridge, Ga., after her two singles matches and before doubles. Her singles final was played in gusty winds on a bright and sunny day with gorgeous snow-capped mountains as a backdrop. After giving up a 4-2 lead in the first set, Townsend felt frustrated with herself but started to relax and take control of the match. “After that first set I calmed down and slowed the pace down because I know she likes to rush and that benefitted me,” Townsend said. “She (Austin) put a lot of pressure on me with my serve because it was so windy. I was kind of hitting off-serves, and she did a good job of stepping in on the second serves and hitting them flat directly to my backhand, which were very difficult to get to.” After the Carson tournament last week, Townsend felt she needed to make some improvements, which she said was a huge contributor to winning the title. “I worked on keeping the ball deep and being more disciplined with my shots and not trying to rush,” Townsend said. “Physically I felt an improvement this week and my serve was unbelievably a lot better and it allowed me to put pressure on my opponents returning-wise.”
Austin said she was trying to stay aggressive especially heading into the third set but praised Townsend for raising her level of play. “She played really well and her serve was the difference-maker,” Austin said. “She did a good job of coming back.” The marquee matchup on the final day Sunday will be the boys’ 18s final pitting Alexios Halebian of Glendale, Calif., the No. 4 seed, against Mackenzie McDonald of Piedmont, Calif., the No. 3-seeded player.
Halebian reached his first Easter Bowl final with a 6-3, 6-3 victory over Thai Kwiatkowski. Halebian felt he was able to get the monkey off his back after finally reaching the finals after five appearances in the tournament. “I was hitting my forehand really well which I don’t do every single day,” Halebian said. “I was serving really well for the most part and I felt I played at a high level throughout the match.” After losing the first set a couple times in his matches earlier in the week, Halebian felt his confidence grow after jumping to an early lead. “I broke him early and went up 2-0 and that was huge for me,” Halebian said. “I didn’t want to get too excited, but I felt if I continue doing what I’m doing I’ll be ok.” Halebian will face McDonald for the first time. “I’m happy with the way I’ve been playing and hopefully I’m destined to win it. It’s a good feeling being in the finals and hopefully I play well again,” Halebian said.
McDonald beat No. 2-seeded Noah Rubin 6-2, 6-0, with Rubin ailing from a sore right shoulder for most of the match. “Just overuse,” Rubin said. “It was OK on the serve but every forehand hurt.” McDonald’s dad flew down from Northern California to watch the match and will be there for Sunday’s final. He was also there in 2009 when McDonald won the boys’ 14s Easter Bowl. “It’s good to know that I’ve been here before,” McDonald said. “Sure, it’s a different level, but I know a little bit of what to expect.
William Blumberg also had a nice chat with his dad 15 minutes after winning the boys’ 14s title over No. 2 Kyle Seelig, 6-2, 6-1, for his second gold ball. “This is really satisfying because I’ve been working pretty hard the last couple of months,” Blumberg said. “My dad said it’s unbelievable. He realizes he can’t give me tips over the phone so he just tries to be supportive.” There’s so rest for Blumberg, as he will next travel to Mexico on Tuesday representing the USTA in Junior Davis Cup. “He just didn’t miss today,” Seelig said.
The No. 1 seed in the girls’ 14s, Emma Higuchi of Los Angeles, took home the gold ball, defeating Catherine Bellis, of Atherton, Calif., 6-4, 6-4 in the final. After winning the first set, Bellis broke Higuchi to go up 4-3, but Higuchi quickly responded with a break of her own before closing out the match to pick up her second gold ball in singles. Higuchi, who balances both regular school and tennis, felt all the preparation she put in helped her win the title. “I feel great,” Higuchi said. “All the practice and hard work finally paid off so it feels good.” The 14-year-old admitted she was a little nervous in the beginning playing in a final played on stadium court, but said it’s something she would like to get used to. “I was kind of shaky at first but I just focused on getting the balls in,” Higuchi said. “Sometimes I think ahead too much but I just focused on my game and took one point at a time and it worked out.” Both players had to adjust their game during the match due to high winds. “It was difficult for both of us in the wind but overall she played well and it was a good match,” Higuchi said.
Bellis was pleased with the way she played throughout the week and said it was a cool experience to reach the finals. “I had a lot of fun this week,” Bellis said. “Emma played awesome and was aggressive and moved forward very well.”
In the boys’ 16s final No. 12 Joseph Di Giulio will face No. 9 Aron Hiltzik not before 12:30 p.m. In the girls’ 16s final No. 8 Brooke Broda meets Meredith Xepoleas in an 8:30 a.m. final.
To keep up with all the Easter Bowl news, visit the website at easterbowl.com and check out the tournament on Facebook (www.facebook.com/EasterBowl) and Twitter (@easterbowl).
Sponsors include: Prince, Asics, Laurel Springs School, L’academie de Tennis, K12 Academy, Blue Delta Water, and the website www.10sBalls.com.
(Note: Some were postponed from Friday due to rain)