The No.-8 seeded Alafia Ayeni from San Diego and top-seeded Claire Liu from Thousand Oaks, Calif., captured ITF 18s boys’ and girls’ singles titles on the final day of the 50th Annual Adidas Easter Bowl USTA Junior Spring Nationals played at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.
The 17-year-old Ayeni overcame a huge mental lapse in the second set, but served big when it counted most in the third to get past 16-year-old Sebastian Korda, the No. 10 seed from Bradenton, Fla., 6-4, 0-6, 7-5.
The 16-year-old Liu, who won the girls’ Easter Bowl ITF title in 2015 as a 14-year-old, avenged a loss in the fall to Ellie Douglas, the No. 4 seed from McKinney, Texas, in taking the title, 6-1, 6-2.
For the first time this year both winners, in addition to receiving ITF trophies and valuable rankings points, also received USTA gold balls as the premier Easter Bowl 18s division has been upgraded to USTA national championship status.
Ayeni planned to fly to Spain for an ITF Grade 1 tournament later Sunday evening, and will surely have a smile on his face crossing the Atlantic after coming back to beat the tough Korda, who held a 3-1 lead and had several break point chances on Ayeni’s serve in the third set.
“I knew if he got the break there it would be tough to come back, and I know that Sebby is such a good server,” said Ayeni, whose father was a discus thrower in college from Nigeria. “It was so difficult to break him.”
Serving at 3-all, another long deuce game ensued with Ayeni applying the pressure and converting on crucial points to go up 4-3 in the tense match, at times letting loose on serves that registered 133 miles per hour via the radar gun and displayed on the scoreboard.
For the third straight match, Korda dropped the first set, and for the third straight time he raced off to the bathroom after each first-set loss to gather himself. “I threw some water on my face and told myself to relax and it always seems to work,” Korda said. “I started making a lot more balls and played better. He was playing amazing at the end.”
Ayeni said he let his mind wander after winning the first set, and won just five total points in the second set. “I was just so nervous and I started thinking, ‘OK, I’m one set away from winning the Easter Bowl.’ And it didn’t help I was sitting down for quite awhile because of Sebby’s bathroom break. I got cold.
Ayeni said his rocket serves in the third set and his experience were the key factors in pulling out the win. “I just kept hitting the serve harder and I felt it gave me just that little advantage that I needed,” he said. “I think I had the experience advantage because I have been in two ITF finals and this was his first. I know that, especially in finals, the match isn’t over till it’s over. I knew it wasn’t over till the last ball was hit.”
Korda smiled and said he was happy with his week, and was headed to the golf course to see his two older sister compete on the final day of the LPGA major ANA Inspiration tournament.
Liu became the first player – boy or girl – in the 50-year history of the tournament to win two Easter Bowls over a three-year span.
“I was pretty nervous,” said Liu, who dropped just one set in the tournament and won her last six sets giving up a total of eight games. “For every match I was nervous, but that’s kind of why I’m here, to deal with my nerves and to continue to play well under pressure, and I think I did that pretty good.”
Liu will next play two USTA Pro Circuit $60,000 events, and the Naples Pro Futures $25,000 before heading to Paris for two more pro events and the junior French Open.
“My mindsets were different in both (Easter Bowl) tournament finals because when I was younger I was really trying to get into the French,” she said. “This tournament I was just focusing on my game and trying to get better for the pros.”
Douglas lost in the final for the second straight year, and has now lost four big ITF-level junior finals without a win. “She played well and it was not my day.” Douglas said. “I had so many unforced errors and she hit so many lines. I don’t know, maybe it’s something about finals I’m just not good at. I didn’t feel nervous, but something was off.”
Douglas will be in Paris for the French Open and then travel to England and Wimbledon this summer. “I’ve got just go home and get better at closing out tournaments,” she said.
The top-seed in the Boys’ 16s division, 15-year-old Brandon Nakashima played nearly flawless tennis in a 6-1, 6-2 finals win over No. 13-seeded Stefan Dostanic of Irvine.
It was the second gold ball in singles for Nakashima, who attends High Bluff Academy near his home in San Diego, to go along with the two he has in doubles.
“It feels amazing,” said Nakashima, who played up in the 18s last week in Carson and lost to Patrick Kypson in the third round. “It was a long week. I played probably the best I’ve played the whole tournament. Stefan is a good player and I had to play my best to beat him. All the pressure was on me being the No. 1 seed in the tournament.”
Nakashima, who has been working with famed coach Larry Stefanki for the past two years, said he will play once more in the 16s at the USTA Hardcourt Nationals at Kalamazoo in August before graduating full-time to the 18s.
“He just didn’t miss,” said Dostanic, 15, who trains with coaches Chuck Brymer and Chris Lewis at the Woodbridge Country Club in Irvine, Calif. “I played him about a year ago and it was the same result. He doesn’t show any emotion and doesn’t give you much to work with. I’m planning on playing Kalamazoo so maybe I can get my revenge there.”
It was the first USTA national ball for Dostanic, who attends Woodbridge High School and plays on the high school team.
A New York native now living in Charleston, S.C., Emma Navarro got rid of some early match nerves as the No. 5 seed downed unseeded Fiona Crawley of San Antonio, 7-6 (8), 6-0, to win the Girls’ 16s title. Crawley, who upset the No. 1 seed Briana Crowley in the first round, fought off several match points before falling in the first set.
“In the second set I loosened up a little bit and once I got the first two games I took it from there,” said Navarro, who won her first gold ball in singles and trains at LTP Tennis in Charleston with coach Peter Ayers.
Crawley’s silver ball will look nice displayed next to the bronze one she won at the USTA Spring Team Nationals last year. Crawley trains at the John Newcombe Tennis Ranch in New Braunfels and attends Alamo Heights High School in San Antonio.
“I’ve never done this well at a national tournament,” she said. “I could have never imagined I would have made it this far. I don’t know what is next for me. I was supposed to be playing in a Texas tournament this weekend.”
USTA national gold and silver balls were handed out in the boys’ and girls’ 14s and 12s division before the winds came mid-week.
Charlotte Owensby of Boca Raton, Fla., fought off seven match points to come back down 2-5 in the third set to win the Girls’ 14s singles final over Gianna Pielet, 6-4, 2-6, 7-5.
It was tough to watch the top-seeded Pielet from El Paso, Texas, not able to close out the match, at one point serving and up 5-4, 40-love.
“I’ve maybe been down three match points before, but never down that far in games,” Owensby said. “I tried to focus my plan of getting her off the court and that started working and she was making more errors. And that gave me more confidence.”
She added: “When she went up 5-4 and 40-love, I definitely thought I was done. Then I just took it one point at a time and just tried to come back. And then at 5-all I just focused on that game and won that game.”
Owensby is coached by former WTA world-ranked Top 85 player Yuliya Beygelzimer and recently turned 14. “It feels amazing. I still haven’t processed it that I won the Easter Bowl,” she said after accepting her first USTA national gold ball at her first Easter Bowl.
“I had some match points, but just couldn’t close it out,” a distraught Pielet said. “I certainly didn’t play good at all and I think we were both nervous. I can learn from this, for sure. Just to try to play a better match and work on my nerves.”
In the Boys’ 14s final, Alexander Bernard (No. 9 seed, Bonita Springs, Fla.) defeated Aryan Chaudhary (No. 2, Santa Clara, Calif.), 6-4, 6-2.
Bernard was set to catch a long flight back to Florida Thursday night, but said he planned to celebrate by perhaps going to McDonalds. “I’ve never had In N Out,” Bernard said. “I should try it.”
He added: “I started off making too many mistakes and he was playing good,” said Bernard, 13, who won his first gold ball and trains with Rene Gomez at Gomez Tennis Academy in Naples. “I was just trying to focus on the next point and trying to stay in the rallies.”
“This week has been great and I’ve never been here before,” said Chaudhary, who won his first silver ball to go along with a gold in doubles on Wednesday and a copper in a past Winternationals. “I was just looking forward to playing people from around the U.S. It was a great experience for me.”
In the Boys’ 12s final, unseeded Kyle Kang of Fullerton, Calif., got the best of fellow unseeded player Nishesh Basavareddy of Carmel, Ind., 6-2, 6-4.
“It was fun out there,” said Kang, who just turned 12 recently and is in sixth grade at Hermosa Drive Elementary in Fullerton. “When I started winning it was really fun. I started off down 0-2, but I just focused and was able to hit my shots. My heart was racing on match point.”
“He was staying consistent and moving me around,” said Basavareddy, who is 11 and has a singles USTA gold ball from the Winternationals and also won the gold ball in the 12s doubles on Wednesday. “I wasn’t nervous and think my experience helped me.”
In the Girls’ 12s final, unseeded Priya Nelson of Sacramento, Calif., downed Eleana Yu of Mason, Ohio, 6-1, 6-3.
Nelson won her first USTA national ball of any kind, and a gold one at that. “I wasn’t nervous at all,” she said. “It feels good to be an Easter Bowl champion. I have practice tomorrow and another tournament to get ready for.”
Nelson is 11 and is home schooled. She was also given the 12s USTA Sportsmanship award. Martin Damm was awarded the honor in the 14s division.
“The nerves got to me,” said Yu, who is 12 and goes to public school (sixth grade) in Mason. “I learned a lot this week and think I can get a lot better after this.”