The Easter Bowl in 2008 was the 40th anniversary
of this storied and unique junior event–and our second consecutive appearance
to observe the same.
Last year we covered the Easter Bowl AS a ki…
The Easter Bowl in 2008 was the 40th anniversary
of this storied and unique junior event–and our second consecutive appearance
to observe the same.
Last year we covered the Easter Bowl AS a kind of
exploratory foray into the study of American junior tennis. The event basically
blew me away. I felt I’d discovered an amazing viewing window. The chance to
see the best 600 players in America
all at the same place at the same time in an environment unlike any junior
tournament I’d witnessed.
So I got into it and ended up staying the entire
week and writing stories about all six finals–which were mostly amazing
competitive matches. In fact, some of them had more drama than many big pro
finals I’d witnessed.
We also created a new section o the site, Future
Stars, and put up clips of the strokes of about 100 American juniors. We also
shared that video with both the USTA and with some of the kids and their
coaches. It was surprisingly positive all the way around.
So we decided to go back in 2008–and even became
a minor Easter Bowl sponsor. Starting with the boys in this issue (and the
girls to follow in June), we are adding another 100 clips of the strokes of
American junior players to Future Stars.
As great as the experience was last year, I
didn’t want to arrive with the expectation that it all had to happen exactly
the same way again and so I consciously adopted a somewhat circumspect
The main goal was just to film the top American
juniors again. To help me, I brought along two Tennisplayer ace videographers,
Aaron Martinez and Matt Barrett. But I told them “Hey we can get a hundred
or so players on video in 3 days or 4 days and get back to San Francisco by the weekend.”
But damn if the same didn’t happen to me again.
Apparently the tournament’s been the same way for 40 years, so why would 2008
be any different? So I let Aaron and Matt head back home after the first three
days. But once again I stayed for the duration.
If you are unfamiliar with the history, the
Easter Bowl has been played all over the country, New York,
and most recently, the California desert near Palm Springs. For many
years it was at the Riviera Country Club, but for the last two years the host
has Rancho Los Palmas Resort.
If you’ve been around much competitive junior tennis
you know that, despite the positive aspects, there can be a palpable toxic
atmosphere at many events. Two kids on a back court, two sets of parents
squinting through the wind screens. Someone wins and someone loses, sometimes
with acrimony and hard feelings, occasionally with some bad line calls. Then
everyone immediately piles back in their respective cars and heads home to
check the rankings on the internet.
All that is somehow obliterated–or at least
impeded–by the atmosphere at Rancho Las Palmas. It’s an old style, world class
desert resort. Gorgeous faux Spanish architecture. Wonderful, comfortable
rooms. A really nice staff. A golf course that is very, very green.
And I can personally testify, a great spa pool.
Plus a great rate if you are there for the event. Then there’s the tennis
facility itself with a couple of dozen courts and a wonderful stadium. And an
incredible set of satellite locations throughout the desert area.
And in the evenings, well, there was the chance
to revisit some our favorite haunts from our stays at Indian Wells. Before
Aaron and Matt left we had a big night at Castelli’s, the famed Sinatra-style
desert Italian hot spot. And also I got to buy Craig Cignarelli a steak in the
bar at Sullivan’s Steakhouse.
But back to the event. You’ve got the boys and
the girls in the 14s, 16s and 18s together for the duration–the only coed
event of its kind in the country. And yes, as you might imagine, there’s some
discernable adolescent chemistry.
But you’ve also got the families and the coaches
there in close proximity, so they are forced to mingle as well. And you know
what? Some of them looked like they enjoyed it as well.
And that environment is by design. Seena Hamilton, New
York marketing maven and former tennis mother,
founded the event, and the atmosphere is basically an extension of her vision
and personality. A fantastic venue for the players to see who is really the
best, with no (or at least minimal) gamesmanship and posturing allowed. Seena
wants everyone to feel as if they are guests in her home, she has repeatedly
said, and she pretty much pulls that off.
There’s a big opening party for everyone, and
after every final, an awards ceremony that has the feel of what they do on TV
at the Slams. That’s because the whole event is the subject of cable television
special every year. Then you’ve got our friends from JuniorTennis.com, taking
pictures, interviewing the kids, and putting up the coverage on a daily basis.
It makes the players feel that the event is important, and it is.
Seena expects the kids to behave and believes
that something about the media buzz and the resort/social atmosphere encourages
that. But at the same time she won’t tolerate any heavy handed or officious
behavior from the tournament officials. There is a differently vibe from the
officials here compared to many events I’ve witnessed. They seem, for want of a
better word, actually human–friendly even.
Her goal is to take pressure off the parents and
the kids and ameliorate the harsh competitive atmosphere you feel at so many
junior events. And for the second year in a row I was amazed at the lack of
histrionics. I’m sure it must have happened at some point, but I didn’t see one
kid request a linesman, and I was there everyday.
The only moment of conflict I actually witnessed
was between two spectators, or possibly two coaches and/or parents. I didn’t
actually hear what was said, but I did hear the raised voices. And, almost
instantaneously, Mary Lynn Baker, the onsite director, appeared from behind her
desk. She said something like, “Gentleman, that will be all from you or
you will both be escorted from the property.” And that was the end of the
The coaches realize that it’s something special
as well. I interviewed several of them along with various people connected with
tournament, including Seena.
Next month, you’ll be able to hear not only what
they think about the tournament, but also what they think about the current
state of American junior tennis. So stay tuned for that.
But let’s get to the matches. What happened this
year? We filmed some of the same players we saw last year. But interestingly,
there were completely different players in the finals of every event.
This year I was struck by a strategic issue that
ran through almost all the matches. It’s the same kind of question every player
at every level has to ask himself–or should. How do you adjust your strategy
or game plan to the opponent? Or do you?
What do you do when you find your primary game
plan isn’t getting the job done? Should you stay with it? Should you change?
And for these talented kids, what are the
implications of doing that–or not–for their long term development? So let’s
see how all these questions played.
The first 3 finals are on Saturday, the Girls
14s, the Boys 14s, and then the Girls 18s, followed by the remaining three
matches on Sunday. It’s a tremendous two days of elite junior competitive play,
and I’d recommend that weekend to anyone who wants to understand the junior
game, or just competitive tennis period.
Girls 14 Final
Kyle McPhillips, the number one seed from Willoughby, Ohio,
seemed as cool or cooler than any player at the Easter Bowl, with her relaxed
style and trade mark wrap around shades. (Yes worn in the matches.) She had
also cruised through the draw, amazingly, winning 0 and 0 in the first two
rounds, and not losing a set going into the final. That was 12 routine sets
against the best players in the country.
On paper, she was the heavy favorite over Sachia
Vickery, from Mirimar, Florida, who came into the tournament seeded
17th and fought her way to the final with some tough pressure packed wins. This
included a 3 set win in the semi the day before.
And in the final, Sachia just kept doing what she
had been doing the whole week, playing rock solid, opportunistic tennis. She
ended up scoring a surprising straight set win, 6-3, 6-4.
Or was it surprising? I heard one of the
spectators say in astonishment, “I can’t believe Kyle lost. She is such a
better player.” Well, obviously that wasn’t true on this day in this
match. To me was a fascinating example of the pressure dynamics in competitive
tennis. These psychological forces ebb and flow, but in my view they are
largely unrecognized by many or most observers. Yet they play a critical if not
decisive role in the outcome of virtually every match.
Despite the fact neither Kyle nor Sachia is
exactly 6 feet tall, both were explosive off the ground. Both players blasted
multiple effortless winners off both wings that showed how talented they are.
Kyle especially has a very complete game. A
surprisingly big serve, a well-developed slice backhand. And she likes to go in
to the net and force the play.
Her forehand especially is a real weapon, and she
can do it all on that side. Rip it hard and flat, roll it deep, and break it
off short and quite heavy. She has amazing posture and balance and appears to
be incredibly strong for her age.
It was obvious that Kyle’s game was somewhat
bigger and more complete than Sachia’s. But in the end, being heavily favored
in the Easter Bowl final probably had an impact on her ability to execute at
The first set was decided by a combination of
winners, but more importantly, unforced errors at moments of opportunity,
especially from Kyle. She missed a lot of what for her were makeable balls.
The fact is that was a credit to Sachia. In her
role as counterpunching underdog she just stayed more even. She challenged Kyle
to play at a very high level to beat her. She made only a handful of errors at
critical times. She kept the points going, forcing Kyle into errors, and
hitting clutch winners of her own.
Sachia got up two early breaks in the first set
to lead 4-1. Then Kyle broke back to serve a t 2-4. But neither player could
hold and they exchanged breaks again to make it 3-5 with Kyle serving, this
time to stay in the set.
They played a long moonball first point–one of
the very few like that in the match. Kyle eventually took it at the net with an
overhead winner. Then she ran it to 40-0 with a couple of quick winners. Now it
looked like Sachia would have to serve for the set.
But then Kyle made 3 unforced errors on her
forehand, and suddenly it was 40 all. The played an unbelievable all court
point, both players tagging the corners, both players at the net at different
points. Finally Sachia came up with a clutch forehand to get to set point, and
then just took with another clean forehand winner. First set Vickery, 6-3.
So the question was this. Kyle seemed to have
more game. Would she loosen up enough now to make some of the shots she had
been missing? Or would she change her game and try to out rally Sachia?
And there you have the issue all players at all
levels face. How do I adapt my game when I’m losing–if at all? Kyle answer was
not to change a thing. She just kept going for it. It was impressive and showed
a lot of courage.
But the pattern of the second set turned out to
be very similar. Every time Kyle seemed on the verge of getting control, she
tightened up just enough to make a few errors.
With Sachia serving in the first game, Kyle hit a
big return to win the first point. Then she made 2 backhand errors, and missed
another relatively easy forehand return so Sachia got quickly to 40-15.
Sachia made an error, and Kyle hit a gorgeous
forehand return and now it was 40 all. Sachia made another forehand error to
give Kyle an ad, and you wondered if this was going to be a tipping point. Kyle
moved in on the forehand return to try to finish, but missed it, then made
another backhand error, then lost a long moon ball point. So Sachia held.
So now Kyle was serving at 0-1. She made a
forehand error, but then hit a great forehand volley. Then she hit a great
first serve and a dominating forehand winner to get to 30-15. But then she
missed 2 more forehands. You get the idea of how her game went up and down.
And this is where Sachia was clutch. Having
weathered the storm, she stepped up and stroked a clean backhand winner down
the line, broke and was up 2-0.
The next two games were the same–winners and
errors from Kyle, and clutch counterpunching from Sachia who now ran it to 4-0.
It was hard to believe the match wasn’t over now,
but as happens so often in junior tennis when there are a lot of tight points,
slight shifts in the pressure can produce wild swings in the score.
With Sachia serving up two breaks at 4-0 things
suddenly changed dramatically. At 15 all, Kyle made one of those big forehand
returns. Sachia made a tight forehand error. Then Kyle hit a swinging forehand
volley for a clean winner to get on the board and it was 1-4.
What happened in the next 3 games was similar.
Sachia missed balls that she made in the first set, and Kyle banged the winners
that she had been missing so narrowly earlier.
Sachia had an ad serving at 4-2, but missed a
forehand and hit a double fault. Then Kyle came up with a clutch forehand
crosscourt winner and suddenly it was back on serve. Serving at 3-4, Kyle
absolutely crushed a short forehand on game point to even it at 4-4.
So after this big swing for Kyle, what would
happen? The pressure was again even with the set basically there for either
player. And the dynamics shifted again, back to the earlier pattern.
With Sachia serving at 4-4, they played a tough
long point that ended with Kyle making a forehand error. They traded forehand
winners but then two more errors from Kyle gave Sachia the game. So Kyle was
now serving at 4-5.
Kyle kept going for it, but she quickly made 3
big errors. That–combined with one more rock solid forehand winner from
Sachia–and it was over. Easter Bowl 14 title to the17th seed, Sachia Vickery,
It was a display of smart, determined, balanced
play with some critical shot making. But my impression is that, the next time
Kyle gets in a similar situation, her courage in sticking with her game is
probably going to pay off. Think Ana Ivanovic and the Australian Open–followed
by what happened at Indian Wells.
In some ways, the Boys 14 final shaped up in a
similar tactical fashion to the match it followed on the stadium court.
You had the number one seed, Mike Rinaldi, from Palm City, Florida, who
had cruised through his half of the draw without losing a set, playing John
Richmond, from Pawleys Island,
South Carolina, seeded fifth, who
had fought his way into the final with two tough set victories in the quarters
Mike played up close to the baseline, hit big
grounstrokes and tried to force play from the first ball. John was a lefty who
played a more counterpunching style, mixed with aggressive opportunity shot
And there was also a similar pressure dynamic to
the first match as well. Mike was the favorite to win the title. Would he be
able to execute under this expectation the way he had all week? The answer
turned out to be definitely yes. He got off to shaky start, but in the long run
he was able to impose his game and take the title.
John held serve easily to start the match. It
looked like Mike would hold also, but at 40-15 he floated a slice long and then
hit a couple of double faults to get down a quick break point. He hit two big
serves to get to ad in, but missed an easy forehand and needed another deuce
before he finally held.
Then John held again easily. Mike looked even
tighter in his second service game, hitting two doubles and missing an easy
forehand to go down 0-40. But suddenly he relaxed and reeled off three huge
groundstrokes to get to 40 all.
It turned out to be a pivotal game in the match.
They played 4 more deuce points, both going back and forth between winners and
errors. But finally Mike crushed a forehand and then a clean backhand down the
line winner to get to 2 all.
The next game on John’s serve was equally
crucial, with 3 tight deuces. Mike missed 2 returns to start. But then he hit a
forehand winner and got to 30 all when John missed a backhand. Then they played
a tough point that ended with Mike at the net and John missing a lob by about
That gave Mike a break point, but he made a
forehand error, then missed a second serve return. Ad in. Then John missed a
backhand. Deuce. Then Mike missed a forehand. Ad in. Then Mike hit a forehand
winner. Deuce. Then Mike hit a forcing backhand crosscourt to get another ad,
and finally converted when John missed a backhand.
So up a break now, Mike held easily for 4-2. Then
he really got rolling, just pounding his groundstrokes and breaking again for
5-2. But serving for the set, you could feel the pressure come back. Mike hit
three doubles and made a groundstroke error to give back one break.
So now John was serving at 3-5 to stay in the
set. At 30 all, Mike hit another dominating shot, a clean backhand winner down
the line that sounded like a bullet off his racket. He missed the next backhand
he tried at set point, but then went in and knifed a perfect backhand volley
down the line. John made a forehand error. And that was the first set to Mike,
With the first set under his belt, you could see
Mike’s confidence go up. The balance between his winners and errors shifted
slightly toward the positive. He hit a clean forehand volley winner and a
couple of big serves and held. Then he immediately broke John with a series of
very solid backcourt points. He held easily for 3-0. They both held one more
time, so John found himself serving at 1-4 in the second. John showed he was
still fighting, and hit one of his biggest forehand to hold.
But Mike was rolling now. You could see him
relaxing and gaining confidence. He hit a gorgeous slice backhand approach and
a deft high backhand volley angle. He followed that up with a rocket forehand
up the line to get to 5-2.
In the last game, at 30 all John came in but Mike
stuck a forehand at his feet, getting to match point. One more big forehand
return and he was Easter Bowl champ, 6-3, 6-2.
By the way it turns out that Mike’s dad Dennis
Rinaldi is a subscriber and big fan of Tennisplayer.net!
Now in the Girls 18s, a different story unfolded.
Lauren Emberee, unseeded, from Marco Island, Florida versus Melanie Oudin from Marietta, Georgia,
seeded number 1. The Easter Bowl 18s, in addition to being American
championships, are also International Tennis Federation events. As such they
are seeded according to the ITF rankings, which had a significant impact on the
Although Lauren had a high American ranking, her
ITF ranking was lower, and that meant she had to play the second ITF seed in
the first round, a girl ranked below her in the U.S. I happened to watch that match
and it was impressive. Lauren showed a combination of athleticism, ball
striking, all around play, and fierce determination.
But in the final she was up against Melanie
Oudin, who had been at least as impressive in working her way through the draw.
Melanie was hitting the ball unbelievably well off the ground. She also had
easily the fastest feet in the Easter Bowl. This girl took so many small fast
adjusting steps that it was inspiring to watch. Her balance looked virtually
perfect on every ball.
In addition to being the number one seed, Melanie
had the additional motivation (and/or pressure) of knowing that if she won the
Easter Bowl, she’d reach the number world ranking in the ITF Girls 18s.
The match was a tremendous battle mentally and
physically–and I mean physically not only in terms of the shot making and shot
patterns, but also in terms of sheer stamina, lasting almost 3 hours in the 90
degree plus desert heat.
What was equally interesting was how the strategy
evolved over the match in a series of moves and countermoves. The match started
out as a battle of huge groundstrokes. Unless you were there and were actually
watching from courtside it’s hard to convey just how hard these girls cranked
Serve wasn’t a factor early as the players
exchanged 2 breaks each to get to 2 all. Both players then held for 3 all, then
Lauren broke again and served at 4-3.
Gradually over the course of the first set,
however, Lauren started to vary her tactics. More and more she chose to move
back in the court, take a little pace off the ball, and loop it back with more
air over the net. She seemed to sense that, as good as her groundstrokes were,
she just wasn’t able to get control of the points or consistently hurt Melanie.
In fact Melanie seemed to be feeding off the pace and was just a little more
effective in the straight up exchanges.
At 4-3 Lauren starting to hit the ball higher and
deeper and more to the middle. Then she suddenly hit a drop shot, and then
closed behind it to hit a forehand volley winner. What a great tactic. You
could see that Melanie was a little frustrated and ended up making a bad
forehand error to put Lauren up 5-3.
Serving at 3-5, Melanie made another similar
frustrated error. But then suddenly she shifted her own tactics. For the first
time started hitting some loops of her own. She got an error from Lauren on a
loop at game point and held.
So the matched changed in a fundamental way.
Lauren made a move and got an edge but then Melanie countered. Lauren had a
chance to serve for the set, but couldn’t get it. She missed a couple of
forehands and Melanie hit a short forehand winner and it was 5-5.
They exchanged two more breaks with similar
combinations of winners, loops and errors. So a tiebreaker would settle it.
The first point of the breaker was a long looping
exchange that ended with Melanie missing a swinging forehand volley. And it was
downhill for her from there. Melanie ran down a drop shot and cranked it at
Lauren–but it backfired when Lauren came up with a reflex volley winner. Now
the errors started to flow. Melanie missed 2 forehands then missed a backhand
Suddenly it was 6-0 in the breaker. Lauren finally
missed a ball, but at 6-1 they played a 20 ball point and when Melanie missed,
Lauren had the first set. They’d been out there more than an hour.
Some players might have given up after a set like
that, especially after backing off and adjusting strategy, but you could tell
no way this was going to be the case for Melanie. You could sense her
determination from 50 feet away.
The first game of the second set was more of the
same–long brutal points. But Lauren hit a double and a backhand long to give Melanie
Melanie immediately made two frustrated errors on
her serve to go down 0-30. But Lauren made a rare moonball error, and then
Melanie cleaned a down the line backhand winner. Melanie missed a forehand, but
fought her way back to deuce hitting 4 overheads in one point to finally get
the ball past Lauren. It was an amazing battle.
But you could feel that Melanie had turned the
tables. She hit three slice backhands in a row and got an error out of Lauren.
She hit service winners, smacked opportunity winners, and drew more errors with
the slice. It looked like the strain was finally having an impact on Lauren who
started to hit some double faults and made a few routine backhand errors for
the first time. Melanie ran it out to 5-0. Lauren broke her, but then Melanie
immediately broke back to take the second set 6-1.
So the sets were even, but the question was, who
was winning points how? And how would that change–or not–in the third with
the Easter Bowl title on the line? On balance, Melanie had hit a few more
winners, and with her increasing willingness to stay in the long points, it had
gotten harder and harder for Lauren to find ways to win points herself.
The players were now routinely having 15 or 20 or
even 25 ball points, and it was really, really hot out on that court. Melanie
started the third by holding in a long deuce game. Then she broke Lauren to go
up 2-0, aided by two double faults and a missed swinging volley. But again,
Lauren broke back.
Serving at 1-2, 15-0, Lauren missed a forehand
volley with the court open, and you just had the feeling that there had been
one more shift in the mental balance in Melanie’s direction. Sure enough,
Lauren made three more errors, including a missed forehand slice on game point,
then slammed a ball into the net, the first sign of frustration she’d
demonstrated all afternoon.
Serving at 3-1, Melanie got more aggressive. She
hit 3 huge winners, including 2 backhands down the line and held for 4-1. In
the next game they played another epic point, one that seemed to take a little
more out of Lauren, and on break point she eventually tagged a big forehand
that landed about 3 inches long.
It wasn’t over yet though. Serving for the match
Melanie made a couple of quick errors, Lauren cleaned a backhand, and then one
more error from Melanie and it was 5-2. Lauren then held easily for 5-3.
So Melanie had to serve it out. Which she did,
impressively. She started with an ace. Lauren hit a backhand winner. Then
Melanie won a long point, and then hit another ace. The match point was an
amazing 21 ball point, and Melanie finished it with a clean forehand swinging
volley winner. What a match! And what a Saturday–about 7 hours start to
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.
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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″
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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