NJT PLAYERS END UP WITH FEET OF CLAY
PORT ST LUCIE, Florida, USA – Light rain over Club Med Sandpiper Bay just before lunch and a threat of further precipitation throughout the day resulted in an enforced change to three of the finals at the NJT International Masters tennis tournament on Tuesday.
The Boys Under-12 tournament was always going to be played on clay but the other three events took place on hard court. However, the hard courts took quite a while to dry and with further rain impending, the organisers got together all the players and their coaches to decide how to handle the situation.
In the end it was agreed that all the matches would be completed on the clay courts.
When the rain came down the Boys Under-12 final had already been decided with third seeded Rudi Molleker of Germany taking the title with a 6-4 6-0 victory over top seed Alen Avidzba of Russia.
While the Girls Under-12 final had not yet started, the Boys Under-14 championship match had second seed Jay Clarke of Great Britain winning the opening set against unseeded Mate Valkusz of Hungary although the Hungarian had gone up 1-0 in the second.
In the Girls Under-14 final unseeded Serb Katarina Jokic held a 4-1 lead over No 6 Julia Payola of Spain.
Ironically both Valkusz and Jokic were not exactly over the moon about the change to clay but both went on to win their matches. Valtusz came back to beat Clarke 3-6 6-3 6-4 while Jockic defeated Payola 6-2 6-4.
“At first I wasn’t happy to move to the clay but once I started to play I was quite comfortable on the surface,” admitted Valkusz.
It is difficult to predict the outcome had they finished the match on hard court but by his own admission, Valkusz did not start off well. Whether he was a little tired after two tough matches on Tuesday or just having a bit of an off day, the youngster from Budapest did not move his feet well and his shot selection was questionable. At one point, serving at 2-2 with the score at 15-30 Valkusz attempted a drop shot from behind the baseline that did not even come close to reaching the net. He was struggling to hold serve and making too many errors on the return games to hurt Clarke who finally took the opening set when Valkusz overcooked a forehand.
He played better in the opening game of the second, breaking the Clarke serve, but when they returned on the clay, Clarke broke immediately to level at 1-1. In what was an extraordinary set, there was only one service hold and that was by Valkusz in the fourth game and it as enough for him to level the match.
However, in the third it was Clarke who took control early on, going up 3-0 with a double break of serve. Valkusz would not be denied and reeled off four successive games to go up 4-3. Clarke levelled at 4-4 but Valkusz held, and then broke the Briton to love to close out the match.
“My foot work wasn’t the best early on,” said Valkusz. “I played too defensive but then got more aggressive. This title is very important to me. I am so proud to have won it.”
Valkusz has to be one of the smartest players at the tournament. However, it is more than that. He not only was able to work out his opponent, but also how to counter any offence. It is all very well to know what you have to do, but you also have to be able to implement it and Valkusz could do it all.
He will return home to Hungary where he is looking forward to a nice long rest.
At the age of 12 Molleker already looks the “complete package”. He is a good athlete, reads a game well, moves fluently and has loads of game. He also appears to have a good work ethic and that should stand him in good stead for the future.
He had lost his two previous encounters against Avidzba but this time was determined to turn it around. In some ways it was a strange match. Like so many Under-12 matches breaks of serve were not uncommon. However, with Avidzba serving at 4-4, 30-30, a close game suddenly took a different complexion. Two unforced errors from the Russian gave Molleker the break and he held serve to take the set. After that Avidzba just compounded and Molleker just raced away with the next six games to win the set and the title. He fell over on his back yelling with delight. “I was more aggressive throughout the match and I came forwards whenever I had the chance. I played much better in the second set. I hit the ball more down the middle and never gave him the angles.”
While he was delighted with the victory, he is still looking ahead. “Of course it’s a very big title to win but I’m going to the Orange Bowl next week and will need to play well there as well.”
Jokic was the other player who was not keen to take on a Spaniard on clay. “I felt she would be better on the surface so I preferred to stay on the hard court. I also had not played on clay for two months.”
With the first set behind her, Jokic fell behind 1-3 in the second and suddenly there was a real prospect of the match going to three sets. “I didn’t want that to happen but I think I started to move better. I played more aggressively, used more spin and tried to move her around.
“This is probably my best win ever. I’m very happy,” said Jokic.
The Girls Under-12 match was expected to be a tight affair Americans Abigail Desiatnikov, seeded four, and Claire Liu, seeded six but the move to clay strongly favoured Liu who went on to win 6-1 6-0. “The last time I beat her was on clay so I was happy,” said Liu. “Abby doesn’t really play that much on clay but it’s just a matter of practice.”
Liu had got out of jail in her quarter-final match when a set and 1-4 down to second seed Dayana Yastremska on Monday but in her next two matches she was superb. “I attacked really well, compared to yesterday. Today I was placing it really well. This week has been really good. I competed well, played my game and did everything I wanted to. I’ve had a lot of fun.
“I really wanted to win this tournament so I did not party too much. Every night I went to the room at 8.30pm.”
However, she says she now goes into next week’s Orange Bowl with the pressure of being the Nike Junior Tour champion. “It’s pressure. Now that I’ve won people will say `she won Nike so now she should do well’.
“I feel like I have a bigger burden while they will be more relaxed so they play a lot better,” said Liu.
Liu became the sixth American winner of a NJT International Masters title in 12 years. “I couldn’t have been happier,” said USA coach Phil Cello. “It’s not easy to get there and to have two players in the final is amazing.”