Southern Californian’s Ayeni, Liu Capture Adidas Easter Bowl Titles

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – 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.

Alafia Ayeni by Dave Kenas Photography

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 a while 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.

Sunday’s Results

Boys’ ITF 18s Singles (Final)

Alafia Ayeni (8) (San Diego, CA) def. Sebastian Korda (10) (Bradenton, FL), 6-4, 0-6, 7-5

Girls’ ITF 18s Singles (Final)

Claire Liu (1) (Thousand Oaks, CA) def. Ellie Douglas (4) (McKinney, TX), 6-1, 6-2

— Steve Pratt

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