Coco Gauff, Zane Khan advance at 2018 Orange Bowl
PLANTATION, Fla. – The Orange Bowl International Tennis Championships, one of five Grade A events on the ITF junior calendar and the only one in the U.S., opened play in the boys’ and girls’ 18s singles competitions on Monday. Outside of the four Grand Slams, the Grade A events are the most prestigious on the junior circuit, with the greatest amount of ranking points on offer.
At the Frank Veltri Tennis Center in Plantation, Fla., in front of college coaches from top schools all across the country eager to evaluate and recruit some of the top-tier talent on display, the large American contingent at the tournament got off to a strong start.
For top-seeded Coco Gauff, the former world No. 1 junior and current No. 3, this event carries added significance, as it is located an hour’s drive from her home in Delray Beach.
Last year, she fell to eventual champion Whitney Osuigwe in the second round. Osuigwe, 16, is absent from this year’s Orange Bowl as she prepares to make her debut in the Australian Open main draw – an indication of the level of play in South Florida. Previous boys’ champions include Roger Federer, Andy Roddick and Frances Tiafoe, while Caroline Wozniacki and Elena Dementieva are among the girls’ winners.
On Monday, playing in front of her grandmother and other family members, the 14-year-old Gauff closed the day’s slate on the stadium court with a 6-1, 6-2 victory over Diana Khodan of Ukraine. It was a match that started off routinely but ended with two marathon games, as Khodan raised her game when trailing, 5-1, in set two.
The reigning French Open junior champion has kept her tournament schedule light this fall. After a busy US Open, where she reached the girls’ singles quarterfinals and the senior mixed doubles main draw with Henri Kontinen of Finland (in addition to her first appearance in the women’s singles qualifying tournament), she has only played two events until this week: a $25,000 ITF event in Italy in October, where she fell in qualifying, and the junior Grade A event in Mexico in November, where she was a quarterfinalist.
She plans to play less junior and more professional events in 2019.
“Definitely playing at the higher [professional] level helps,” she said. “Obviously in the juniors there’s more pressure, just because of my ranking, whereas in the pros, I’m usually the youngest and not really expected to win, so I can play more free. But I try to approach the matches the same way.
Just before Gauff advanced, Zane Khan pulled off the biggest upset of the day on Court G, the next court over. Khan, who was forced to retire in the Eddie Herr quarterfinals last week with a shoulder injury, almost didn’t make it onto the court, as the injury lingered. But the16-year-old decided to play and was rewarded with a 7-6, 4-6, 6-3 win over No. 4 Deney Wassermann of the Netherlands.
Fourteen-year-old Robin Montgomery pulled off an upset of her own on Court G, taking out No. 15 Yasmine Mansouri of France, 7-6, 2-6, 6-2. A wild card in the 18s, Montgomery, who hopes to improve her ITF World Junior Ranking and give herself an opportunity to play the junior Grand Slams in 2019, was not fazed by her highly ranked opponent.
“Seeds don’t matter to me,” she said. “I prefer being the underdog, even though it’s nice to be on top sometimes.”
Based in Washington, D.C., Montgomery trains at JTCC in College Park, Md. Her plans for 2019 include more Grade 1 and Grade A events at the 18s level, and though there were many college coaches watching her match with interest, Montgomery has her sights set on the professional tour.
Lea Ma, the No. 6 seed in the girls’ draw, faced a stern opening test but came through with a 6-3, 7-5 win over Selin Ovunc of Turkey. Ma, who won a Grade 1 title in Germany this summer and represented Team USA at the Youth Olympics in October, battled through some serving struggles early on before she settled in to her aggressive game.
At 17, Ma’s junior career is winding down. She has already started playing pro events, and for 2019, she plans to limit her junior schedule to the four Slams.
Cannon Kingsley, the No. 8 seed in the boys’ draw, enjoyed a straightforward opening-round victory, as he overpowered Arthur Craig Pantino, 6-3, 6-0. The 17-year-old has turned his attention to the ITF Futures tour of late and has not played a junior event since his last-16 appearance at the US Open. Kingsley has signed on with Ohio State University for fall 2019.
A pair of University of Florida commits battled in two separate three-setters, with William Grant falling just short against No. 3 Gauthier Onclin and Brian Bicknell outlasting Pierre Malan.
Gators head coach Bryan Shelton, who was on hand to support both players, is excited to work with them next season. Though Grant could not close out the upset on Monday, Shelton is confident he can win matches like this in the future.
“At this level, it’s just one or two percent,” Shelton said. “Just a little more belief, just recognition of where he was at in the match, and I think he can pull that match out.”
“He’s got it all,” Shelton said of Grant. “There’s a lot to work with. The guy’s got firepower, got a great serve, and he’s a great ball-striker. He’s got all the tools already.”
Tyler Zink, a University of Georgia commit, was an upset victim against Andrew Paulson, under the watchful eye of Bulldog head coach Manny Diaz.
“I don’t think he was at his best, and he’d be the first to tell you that,” said Diaz. “He’s looked a little tired. He was sick while in Mexico, the first week, and I think maybe that’s taken a little bit of a toll on him.”
Zink was a finalist at the Copa Mundial Campeche, a Grade 1 event in Mexico, and followed that up with a last-16 run at the Grade A Mundial Juvenil Yucatan. Despite the loss, Diaz is excited to start working with the 17-year-old in the fall.
“He’s got great upside to him. He’s just a high-character kid, and he’s got a great work ethic. He’s willing to pay the price.”
In 16s play, Dali Blanch and Alexander Bernard, the top two boys’ seeds, both advanced in straight sets. Wild-card Victor Lilov, who earned a place in junior tennis history earlier in January by winning the 14s titles at the Junior International Team Tennis event in England and at Les Petit As in France, also advanced. A deep run at the Orange Bowl would cap a strong 2018 for Lilov, who hopes to be ranked high enough to play the 18s in South Florida next year.
“I’m not really thinking about [my titles from earlier this year] because it will add unnecessary pressure. I have two tournaments left, [the Orange Bowl 16s and the 14s next week], and I’ll just do what I can to compete hard and try to win.”
Kailey Evans, the girls’ 16s top seed, was pushed to three sets by Karina Miller but advanced with a 6-1, 3-6, 6-1 result. Tara Malik, the No. 3 seed, and No. 4 Madison Sieg both progressed in straight sets.
Round 1 play in the 18s singles draws will conclude on Tuesday, while the 18s doubles competitions are set to get underway. The 16s singles and doubles competitions will both begin Round 2. For complete schedules, results and more, visit the Orange Bowl website.
Photo Credit: Andrew Ong/USTA