Day, Caruana prevail in Spring Championships 18s

Steve Pratt | April 03, 2016

Tennis rivals for half their young lives, 16-year-old Kayla Day and 15-year-old Claire Liu battled on one of junior tennis’ largest stages Sunday in the girls' 18s final at the USTA International Spring Championship.  


No. 2 seed Day (pictured above left) of Santa Barbara, Calif., fought back to defeat No. 5 Liu of Thousand Oaks, Calif., 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, in just under three hours on the same courts in Carson on which they train with USTA coaches Adam Peterson and Henner Nehles.


In the boys’ 18s singles final, Liam Caruana of Austin, Texas, rebounded to defeat Sam Riffice of Granite Bay, Calif., dominating the last two sets in a 4-6, 6-0, 6-1 victory.


Day fell down a set and 0-2 to Liu, but she upped her game to rally back and then staved off a third-set comeback by Liu to prevail. The victory snapped a three-match losing streak to her SoCal rival.


“We’ve been playing since we were like 8 years old,” said Day, who also shares the same personal coach with Liu, Mike Gennette.


Day led 5-0 in the third set and held a match point at 5-1 but never thought the match was over until she won the final point.


“Against her, you have to think that way,” Day said. “Even at 5-0, I knew I was in a good position, but…”


Day recalled that once, at a Nike Junior Tour event in the 14s, Liu was up 6-3 and 5-3 and held two match points, only to see Day come back and win the final.


“I know that’s always in the back of her mind,” said Day, who will depart Sunday night for the ITF Masters in China.

That means the rivalry will not continue this week at the ASICS Easter Bowl, where Liu won the 18s ITF singles title last year as a 14-year-old. Asked by's Colette Lewis how she felt heading to the desert after reaching the final in Carson, Liu said, “Well, I’m feeling pretty good knowing she won’t be there.”


Liu smiled when asked what she was thinking, leading, 6-4, 2-0.


“I’ve had match points, and I’ve lost to her,” she said. “Especially against her, I knew I had to fight for every single point because she’ll come back if there’s just a sliver of a chance. She’s not going to give me anything, so if I want to win, I have to take it. She’s such a good competitor.”


Down 0-5, there was no quit in Liu, who played aggressively and nailed several winners down the line.


“I figured it was better to end on a better note than playing bad,” she added.


Both intense competitors on the court and good friends off it, Day and Liu posed for pictures with their coaches after the match.


“It’s fine we have the same coaches,” Liu said. “A lot of our friends are at the USTA, and we share the same coaches, so it’s not that big of a deal, and we all play each other a lot.”


Caruana (pictured above right) said nerves were the reason he fell down 1-5 to Riffice in the first set of the boys’ final. He called for a trainer at the changeover at 2-5.


“Earlier in the tournament, I strained my [abdominal] muscle, so I’ve carried that throughout the tournament,” Caruana said. “It wasn’t enough to default, but it hurt when I was serving. After that medical timeout, I told myself to play loose and free because, if not, I was just getting destroyed.”


Caruana, who was 0-4 in ITF junior finals coming into the day, started playing more aggressively and coming to the net,

which took Riffice out of his rhythm.


“I started mixing in some serves and volleys and trying to attack and take the match a little bit more," Cauana said. "I think that caught him off guard a little.”


Caruana said after Saturday’s 6-0, 6-1 dismantling of defending champion William Blumberg, he was concerned Riffice might run away with it at the start.


“That popped into my mind at 4-zero. He’s very smart and plays the angles very well. He was moving me side to side in the first set.”


Riffice was visibly disappointed after the match.


“I don’t think there was much I could have done to beat him today,” he said. “I think he just started slow and picked up his game. There was a lot I could have done better to make it closer. I didn’t play as offensive as I would have liked, and he was dictating the points. I didn’t get to pressure him much, and my balls didn’t have a lot on them.


“He mixed up the pace a lot, and he hit a lot of different shots and didn’t give me the same ball too many times in a row.”


Caruana heads to the ASICS Easter Bowl needing a few more valuable ITF points to gain direct entry into the summer’s Grand Slam events.


“This was my fifth ITF junior final, and I didn’t want to go 0-for-five. So I put a little extra effort into it.”



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