By Steve Pratt, special to USTA.com
CARSON, Calif. – At 5-all in a third-set tiebreak, No. 2-seeded Naoki Nakagawa knew he had to play the final two points like he had been the entire match: “patient yet aggressive.”
And that’s exactly what the Bradenton, Fla., resident from Fukuoka, Japan, did on Sunday as he went the distance to beat top-seeded Francis Tiafoe, 6-4, 2-6, 7-6(5), capturing the boys’ 18s singles title on the final day of the 10th annual USTA International Spring Championships, an ITF level Grade 1 event played at the StubHub Center.
“I was really tight but I knew I had to go for it,” said Nakagawa, who took a second serve from the forehand side for a cross-court winner to go up 6-5 in the breaker. He then hit a powerful serve down the “T” that Tiafoe could only manage to return into the net.
Tiafoe said he played an “unbelievable” game at 5-all to break Nakagawa’s serve and then had a chance to serve out the match. But Nakagawa returned some tough Tiafoe first serves to break back, sending the match into the tiebreak. It was the first time it’s gone that far in the event’s 10-year history; in fact, in the first nine boys’ 18s finals before Sunday, only twice had a match gone to three sets.
“It could have gone either way,” said Tiafoe, the ITF world-ranked No. 7 player from College Park, Md. “I hit a bad second serve and for him to go for that at 5-all was pretty clutch, and you got to give that to him. Then he hits a big serve at match point so there’s nothing you can do there.”
Nakagawa, 17, is in his fifth year training at IMG Bolettieri Academy in Bradenton, Fla. He calls current world ATP Tour Top 20 player Kei Nishikori a good friend.
“We train together and sometimes I go to his house and we play games,” said Nakagawa.
Two hours after his match, Tiafoe headed straight for the desert where he will take tomorrow off before his first match in the ASICS Easter Bowl. He said he won’t dwell on the loss for long, and that there is no pressure on him this coming week.
“It’s not like it’s going to matter to me to play the Slams this summer,” he said. “It obviously hurts because I wanted to win, but it’s not going to carry over to this week.”
In the girls’ 18s final contested at the same time, No. 5-seeded CiCi Bellis, a 14-year-old of Atherton, Calif., made short work of No. 9 Raveena Kingsley, a 15-year-old from Fulton, Md., 6-3, 6-0. Kingsley had beaten Bellis in their only prior meeting at the 12s USTA Spring Nationals back in 2011.
Kingsley, who trains out of the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Md., had a tough three-set semifinal on Saturday and said she felt mentally and physically tired before the final.
“And it’s my first Grade 1 final, so maybe that helped her confidence, that she’s been here before,” said Kingsley, who was coached by Frank Salazar all week.
Bellis was cheered on by her hitting partner and one of her coaches, Jelena Pandzic, a former junior prodigy from Split, Croatia, who reached as high as No. 135 in the WTA rankings.
“I will rest the rest of today and maybe have a light hit tomorrow,” said Bellis, who turns 15 on Tuesday. “I really want to win the Easter Bowl. It’s going to be really hard because everyone in the draw is really good.”
In 2012, Bellis was a finalist in the girls’ 14s at the Easter Bowl and last year she won the girls’ 16s.
For a complete look at all the final draws, log onto the website at www.usta.com/isc.