One current and a former USTA Midwest Section player took home the top prize as the big winners on Sunday on the final day at the 49th Annual ASICS Easter Bowl as a longtime former Illinois resident Gianni Ross, and Westerville, Ohio, native Alexandra Sanford both won prestigious ITF singles titles.
In the Boys’ ITF final, the unseeded Ross beat his former doubles partner and friend John McNally, the No. 4-seed, from Cincinnati, 6-4, 7-6 (3). Ross, whose family moved to Florida in September, joins recent boys’ champions Gage Brymer (2013), Marcos Giron (2011) and Bjorn Fratangelo (2010) to win the title as an unseeded player.
In the Girls’ ITF singles final, the No. 8-seeded Sanford took out No. 13 Ellie Douglas of McKinney, Texas, 6-4, 1-6, 6-1. All four players were awarded $750 travel voucher checks by tournament director Lornie Kuhle, who has pioneered the idea with approval from the ITF to pay the players and helping to defray the high cost it takes to travel to junior tournaments like the ASICS Easter Bowl, held for the third consecutive year at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, site of the BNP Paribas Open.
In winning his first ITF singles title, Ross, 17, didn’t show tons of emotion and was humble in accepting the first-place trophy. After taking the first set against McNally, he fell down a break at 5-4 and McNally serving for a set point. But Ross got “lucky” on a drop shot at his feet and then took advantage of a net cord eventually converting the break to swing it to 5-all and the momentum back on his side. On break point, he hit a backhand down the line for a winner. “I was fortunate in that game,” he said. “I had a lucky game.”
McNally, 17, admitted he didn’t serve well, and if he would have converted on the two second-set set points, that he would have won the match. “I thought I was going to win today, but that’s how it goes.”
McNally held a 2-0 lead in the tiebreaker but hit several unforced errors to go down 2-5. “And you can’t do that against a player like him,” McNally said.
Ross joined recent former USTA Midwest Section players Chase Buchanan (2008) and Evan King (2009) on the champions list. He said he hopes he can remember this special victory, “Whenever I have any bad moments.”
McNally said he will get ready for the Europe junior Grand Slams and that his junior tournaments are numbered. “I’m looking forward to a really fun summer and hope I can tear it up.”
Sanford, who won the Torey Fretz / Jackie Cooper Sportsmanship Award along with yet another USTA Midwest player, J.J. Wolf of Cincinnati, on Saturday, said accepting that award didn’t stop her from some audible “Come Ons” during the match.
Like Ross, Sanford was not very demonstrative in her actions immediately after the win. “It was more on the inside,” she said. “I felt a lot of emotion out there on the court today, and when I put away that backhand (on the final point), it was just kind of a relief. I was so happy on the inside, but I just didn’t show it.
“To be able to win the Easter Bowl, I’m pretty excited.”
Sanford, 17, thanked her mother and her USTA coach Henner Nehles, who was on hand all week and who she has worked with since the beginning of the year.
She said she lost some focus after winning the tight first set. “I may have relaxed a little bit,” she said. “In the second set I got too comfortable.”
The 15-year-old Douglas said she was hurt by some “dumb errors that cost her early in the third set. “I feel like I had several chances and many, many game points I didn’t convert on,” she said. “My serve was really off today. I just need to go home and get some rest and then practice some more. That’s how tennis goes.”
Douglas added: “I think I played too short and she served out wide very well and it was very consistent. I wish I would have played a little bit better today.”
Playing for the first time as a team, Nathan Ponwith and Jake Van Emburgh topped the unseeded team of Vasil Kirkov and Sebastian Korda, 2-6, 7-5, 12-10. Ponwith, who also won the Carson ISC doubles title last week with Will Blumberg, and Van Emburgh battled back saving match points in the second set down 4-5. The pair led the super tiebreaker 9-6 and then again at 11-10, finally converting on the fifth match point to win the ITF doubles title.
In the another thrilling doubles final on the girls’ side, the unseeded team of Elysia Bolton and Chiara Lommer took out the No. 6-seeded team of Victoria Emma and Sofia Sewing, 4-6, 6-2, 10-8.
Boys’ ITF Singles (Finals)
Gianni ROSS (USA) def. John MCNALLY (USA)  def. 6-4, 7-6 (3)
Boys’ ITF Doubles (Finals)
Nathan PONWITH (USA) / Jake VAN EMBURGH (USA)  def. Vasil KIRKOV (USA) / Sebastian KORDA (USA) 2-6, 7-5, [12-10]
Girls’ ITF Singles (Finals)
Alexandra SANFORD (USA)  def. Ellie DOUGLAS (USA)  6-4, 1-6, 6-1
Girls’ ITF Doubles (Semifinals)
Elysia BOLTON (USA) / Chiara LOMMER (USA) def. Victoria EMMA (USA)  / Sofia SEWING (USA) 4-6, 6-2, 10-8
In the boys’ 16s singles final, top-seeded Carson Haskins of Ballwin, Mo., forced a third set right before the rains came, and then returned three hours later to beat a game opponent in No. 11 Lukas Greif of Evansville, Ind., 4-6, 6-3, 6-1.
“First thing I did was to get stretched out and make sure I was loose,” said Haskins. “Then, I got something to eat because I wasn’t able to eat with all that was going on.”
Haskins, who has trained at the Miller Tennis Academy in Chesterfield, Mo., since he started playing tennis seven years ago at age 9, still plays high school tennis. “I go home and then I think I have a match on Monday,” he said.
Haskins said he checked out the past ASICS Easter Bowl 16s winners online on Friday, and saw former USTA Missouri Valley Section junior star and current U.S. Davis Cup player Jack Sock (2008) among the past winners.
“It’s weird now being on that list,” he said. “Two years ago I was here playing in the 14s and watched Zeke Clark playing John McNally in the 16s final. I was watching it and remember thinking, ‘God, these players are so good.’ I was in the 14s and I won a couple rounds and I was feeling pretty good. But if you would have told me then that I would be winning this tournament now, I would have been like, ‘You’re crazy.’ ”
Greif is 16 and trains at the Smith Academy in Indianapolis. “It was very tough in between, just all the thoughts and thinking about the third set,” said Greif of the rain delay. “He just came out better, came out hitting some unbelievable shots down the stretch on important points, and that’s what did it. It was a really good week for me. It’s going to help my confidence and my game.”
In the girls’ 16s singles final, No. 7 Angelica Blake, 15, of Boca Raton, Fla., outlasted No. 8 Abigail Forbes of Raleigh, N.C., in straight sets, 6-2, 7-6 (3), before the rains came.
Blake owns a 3-0 record now against Forbes, who she beat in a super tiebreaker for fifth place at the USTA Winternationals to start the year. Blake trains at the Saviano Tennis in Florida. “I had a great time playing in the final against a good friend,” Blake said. “I’ll look forward to coming back doing it again next year.”
Like Blake, Forbes admitted to battling some nerves from the outset. “I was a little jittery at the start, a few butterflies,” said Forbes, who trains at N.C. State at the Jon Choboy Tennis Academy. “I was definitely playing great tennis. I was just trying to move forward.”
Meanwhile, in the girls’ 14s singles title match, No. 12-seeded Ava Hrastar of Duluth, Ga. played consistent tennis on her way to a 6-2, 6-1 win over Skyler Grishuk, the No. 13-seed from Aliso Viejo, who was watched intently by her mother, two-time (1994 and 1998) Olympic gold medal winning ice dancer champion Oksana Grishuk.
Grishuk said after the match that her mother has been her inspiration and talks to her about what it takes to be a champion. “It’s kind of the same because you have to work to achieve your goals,” said Grishuk, who trains with Advantage Tennis Academy in Irvine. “Actually, figure skating is tougher than tennis because they only give you like three minutes. And if you fail, you’re out.”
She added, “I think I could have played better. I made too many unforced errors. But when you lose, you learn more.”
Hrastar trains with renowned Georgia-based tennis coaches Brian De Villiers and Grant Stafford at Pro Tennis International at Epoch Center in Duluth, Ga. Hrastar said neither coach is traveling with her and that De Villiers is recovering from recent hip replacement surgery.
“I stepped into the court and put balls away, which I wasn’t doing in past matches,” said Hrastar, who turned 14 in February. “I was nervous and I got more comfortable as I figured out some things and I figured out her game style. She likes the forehand angles so I was trying to hit flatter so she couldn’t generate spin.”
Hrastar has hit with some top college players, including current WTA pro and former University of North Carolina star Lauren Herring, who also won the girls’ 14s at the ASICS Easter Bowl way back in 2007.
In the boys’ 14 singles final, No. 12-seed Alex Lee of Oak Brook, Ill., defeated No. 5-seeded Andrew Dale of Leesburg, Va., 4-6, 6-4, 6-3. The lefty Dale fell hard chasing a ball early in the third set and injured his left hand. Lee said he didn’t notice a change in Dale’s play, but mentally he took the advantage. Lee trains in Florida with the same coach as last year’s boys’ 14s Easter Bowl champ Adam Neff, Lance Luciani, who was on hand for the second straight year congratulating his winning 14s champion.
The boys’ 12s singles final pitted two hungry players from California as NorCal beat SoCal with No. 11-seeded Max Fardanesh of Albany beating top-seeded Samuel Landau of Los Angeles, 6-4, 6-2.
Fardanesh is 12-years-old and was taught the game by his father, and currently trains with Skip Redondo. He said he faced Landau once before at a tournament at Stanford University where he lost in straight sets.
“I was aggressive and my coach likes it when I play serve and volley,” Fardanesh said. “I really like Roger Federer and switched to a one-handed background about a year ago.”
Fardanesh said he loved played on the stadium court which featured his match on the live stream, and had a radar gun clocking every one of his serves. “The fastest one I saw was 96 (mph),” he said.
In a battle between the top two seeded players in the girls’ 12s singles final, No. 2 Katrina Scott of Woodland Hills, Calif., beat top-seeded Nikki Yanez of Sarasota, Fla., 6-3, 7-6 (5).
“It was so professional and you knew you were going to have a fair game,” said Scott of playing with a chair umpire watching all the calls that were made. “It was really fun and great to win this year after losing in the first round last year. I feel amazing right now.”
Scott is just 11 years old and attends A.C. Stelle Middle School in Calabasas. She had a chance four times to close out the match before the second-set tiebreaker only to have Yanez gamely save all four match points and extend the match.