Andrey Rublev of Russia, one of the more animated players at the Orange Bowl International Championship, won the Boys’ 16s title with a 6-3, 6-4 win over Coconut Creek’s Tommy Paul on Saturday morning at the Veltri Tennis Center in Plantation. Rublev then displayed his juggling skills with three of the oranges that came in his glass trophy bowl.
But it was the girls’ match on the adjacent court that drew the standing-room only crowd and a chorus of “oohs” and “aaahs.”
That is where top-ranked Taylor Townsend of Boca Raton was in a slugfest with 14-year-old Croatian phenom Ana Konjuh in the 18s semifinals, and the level of tennis belied the players’ youth.
Konjuh, coming off a title at the prestigious Eddie Herr tournament in Bradenton, matched Townsend’s power — and then some. Townsend, 16, tried to unarm her with drop shots, lobs and her never-say-die attitude, but it wasn’t enough. Konjuh rallied from a set down and advanced to Sunday’s Girls’ 18s final with a 4-6, 6-1, 6-3 win over Townsend, who announced this week that she is turning pro after this tournament.
Konjuh will play No. 2 seed Katerina Siniakova of Czech Republic, who beat Marcela Zacarias of Mexico 4-6, 6-2, 6-3 in the other semifinal. Konjuh said she sensed that Townsend was a bit exhausted after a grueling Friday in which she played a quarterfinal that lasted nearly four hours, and then a doubles match.
“I really respect Taylor and her game, and she has a lot more experience than me, but I felt in the second set that maybe she was a little tired, so I took advantage,” Konjuh said. “She wasn’t running to the ball as well after the first set.”
Despite the loss, Townsend will end the year as the world’s No. 1-ranked junior, the first American girl to hold that position since Gretchen Rush in 1982. She plans to spend the next few weeks doing “less tennis and more fitness” to prepare for the pro tour in 2013.
Townsend’s fitness and weight made headlines over the summer, when the U.S. Tennis Association suggested she skip the U.S. Open because coaches didn’t feel she was in top shape. She went anyway, on her mother’s dime, and the USTA later apologized for not sending her, saying there had been a misunderstanding. Townsend continues to train with Kathy Rinaldi at the USTA training center in Boca Raton and has put the controversy behind her.
Her mother, Shelia Townsend, a former college player, moved to Boca from the Atlanta area in June to be with her daughter. She works as the budget manager at Boca Raton High. She said the flap over her daughter’s weight taught her to deal with adversity.
“I don’t cry or complain about it — it’s a part of Taylor’s story, it’s part of her walk on her journey,” her mother said. “God puts you through things to get you to things, and we live by that.”
Serena Williams, whose build is similar to Townsend’s, called the teen to offer support and spoke out on her behalf. That, Sheila Townsend said, meant the world to her daughter.
“One thing I’ve always instilled in both my daughters is you don’t have to compare yourself to anybody because you’re an individual,” she said. “They try to put those kinds of stereotypes on you, you can choose not to buy into it or affirm them. … It’s a cultural thing, too. In the African-American community, what we view as somebody who is OK may not be viewed in other ethnic groups as OK. That’s her body, be comfortable in it.
“When Serena came out, to have somebody who looks like her, in every way — body shape, ethnicity, have gone through similar experiences, resonated a lot with Taylor. Taylor will never be a Size 5, and that’s OK. We just want her to be as strong and healthy as she can be, where her body can perform at an optimal level. What it looks like at the end of the day, that’s what it is.”
Asked her opinion of the Townsend’s fitness, Konjuh said: “She was born like that, and she’s very talented and smart and plays great like that. But if she wants to be a pro, she has to lose some weight. In the second set I felt she couldn’t run as much. If she gets fit, she can be a really, really good player.”
Townsend, who patterns her game after Martina Navratilova and has received tips from the legend, is excited about the challenge ahead.
“When you’re the top seed in juniors, everyone’s gunning for you,” she said. “But as a pro, there will be no expectations because everyone’s older than me. You can just go out and swing.”
In the Girls’ 16s final, Gloria Liang beat Chloe Michele Oullet-Pizer 6-3, 7-5. In the Boys’ 18s semifinals, Laslo Djere of Serbia beat American Thai-Son Kwiatkowski 6-4, 6-4 and Elias Ymer of Sweden beat Flilippo Baldo of Italy 6-2, 7-5. The 18s finals are Sunday morning at 10. Admission is free.