International proves a big winner

Strength: Belgium player Sofia Costoulas lines up for a powerful forehand return in the girls final.








THE AGL Loy Yang Traralgon Junior International tennis tournament reached its climax last Wednesday following a week of intense competition.


It was a European flavour that took out the boys and girls singles title, as well as the boys doubles, while the girls doubles returned victory for the country known as the Great White North.


As the singles tournament went on and players were eliminated one by one, the finals came down to four players fighting it out for the championship and the chance to take home a trademark Traralgon Tennis Association Akubra.


In the girls, Belgium seventh seed Sofia Costoulas was pitted against 16th ranked Kayla Cross of Canada.


Both players went into the final having taken down formidable opponents on the journey. Costoulas defeated Russian top seed Diana Shnaider in the quarter final, while Cross got through an extremely tough draw to topple second seed Kzenia Zaytseva (Russia) in the third round and eighth seed Celine Naef (Switzerland) in the semi.


A tight first set in the final saw Costoulas take the lead 6-4.


Both players traded blows in the early stages, and appeared to allow the game to unfold naturally.


Cross took on the role of challenger in the second set, with a number of deft placements to force Costoulas to run around the court as much as possible.


The Belgian however was up to the task, nailing a number of powerful returns.


Given Cross’ tough road to the final it is likely she figured her chances of winning would increase if she tried to wear her opponent down rather than go head-to-head.


This strategy enabled her to keep within touching distance of Costoulas in the first set, but as the second set wore on it became clear the journey to the final had taken its toll on Cross, and Costoulas took the second set in relatively comfortable fashion 6-2 to complete her victory.


With Canadians famous for their politeness, one couldn’t help but smile wryly when Cross enquired rather courteously to the chair umpire “are you kidding me?” following a tight line call.


Costoulas said the tournament had gone well.


“It was a great preparation here, hopefully I can pull off the same run next week (at the Australian Open).


“I like the heat out here, I like to play in warm conditions. The people (in Traralgon) are very nice.”


THE boys’ final saw second seed Mili Poljicak of Croatia up against sixth seed Edas Butvilas of Lithuania.


Butvilas knocked top seed Bruno Kuzuhara (USA) out in the semi-final, and signs were looking promising after he took a 7-5 lead in the first set of the final.


Poljicak recovered from a sluggish start and worked his way into the contest, landing a number of killer blows in the second set to win 3-6.


The competitive juices of the Croatian were clearly flowing, as he looked like a man possessed once he stepped foot over the white line.


Some tense moments on break points in the second and third set had him speaking aggressively to himself in his native tongue – and you didn’t have to be a lip reader to know roughly what he was saying.


Poljicak looked the calmer player, preferring to absorb what his


opponent could throw at him and then look for ways to counter-attack.


The Lithuanian pulled one out of the trick bag early in the piece, executing a shot between his legs to keep a long rally going.


Both players well and truly belied their age in maturity and


appearance. Although they were listed as 17-year-olds, they could have easily been mistaken for men in their early 20s.


Come the third and deciding set, Poljicak gained enough separation on his rival and eventually won 6-3.


“I felt it in the second (set) when I broke him 4-2 it was my time … it was good in the end,” he said.


“I handled the wind well in the second and third, I think that is what helped me win. It feels great, because this whole tournament is well known in the world.”


For Butvilas, he still found reason to smile after the match, and was embraced by his mother as if he in fact had won the title – as only mothers can.


Amazingly, Butvilas and Poljicak went from enemies to teammates a short time after the singles final, pairing up to play in the doubles.


In a marathon match that went to super tiebreak, the duo completed a 5-7, 6-2, 10-4 win over Kazuhara and Hong Kong partner Coleman Wong. The match started in sunshine and ended under chilling lights just after 9.30pm.


Cross still left Traralgon with an Akubra, as she teamed up with fellow Canadian Victoria Mboko to win the doubles.


The pair got past fellow Canadian Mia Kupres and Ranah Akua Stoiber of Great Britain in a hard fought 6-3, 6-4, 10-6 scoreline.


The week capped off another memorable tournament and coup for the area, in which more than 150 of the world’s best junior tennis players converged on Traralgon.


While it remains to be seen just how far some of them will go as they move through the ranks as professional tennis players, those that do reach the heights of grand slams will be able to say they got their start in Traralgon.


Of all the positives to come out of a major tournament like this, perhaps the greatest is the fact that while not everyone necessarily spoke the same language in a verbal sense, once they were on a court with a racquet and a ball in hand – this was all that was needed to bring any number of countries and cultures together.