THE 31st AGL Loy Yang Traralgon Junior International reached its climax last Wednesday, following seven days of non-stop action.

Latrobe Valley Express readers were last updated up until the quarter final stage of the competition, and there were more twists and turns that played out in the lead-up to the finals.

Crew: The four finalists pose with the ball kids. (Left to right) Iva Jovic, Emerson Jones, Nicolai Budkov Kjaer and Rei Sakamoto. Photograph: Zaida Glibanovic

Putting her name in the record books was 15-year-old Emerson Jones, who became the first Australian girl to win the girls’ singles competition since Jaslyn Hewitt, the younger sister of Lleyton Hewitt, in 2000.

She also became the first Australian to win a junior singles title in Traralgon since Nick Kyrgios in 2013, breaking an 11-year drought.

Creating more history over in the boys’ competition was 17-year-old Rei Sakamoto, who became the first Japanese player to win the singles event, across boys and girls.


Boys’ Singles

THE road to the boys’ Final saw little surprise, with the two highest seeds on either side of the draw going all the way to the Final.

On one side of the draw, Australian Hayden Jones met the Dutch Mees Rottgering in the quarters, going down in a three-set classic, and Sakamoto defeated sixth-seed American Alexander Rezghi in straight sets to advance.

Sakamoto was made to earn his Final berth in the semi-final, defeating Rottgering in straight sets, 7-6, 7-6, evidently both sets going to tie-breaks.

On the other side of the boys’ draw, Kazakhstan’s Danial Rakmatullayev was defeated by the highest-seeded Australian boy, Pavle Marinkov, in straight sets, while Norwegian second-seed Nicolai Budkov Kjaer breezed past Daniil Sarksian from Russia.

It was a hard-fought semi final on this side of the draw, with the Australian, Marinkov, taking the second seed the distance, but it was Budkov Kjaer who prevailed 2-6, 6-4, 6-3, to meet Sakamoto in the Final.

Then it was set. The afternoon of Wednesday, January 17 would see the No. 2 seed Budkov Kjaer come up against No. 4 seed Sakamoto in the Final.

Persistent rain on the day of the finals had it in doubt, much like the year before, but the clouds began to part, and the sun shone on the Traralgon Tennis Association just in the nick of time.

It was hard to split the two early in the match, as they battled toe-to-toe, not giving the other an inch.

Things began to heat up when Sakamoto’s serve was broken, and Budkov Kjaer held a commanding position, leading four games to two in the opening set.

But that lead only lasted for so long, as Sakamoto denied Budkov Kjaer the chance to move three games clear, breaking back to trail by a game, before holding serve, and the next thing you knew the match was all square again.

Going from 4-2 down to 4-4, Sakamoto had all of the momentum, as he broke Budkov Kjaer for the second time, to miraculously have prime position to take out the first set.

He firmly held his serve, winning a topsy-turvy first set, 6-4.

Technique: Rei Sakamoto powers his way through the second set. Photograph: Tom Hayes

This match had every right to go down to the wire, but as a match went on, fatigue looked to set in for Budkov Kjaer.

His serve was broken immediately in the second set, and Sakamoto held to have a two-game lead, and with the championship in sight, all that was needed was a flawless service game and it was his for the taking.

From here, it appeared as if the game had shifted from physical to mental, as frustrations began to get the better of Budkov Kjaer, while Sakamoto remained composed, placing his shots expertly.

Both ends of the service game were polar opposites, as Budkov Kjaer continued to double fault and Sakamoto breezed through his service games.

There was more action off court than on court, as Sakamoto powered through, while Budkov Kjaer sent balls flying into the crowd and over the fence.

Eventually, Budkov Kjaer would win his first game of the second set, but the damage had already been dealt, as he trailed 4-1.

Sakamoto would win the final two games, breaking Budkov Kjaer once more to seal the championship, 6-4, 6-1.

Appriciation: Rei Sakamoto celebrates in front of his support crew. Photograph: Tom Hayes


Girls’ Singles

THE girls’ Final for the AGL Traralgon International was like the main event.

On Show Court 1, the grandstand was packed with spectators ready to cheer on the Australian, Jones, as she took on Iva Jovic of the US.

With the Aussies doing so well in the Australian Open this year, it was the icing on the cake as Gold Coast girl Jones defeated the American Tyra Grant in the quarter final to progress through to the semis.

Jones had no problem taking on the big-hitting Grant, winning the first set 6-3; while the second went to a tiebreak, the Aussie powered through to close out the match.

The semi-final was a much closer affair for the second seed.

Poland’s Monika Stankiewicz was a formidable opponent for Jones, who found herself down a set, but again, the young tennis star could brush off the 5-7 defeat in the first set and come back to win the next two 7-5, 6-2.

Playing a three-set match didn’t worry Jones as she entered the Final firing.

Despite being a year younger than her opposition, Jones showed a lot of maturity, going hit-for-hit with the American early on.

It was at five games all in the first set, where Jovic began pushing the young Aussie, nearing break point, but Jones courageously clawed her way back to hold serve.

Unforced errors from Jovic allowed Jones to capitalise. On break-point the Australian returned Jovic’s second serve with an almighty forehand down the line to break the American’s serve and win the first set 7-5.

Mission complete: Australian Emerson Jones cruised to the championship in the second set. Photograph: Zaida Glibanovic

The sun lit up the Traralgon court as the two girls took to the court to begin the second set.

With all the momentum, Jones broke Jovic early to lead two games to love.

However, the American hadn’t lost her fight, as she found herself 15-40 on Jones’ next service game.

Neither one to lay over and give up easily, again, Jones showed her fight and composure to hold on with a gutsy performance.

With all the momentum for Jones, nothing seemed to go Jovic’s way, then things only got worse.

Jovic reached for a ball and clutched her right quad, ginger to return to her feet. Jovic had the crowd wondering if she would retire as she received treatment from the tournament physiotherapist.

Nevertheless, the ITF World No.11 went back on the court, playing through injury to see through the match despite being a set and five games down.

In a show of true persistence, the 16-year-old gritted her teeth and put her head down to win her first game of the set.

Though, there was simply no stopping Jones as she was one game away from breaking a 24-year drought at Traralgon.

Showing clinical precision and using her dominant forehand, the Aussie was home, becoming the first Australian girl since Jaslyn Hewitt in 2000 to take out the singles competition.

Winners: The two singles winners, Rei Sakamoto and Emerson Jones, don their Akubras. Photograph: Zaida Glibanovic


Boys’ Doubles

DOUBLES action provided a different edge to the evening, adding excitement to the tamed crowd to finish the tournament.

The boys’ doubles Final came down to the American duo of Maxwell Exsted and Cooper Woestendick who came up against the Italian pair Lorenzo Angelini and Daniele Rapagnetta.

Both sets of doubles had just completed three-set wins, both winning via tie-breaks, so not much would separate the two sides.

The Americans defeated the dynamic duo of 2023 singles champion Federico Cina and new singles champion Sakamoto, so eyes were on them as they played for the crown.

Duo: American doubles pair of Maxwell Exsted (left) and Cooper Woestendick did things the hard way in the doubles tournament. Photograph: Zaida Glibanovic

Angelini and Rapagnetta took care of business against the Polish Tomasz Berkieta and Czech Maxim Mrva, after losing the first set.

The US duo of Exsted and Woestendick proved to be a level above in the Final, but it wasn’t without late drama as they took out the first set 7-5.

Finding the ability to break the serve of the Italians, the Americans closed out the second set to win the doubles championship 7-5, 6-4.


Girls’ Doubles

THE No.1 seeded girls’ doubles team in Hannah Klugman and Mingge Xu of Great Britain were set to take on the Japanese and English parring of Wakana Sonobe and Mika Stojsavljevic.

The Sonobe and Stojsavljevic pairing were dominant all tournament, breezing through the semi-final against Czechian Julie Pastikova and German Julia Stusek, 6-3, 6-1.

The girls entertained the crowd with big hits from the baseline and skillful volleys at the net.

The match was a close one in the beginning. Both teams were dominant on serve, and with nothing to separate the two pairs, the first set was decided by a tiebreak. Stojsavljevic and Sonobe got the upper hand over the British doubles team, winning the tiebreak 7-4 to give them the upper hand.

Champs: Girls’ doubles champions Wakana Sonobe (right) and Mika Stojsavljevic cruised to the championship. Photograph: Tom Hayes

In the second set, the ITF World No. 7, Klugman, was dominant on serve, but unforced errors and scoreboard pressure got to both Xu and Klugman.

Sonobe and Stojsavljevic were able to capitalise quickly, and before long, it was game, set, and match to Sonobe and Stojsavljevic, 7-6, 6-3.