Despite some afternoon rain showers delaying play for five of the seven days of play, the 2019 Mardy Fish Children’s Foundation Tennis Championships concluded on time early Sunday evening after Italians Lorenzo Frigerio and Adelchi Virgili won the doubles title, defeating top-seeds Boris Arias of the Bolivian Davis Cup team and Sekou Bangoura of Bradenton, Fla., 6-4, 6-3 in the final.
Earlier Sunday, Dmitry Popko of Kazakhstan was crowned the singles champion of this 25-year annual Vero Beach tennis tradition, a $25,000 event on the ITF World Tennis Tour, defeating Bangoura 6-1, 7-6 (1) in the singles final. Popko, the No. 8 seed and a member of Kazakhstan’s Davis Cup team, was dominant this week in Vero Beach, putting on a dazzling display of shot-making for the scores of enthusiastic spectators and volunteers and won his seventh ITF event this year, a $3,600 payday, and more significantly, three ATP ranking points.
“This one means a lot because it’s a $25,000 event and also gave me three ATP points and put me in the Top 10 of the ITF rankings,’’ said Popko, 22, ranked 12th before the tournament and just 608th in the ATP, down from a career-high of 178 in 2017. “Now I can play Challenger level tournaments and hopefully I’m going to earn as many ATP points as I can and then see where it’s going to bring me.’’
Popko cancelled his plans to play in next week’s Pensacola ITF stop because he has been accepted into a more prestigious ATP Challenger tournament in Shymkent, located in his adopted Kazakhstan. He sped to the airport to fly half way around the world immediately following the singles final Sunday.
This year Popko has won three ITF tournaments in Turkey and four in Florida, including Naples, Sunrise, Orange Park and Vero Beach. He has won his last three ITF tournaments while winning 15 consecutive matches and 31 of his last 33.
“I’m hungrier now and enjoying the wins,’’ Popko said.
Just as hungry was his opponent, as Bangoura got to No. 213 in 2016, but has since dropped to 400. His ITF ranking of 30th will surely improve after his second final of the year, along with a title in Naples. He was forced to play twice on Sunday because his semifinal against Diego Hidalgo of Ecuador was stopped on Saturday with Bangoura trailing 7-5, 5-3.
Early Sunday morning, Bangoura staved off a match point before capping off his comeback victory, 5-7, 7-6 (5), 6-1. A few hours later, he was getting hammered by Popko’s titanic forehands and pinpoint two-hand backhand, quickly dropping the first set 6-1.
Bangoura, 27, an accomplished chess player, used his analytical skills on a different squared surface, and began attacking the net, pressuring Popko to come up with the passing shot. Suddenly, the match flip-flopped and Bangoura jumped out to a 5-2 lead in the second set.
“He started to come in more and kind of broke my rhythm,’’ said Popko, who was only truly tested this week in his second-round, three-set victory over young Colombian, Nicolas Mejia. “He adjusted it by himself and made me uncomfortable. I was down 2-5 and had to fight back. I picked up my level and that’s how I went up 6-5.’’
However, Bangoura, again living on the edge, saved two match points and broke Popko’s serve to force a tiebreaker. It was there Bangoura ran out of fuel as Popko, perhaps buoyed by his 45-6 match record this year, reeled off six consecutive points in the tiebreaker before finishing off his fleet-footed opponent with a wicked crosscourt forehand passing shot. Checkmate.
“The tiebreaker was a game of nerves and I think I played better because it had a 1-0 [set lead],’’ Popko said.
Perhaps the most illustrious player to have won this event was Great Britain’s Kyle Edmund, who was ranked No. 513 in 2013 when he took the title. Last year Edmund reached the semifinals of the Australian Open and was ranked a career-high No. 14. Why not Popko?
The USTA reports that ITF events such as the Mardy Fish ITF championships can bring in approximately $500,000 to the local economy and several thousand more for the foundation’s charities, which are geared to getting children involved in healthy activities.
“This tournament didn’t feel like an ITF, it felt like a much bigger tournament because of the great atmosphere,’’ Popko said. “More than 50 people came up to me after to congratulate me.’’
The Mardy Fish Children’s Foundation Tennis Championships is regarded as one of the best entry-level professional tennis tournaments in the world. Proceeds from the event benefit the Mardy Fish Children’s Foundation, the non-profit tennis foundation benefiting children, named for Vero Beach native son Mardy Fish, the former top 10 tennis star and the current U.S. Davis Cup captain. Fans can continue to follow news and developments on the tournament on Facebook and on Twitter at @VeroFutures. Future sponsorship and ticket information can be obtained by emailing Tom Fish at Tfish10s@aol.com or Randy Walker at RWalker@NewChapterMedia.com Approximately 3,000 fans annually attend the event, which is seen as one of the best-attended entry-level professional events in the world.
Some of the past competitors at the USTA Vero Beach Futures have gone on to succeed at the highest levels of professional tennis, winning major singles and doubles titles, Olympic medals and Davis Cup championships and earning No. 1 world rankings. Andy Roddick, the 2003 U.S. Open champion who attained the world No. 1 ranking and helped the United States win the Davis Cup in 2007, competed in Vero Beach in 1999. Thomas Johansson of Sweden, who reached the second round of the Vero Beach Futures in 1995, won the Australian Open seven years later in 2002. Nicolas Massu, the 1998 singles runner-up in Vero Beach, won the singles and doubles gold medals at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, beating Fish in the gold medal singles match. Kyle Edmund, the 2013 champion in Vero Beach, helped Great Britain to the Davis Cup title in 2015. Other notable former competitors in Vero Beach include former world No. 2 Magnus Norman, former world No. 4 Tim Henman, 2016 Wimbledon finalist Milos Raonic and most recently world No. 50 player and teen sensation Denis Shapovalov, who played in Vero Beach in 2016. Former Vero Beach competitors have combined to win 19 titles in singles, doubles and mixed doubles at Grand Slam tournaments. Seven former Vero Beach players have gone on to play Davis Cup for the United States – Roddick, Fish, Taylor Dent, Jared Palmer, Donald Young, Ryan Harrison and Frances Tiafoe.
Founded in 2007, the Mardy Fish Children’s Foundation (www.MardyFishChildrensFoundation.org and @MardyFishFound on Twitter) currently supports over 2,200 children in 15 elementary schools, six middle schools and two after school centers in Indian River County, Florida by funding after-school exercise, nutritional and enrichment programs in a safe environment to prepare them for healthy, productive and successful lives. The Foundation introduced the “Six Healthy Habits” in 2012 which are Get Sleep; Drink Water; Exercise Daily, Eat Healthy; Brush and Floss; Make Friends.
Tournament sponsors for 2019 include Presenting Sponsor PNC Bank, Grand Slam Sponsors Boston Barricade, George E. Warren Corporation and the Jake Owen Foundation, Cabana/Box Seat Sponsors John’s Island Real Estate, John Klein, Gene Simonsen, TeamChristopher.com, Dan Holman, Hadleigh Investments, Pene Chambers / Lynn Southerly, Lace and Bob Milligan / Mickey and Rob Stein, William Barhorst, CPA, Michael and Kathleen Pierce, The Pitcher Family, Shirley Becker, Scoreboard Sponsor Fit for Life / Syde Hurdus Foundation Backhand Sponsors Vero Beach Magazine, Rossway Swan, Nalzaro Music, Coastal Van Lines, Diamond Resorts International, Forehand Sponsors Karen and Steve Rubin, Mike and Meg Hickey / Premier Estate Properties, Shaklee / Suzie Sunkel, Indian River Animal Hospital – Charles B. Johnson, DVM, Marjorie Johnson, DVM, MS, DAVP, Serve Sponsors Cravings, Bistro Fourchette, Willem and Marion DeVogel, Foglia Custom Homes Topspin Sponsors Alex MacWilliam Real Estate, Eternal Water, Kit Fields Realtor, Patrick Williams / Tom Collins Insurance, Riverside Café, MinuteMan Press, Center Court Tennis Outfitters, Drop Shot Sponsors Treasure Coast Financial Planning, Inc., Peter and Judith Saidel, Deb Benjamin, Paul & Linda Delaney, Stewart Dunn, Susan Flannery (Aluma Tower), Tom Flannery (Malesardi, Quackenbush, Swift and Company LLC, Jim & Suzi Keegan, Don Moyle, Dee Patberg, Fran Smyrk (Treasure Coast Sotheby’s), Gary & Beth Williams, ABCO Garage Door Company, Inc., Barker Air Conditioning & Heating, Busy Bee Lawn & Garden Center, Coastal Comforts at the Village Shops, Colton, Williams & Reamy, CPAs, Complete Electric, Inc., Complete Restaurant Equipment, LLC, Glacier Clear Pool Service, Jack’s Complete Tree Service, Inc., Jimmy’s Tree Services, Ken’s Pool Service, ML Engineering, Inc., Nozzle Nolen, Inc., O’Haire, Quinn, Casalino, Chartered, Rich Look Lawn Care, Rick’s Custom Care, Statewide Condominium Insurance, Steve Supplee Construction LLC, Summit Construction of Vero Beach, LLC, Sunshine Furniture, White Glove Moving & Storage and Wilco Construction, Inc.