Liam Draxl of Canada advanced into the singles semifinals and doubles final at the $15,000 Mardy Fish Children’s Foundation Tennis Championships Saturday, beating Ben Shelton in the singles quarterfinals, then pairing with Shelton in the doubles semifinals.
Draxl, a junior at the University of Kentucky, started the day with a thrilling 6-1, 6-7 (3), 6-4 singles win over Shelton, a University of Florida sophomore. The two then beat Junior Ore and Ben Kittay 3-6 6-4 [10-5] to reach the doubles final.
In Saturday’s noon semifinal, the 19-year-old Draxl, who’s No. 477 in the ATP rankings, will face China’s Jerry Shang, the current No. 1. junior in the ITF world rankings. Shang, who’s only 16 and is hoping to notch his third ITF Futures title this season, outlasted eighth-seeded Duarte Vale of Portugal and also from the University of Florida 6-3, 7-6 (2). Shang also took out Vale in last week’s final of the ITF $15,000 Futures in Naples, almost with the same score, 6-3, 7-6 (4).
Vale was on last season’s Gators NCAA championship team with Shelton, so it was a rough day all around for the Gators. Shang, who has been training at IMG Academy in Bradenton since 2019 under the tutelage of former touring pros Jimmy Arias and Martin Damm, said it helped to be familiar with Vale’s game.
“It was like the same as last week,’’ Shang said. “He’s a fighter and isn’t going to give you anything. I reset in the tiebreak and got the match done. I’ve known [Draxl] since I was 14, watching him play in juniors when I was little. It’s going to be fun.”
In other quarterfinal action, Venezuelan Davis Cup legend Ricardo Rodriguez, the No. 3 seed, defeated 26-year-old Juan Benitez of Colombia, a winner here in 2018 who received a wild card into the qualifying event here, 6-2, 6-2.
After snapping a nine-match losing streak earlier this week, the top-seeded, wild-card entrant Donald Young, who reached 38th in the world in 2012 before injuries and the pandemic derailed his career, the 32 year old’s comeback sustained another speed-bump in a 6-3, 4-0 loss to wild-card entrant Matthew Segura late Thursday.
Young, who has dropped to 451 and relegated to playing in the minor leagues of pro tennis, sustained an injury to his left leg and was forced to retire from his second-round match. After two first-round ousters at this tournament, Segura, 21, the great nephew of late tennis Hall of Famer Pancho Segura, has reached the quarterfinals for the first time but fell to baseline basher Ezekiel Clark, the seventh seed from Tulsa, Okla. 7-5, 6-4.
Clark, 23 and ranked 779, achieved his best result in an ITF $15,000 Futures in Norman, Okla., in 2019 when he made it to the final. Clark, who’s only 5-9 and recently played for the University of Illinois, is a huge fan of former Spaniard great David Ferrer. Despite his smallish 5-9 stature, Ferrer’s tenacious baseline grinding enabled him to No. 3 in the world in 2013 and he won 27 singles titles while earning more than $31 million.
Segura knew that Young had several big-time notches on his racket, posting victories over Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, Tommy Haas, Kevin Anderson as well as wins in Challengers events against Daniil Medvedev and Alexander Zverev when the current second- and fourth-ranked players respectively were teenagers just breaking into pro tennis.
“In all due respect I just went out there and trusted my ability and my game,’’ said Segura, 21, who grew up in Southern California but lives in nearby Orlando. “I think it’s a great achievement especially against someone who was in the Top 40. He’s beaten a lot of good players. Every year has been a learning opportunity for me. The last two times I lost in the first round, but I learned lessons from it and how to [compete]. I decided the third time I wanted to go for it.’’
The ambidextrous Segura can hit serves with either hand and features two-fisted ground strokes like his great Uncle Pancho did. Pancho was only 5-foot-6 but managed to win 66 titles and unofficially reached No. 1 in 1950. Although the diminutive Ecuadorian died at 96 in 2017, he imparted his vast knowledge of tennis to Matthew, who stands 6-1.
“Every time I would hit a winning shot or get a good win, he would say, ‘Thata boy!’, so I feel him saying that to me,” Segura said. “I think he’s still coaching my heart.’’
Segura earned his first ATP point after his first-round win on Wednesday and now has a chance to add a few more. He has won three ‘Wild Card’ events for this tournament from 2018-20 at Sea Oaks Tennis Club, but this is by far his best ITF Pro Circuit tournament.
Draxl hopes to join a contingent of exciting Canadian stars on both tours, including No. 12-ranked Felix Auger-Aliassime, No. 15t-ranked Denis Shapovalov (who reached the semis here in Vero Beach in 2016), , t
Milos Raonic (once ranked as high as No. 3), Vasek Pospisil (career-high 25 in 2014); and on the WTA Tour, Bianca Andreescu (U.S Open champion in 2019), Leylah Fernandez (recent U.S. Open finalist), Genie Bouchard (Wimbledon finalist in 2016) and even U.S. Open champion Emma Raducanu was born in Toronto before settling in Great Britain.
“When you see the next gen, young players like Felix and Denis coming up and doing so well on the Tour it makes me feel like I can do it. I’m inspired by them and am trying to follow in their footsteps,” Draxl said.
The hard-serving left-handed Shelton got off to a slow start, possibly feeling the effects of his tough three-set victory over former Gators’ teammate Blaise Bicknell on Thursday, but stormed back to gut out a second-set tiebreaker. The turning point of the match came with Shelton serving at 2-2, 15-40 in the third set when Draxl smacked a highly angled crosscourt forehand passing shot past the net-charging Shelton for a critical break.
However, with Draxl serving for the match at 5-3, Shelton, 19, saved a match point as Draxl’s forehand just missed the clay baseline. Shelton broke back and held for 4-5.
A fired-up Draxl, normally a baseliner, won two points by serving and volleying to go up 40-15 for match point No. 2. An error by Draxl gave Shelton an opening. but the University of Kentucky Wildcat sealed the 2-hour, 47-minute battle when Shelton’s backhand flew over the baseline.
“A great match to my doubles partner this week,’’ said Draxl, who was seeded No. 1 in last year’s NCAA singles tournament. “I knew it was going to be a battle today. I was pumped to squeak it out at the end. “When you beat a player like that 6-1, you know it’s not going to be 6-1 in the second set. I knew he was going to fight back and grind. I knew I had to elevate my game, be more aggressive. I returned a couple of his bombs and without that I don’t break him.”
“I love college tennis so much; I love the energy, love the atmosphere, love getting pumped up and the team aspect to it,’’ added Draxl, who was named the school’s first ITA National Player of the Year, going 25-3 in singles. “I’m excited to get back in January and do it over again.”
Draxl is riding a wave of confidence after eaching the semifinals of another ITF $15,000 tournament in Naples last week. Draxl also held his own in an ATP qualifying match in the Canada Masters 1000 event last August, barely falling to the No. 56-ranked Tommy Paul, 7-6 (0), 6-4. He also lost a close one to former Top 40 player Ryan Harrison 7-6 in the third at a Challenger event in Cary in July.