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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Local tennis: Naples' Brett Clark wins Boys 18s title at Bush Florida Open

— Boomer later, perhaps.
His back, and serve, often against the wall against hard-firing Oklahoma young gun Spencer Papa, Naples native Brett Clark used casual demeanor, veteran strategy, deft touch and survival instincts to get past Papa, 6-4, 7-5, in Tuesday's Florida Bush Open 18-year-old championship matchup on the clay stadium court of The Landings.
It was the second Florida Bush Open title for the second-seeded Clark, who won the 16-under trophy two years ago, and had strong local support.
"I'm just relieved and happy I won the match, won the tournament," said a beaming Clark. "Always feels good to get a win with all the people backing me. That helped me get through some tough times in that match. I played well but I had to.
"I had to find a second gear and luckily I could do that."
Clark was the Daily News Boys Tennis Player of the Year who won the Class 3A singles and doubles championships to lead Barron Collier to its second consecutive state title last season as a junior. His win stopped Papa's steam-roll of Naples players. In the opening round, Papa, just 15, knocked out Clark's Cougars doubles teammate, Austin Robles, before blowing past Naples High's Josh Dancu in Monday's semifinal.
Dancu lost to Jonathan Ho of Wexford, Pa., 6-3, 6-1, in the third-place match Tuesday.
Ranked 16th in the country, fifth in the Southeast and third in Florida, Clark, 17, ran his USTA record to 64-19 by winning this prestigious Level 3 Regional tourney. The win came on the heels of his Florida State Closed title in Daytona Beach earlier this month.
"I've been playing really well for the past month and a half," Clark said. "I knew coming into this tournament that I was playing well enough to win. It was just a matter of if I did. And I'm so happy that I did."
Both Clark and Papa, the ninth seed from Edmond who is ranked second nationally among rising sophomores, are right-handed, 6-foot-2 baseliners with two-fisted backhands that possess touch at the net. But this clash between the slim Clark and the muscular, high-strung Papa was largely a two-hour, 20-minute matchup of placement vs. power.
The contrast made for an entertaining, momentum-shifting back-and-forther.
Clearly calmer at the start, Clark, who finished third in last year's Open, easily broke to a 4-2 first-set lead. But Papa, who uses very little top spin, came firing back, getting a break on a touch volley to make it 4-4. Chipping to get to or bring Papa to the net to diminish his firepower, Clark broke right back. After trailing 0-30, Clark finished the first set with a cross-court backhand volley and a service winner.
"I tried to keep the ball lower so he couldn't just wail on every ball," Clark said. "You've got to mix things up against a hard hitter like that."
Papa held at love to open the second set. Then came a huge difference-maker. Despite three aces (his only of the match), Clark had to fight off six break points before holding with a pair of drop volleys to make it 1-1.
"I always think win or lose in the first set, it's always important to get momentum (early in the second set), because if you get down an early break, then you're fighting all the way through the second," Clark said. "That was really an important game that I had to get."
Papa sighed at the recollection.
"I definitely felt in the second game, if I had won one of those break points, I'd have had a better chance to win," Papa said. "But he stuck in there and played a great game."
After Papa held, he got a big break when his return of Clark's first serve trickled over for 30-40. He broke on the next point.
"I felt refreshed," Papa said. "Tried to come out with a lot of energy."
Papa cruised to an easy hold, then earned three break points, all thwarted. Clark used a cross-court forehand pass and a service winner to close to 2-4.
"I kept telling myself, 'Just one break,'" Clark said.
Clark got it, breaking Papa for 3-5, at which time a clearly wilting Papa took his second bathroom break. He emerged in fresh attire.
But it was Clark who got recharged.
"I started to get my second wind when I got that break because I was really tired," Clark said. "I think that bathroom break actually cooled him off."
Both players held and, at 4-5, Clark fought off two break/set points, evening it at 5-5 on a drop shot. He then used a down-the-line forehand to break at 15, and closed the match with an overhead and fist pump.
"It was definitely a long match, and I had my chances," Papa said. "He just stayed in there. Got lucky there. But he's a good player and played well."
Clark, who has scheduled visits to North Carolina and Notre Dame and likely will plan three more, just felt it was his day.
"I don't know why I was so relaxed today," he said. "Good warm-ups. Just felt really good coming out. Body felt great. I was in this situation two years ago, and I don't know if that helped me, but I felt great."

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