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Semifinals Recap: USTA Boys’ 18 & 16 National Clay Court Championships [Day 7]

Semifinals Recap: USTA Boys’ 18 & 16 National Clay Court Championships [Day 7]

Ronit Karki finally defeated his big sister Naomi during the pandemic when it was difficult to find partners. No easy task, given that Naomi is three years older and considered one of the best players to ever come out of East Brunswick High in New Jersey.

So, breezing through his first six opponents in straight sets this week in the USTA Boys’ 16s National Clay Court Championships seemed relatively easy for the 10th-seeded Karki, who wasted no time in dispatching fellow New Jersey neighbor (and part-time training partner) Nicholas Mekhael, the fifth seed from Bordentown, 6-1, 6-0 in another sauna-like morning at the Delray Beach Tennis Center to advance to Sunday’s final.

“For my fourth birthday my parents put me in tennis at the Nassau Tennis Center where I would always watch my sister play,’’ said Karki, the Boys’ 16s Player of the Day presented by your South Florida BMW Centers.

“I wanted to do whatever she was doing. I finally started beating her more and more during COVID when she was the only person around to hit with. We started fighting more and I would cry if I started losing.”

Fast forward three years and Naomi, a National Honors Society (in Spanish, too), has a scholarship to play Division I tennis at Rutgers University. Ronit no longer cries on the court and in fact saves his energy by playing in mostly silence, with the occasional fist pump and soft exhortation of, ‘Come on.’

He has been steadily climbing the junior ranks while collecting Gold (won USTA 12s’ National Indoors), Silver and Bronze balls. He recently won an L2 16s’ tournament in Orlando.

His all-court attack combined with the 100-degree heat index combined to grind Mekhael down and catapult Karki into the finals against the rain-delayed semifinal winner between the top-seeded Cooper Han of Northern California and seventh-seed Jack Satterfield of Tampa.

Karki has wins over both potential opponents, including a first-round, 7-6 in the third victory over Satterfield in last year’s L1 International Orange Bowl Championships.

“Because I’m only 5-foot-8, I use my brain a lot on court and it’s one of my strengths,’’ said Karki, 15, and soon to enter 10th grade (online). “I’m not one of the bigger guys so I have to figure out other ways to win. I’ve handled the heat throughout the tournament by keeping my matches short and my body healthy. I also try to stay calm and keep my heart rate down to save energy on the court. Screaming saps your energy.”

It also helps that Karki has been training part-time in Orlando at the Gooding Todero Academy (GTA) to better acclimate to the heat.

He suffered a brief setback in April while competing at an ITF event in Puerto Rico. After a first-round loss he was fooling around on the beach and threw his right arm out while tossing a coconut into the ocean.

“I was out a month as the impingement affected my serve,’’ said Karki, who along with Naomi trained at Juan Carlos Ferrero Academy in Spain where they watched world No.1 Carlos Alcaraz practice in the summer of 2022.

Karki, who hopes to win a Grand Slam one day, has vowed to retire from coconut tossing and stick to firing ground strokes.

It was a banner day for Boys’ 18s eighth-seeded Zhengqing Ji (China and San Diego), who won his semifinal match 6-3, 6-7 (4), 6-3 over Ian Mayhew of Cary, NC.; and then was selected as the winner of the inaugural USTA Sportsmanship Award in honor of Jeff Rothstein. Jeff Rothstein, one of the most well-respected referees and passionate USTA volunteers for over 20 years, former Head Referee for the USTA Boys 18 & 16 National Clay Court Championships and multiple USTA National events within the Series, passed away in 2023. The Sportsmanship Plaque, Delray Beach Open Signed Poster, and Travel Stipend was presented to Ji by Tournament Referee George Baxter and Jeff’s daughter, Lauren Rothstein for his sportsmanship and respect toward the umpires and staff all week. Along with his humbleness and kindness both on and off the court.

Ji will face ninth-seeded Cyrus Mahjoob of Rockville, MD., who eliminated Joseph Phillips of Boca Raton (formerly Alpharetta, Ga.), 6-4, 6-4, in Sunday’s final.

Stiles Brockett, 17, is the defending USTA 16s’ National Clay Court Championships at these same courts and was hoping to add the 18s’ title as the 33rd seed. However, after winning his first two rounds, including a stunning upset of the second-seeded Stephan Gershfield of Long Island, in the round of 32 (6-0 in the third), Brockett fell to Matisse Farzam (33) of Norwalk, Ct., 6-4, 7-5.

“It was a super tough match,’’ said Brockett, a New York native living in Fairfax, Va. “I was up 6-4, 5-5, 30-30 when a rain delay forced us to change sites. I was rolling in the second set but got cut short. He played a good match. For sure, obviously, I wanted to defend my title here but I’m doing a good job in the back draw and am hoping to get the Gold in doubles tomorrow.”

Instead of sulking, the 6-2 Brockett has won six rounds of consolation matches, including two walkovers, to reach Sunday’s final against the winner of the Langdon Tingleaf-William Manning match. Brockett and his doubles partner Cassius Chinlund (top seed in singles) also took out the second-seeded duo of Jack Ingram and Brendan Boland in the quarterfinals, 4-6, 6-4 (10-8).

On Saturday in another rain-delayed match, the unseeded tandem of Brockett and Chinlund eked out a 6-1, 2-6, 6-4 semifinal victory over 16th seeded Gabe Avram and Roberto Ferrer Guimaraes.

For his dogged determination to remain focused after a tough loss, Brockett is the Boys’ 18s Player of the Day presented by Baptist Health. 

Brockett and Chinlund coasted in the first set before another downpour forced them to change sites to the Boca West Country Club where the golfers were complaining about the noise emanating from the enthusiastic doubles match. The umpires were told to dole out code violations if the players celebrated too loudly.

“After the rain delay, they came out swinging,’’ Brockett said. “The golfers told us to keep it down. We have so much energy and [get excited during doubles] but we had to be silent. We were up 5-4, 30-40 in the third when Cassius came up with some big serves. We won but had to have a silent celebration, but we’re happy to be moving on.”

Brockett hopes to follow in the footsteps of Top 10 American star Frances Tiafoe, a Black role model who he has practiced with at their mutual club, the prestigious Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Md., for a couple of years.

“He’s one of my biggest mentors for me at College Park,’’ Brockett said. “He always keeps me in check, pushes me in practice, gives me good advice and to see him in the Top 10, [go to the semis at the US Open, and win a grass tournament in Stuttgart, Germany) is unbelievable. He’s someone we look up to and gives us motivation.”

Brockett also draws inspiration from Chris Eubanks, a late bloomer who at 27 has skyrocketed from No. 153 a year ago to 43 after his sensational quarterfinal run at Wimbledon as well as his first ATP pro title in Mallorca (on grass before Wimbledon). His career breakthrough came at the Masters 1000 in Miami last March when he reached the quarterfinals. 

“Seeing guys like Eubanks [Georgia Tech] and Ben Shelton [Florida] use the college process and then do so well on Tour gives me motivation to go to college for sure and tells me I don’t have to rush,’’ said Brockett, who won his first pro match in qualifying in April at the USTA Pro Circuit $15,000 in Vero Beach. “I have a game that needs more time to get going and develop.”

Brockett recently won an ITF Futures in doubles and was a finalist in singles on clay in Ecuador.

“Winning that qualifier in Vero Beach showed me where the level is and where I could be in this sport,’’ he said.  “It was a good gauge.”

Brockett, who knocked out six seeds in last year’s 16s’ title run here and a Gold Ball, also owns a doubles Gold Ball for winning the Winter Nationals 16s last year.

Photos of the Day


By Harvey Fialkov. Source/Photos: Top photo: Delray Beach Tennis Center. For complete draws, including match times, locations and results, click here.

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