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Semifinalists survive heat to advance to today's final

by PETE PERKINS SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | June 11, 2021 at 2:02 a.m.

Rain did not stop play in the semifinal round to the United States Tennis Association Southern 16s Championship at Rebsamen Tennis Center in Little Rock on Thursday.

Nevertheless, multiple rain delays through each of the first five days forced players to endure two elimination matches on the hottest day of the event.

Weather and opponents have affected some players less than others. Top-seeded girl Saray Yli-piipari defeated Lucy Schmeil 6-4, 6-1 to advance to today's final, scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Yli-piipari will play ninth-seeded Sarah Elizabeth Branicki, who advanced with a 6-2, 6-1 semifinal victory over No. 2 seed Addison Bowman.

Boys semifinal winners were Gabe Auram and Roberto Ferrer Guimaraes. Auram defeated Nathan Pitts, who retired after trailing 3-0 in the first set, and Guimaraes advanced with a 6-4, 6-3 victory over Ian Mayew.

Winners and losers alike were similarly withered by two matches and a temperature that reached 91 degrees and a heat index of 101, according to the National Weather Service.

"Because of torrential rain for the first five days of the tournament, we had to double at least one day," tournament director Chip Stearns said. "Unfortunately, that day was today."

Yli-piipari's quarterfinal opponent retired midway through the second set after Yli-piipari, 15 of Braselton, Ga., won the first, 6-0. The match took less than an hour. Meanwhile, it took nearly three hours for Schmeil, 15 of Hilton Head, S.C., to defeat her quarterfinal opponent Ellie Hammond, 4-6, 7-6 (2), 14-12.

When Yli-piipari's and Schmeil's semifinal match started at 3:07 p.m., the heat index was at 100.

When the two played USTA events when they were 12, Schmeil had the upper hand and won two of their three matches. A growth spurt since has worked to Yli-piipari's advantage, and though Schmeil broke her first serve, she soon led 4-1.

Yli-piipari later said she was not surprised to see Schmeil battle back to tie the first set at 4-4 before she pulled away.

Yli-piipari dominated the second set until a late do-or-die burst from Schmeil. The eventual winner held her opponent pointless through three consecutive games to lead 5-0, but Schmeil came out of a rest period to hold serve and Yli-piipari to a single point. Yli-ppipari responded with a six-point battle to win the final point and the match.

"The way she came back in the first set, I was kind of expecting that in the second set," Yli-piipari said.

Schmeil said despite the deficit, she wanted the match to continue.

"I always tell myself, 'just one more point,' and when I'm playing, I just know that when I fight, I give myself a better opportunity to win, although 0-5 is a pretty big hole," Schmeil said. "I really just wanted to put myself in a position to win. I'd been in that three-hour match before this. I was pretty worn out and pretty hot, but I wanted to fight the whole time."

Schmeil said she was impressed by her opponent's improvement.

"She's always been able to move very well," Schmeil said. "Her placement and timing is really good, and since she's grown a lot, it's easier for her to come into net and cover more of the court. It's harder to pass her or lob her, but she just hits a really big ball now, which is hard to play against."

Yli-piipari said she was pleased to advance.

"I'm pretty happy with the way I'm playing," Yli-piipari said. "I've improved a lot since the last time I played her, so I'm proud of that."

Yli-ppipari said she expects a significant challenge from Branicki.

"She's a good player," Yli-piipari said.

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