| By Brian Coleman

The Junior Orange Bowl International Tennis Championships is the cream of the crop when it comes to showcasing the world’s top junior tennis talent, and the 55th edition of the tournament in Miami, Fla. was no exception. It was an exceptional tournament for two players from the Eastern Section who both happen to train at Centercourt Tennis Academy in Chatham, N.J.: Alexa Noel and Evan Wen.

“To have both of them do so well, I think it is a good reflection of our Academy and our training process. Both Alexa and Evan started training at Centercourt at eight-years-old. This reflects our developmental programs and how we develop players from the ground up at early ages,” said Centercourt Tennis Academy’s Managing Partner Clay Bibbee. “It’s a huge confidence booster for Alexa and Evan as they know they are right there with the best juniors in their age group in the world right now. I challenge anyone to look at the draw and find a region that did as well as we did, let alone come from the same Academy.”

Alexa Noel

Noel entered the tournament unseeded, but it had no effect on her performance as she captured the title in the Girls 14 Division, upending the third-seed Qinwen Zheng of China 6-3, 2-6, 6-4 in the final, capping off a remarkable week.

The Summit, N.J. native won seven consecutive matches without dropping a set to reach the title contest. In the final, she faced her first bit of adversity in the tournament as Zheng, following Noel’s first set victory, forced the match into a deciding third by winning the second, Noel’s first set defeat of the tournament.

Noel then fell behind 0-2 in the third set, which is where she displayed how her game has improved and matured, showing the mental fortitude to regroup and come back.

“I used to be kind of a wreck,” Noel admitted. “But now I realize that I need the mental side of the game to be able to play my best tennis. Even in that third set after I fell behind 0-2 I just told myself: ‘You need to focus and fight.’ We played a long game at 0-2, and after I won it, I said to myself, ‘I’m still in it. Let’s go!’ I wasn’t playing that well, my serve was all over the place. But I was able to make a lot of balls and play my game even through all that was happening.”

The improved emotional and mental toughness has been a major factor in Noel’s recent success, which is something Bibbee, Performance Tennis Director Randy Bloemendaal and the team at Centercourt have been stressing to her.

“I think Alexa’s biggest development has been her emotional toughness and her approach to the game, both on and off the court,” said Bibbee. “She is looking at tennis with a different mentality. The approach she takes toward tennis is more professional-like now.”

That toughness is something that a lot of players from the Eastern Section develop, basically out of necessity. The cold weather and playing indoors for the majority of the year forces a lot of players to become tough and gritty, and that was evident with Noel’s performance in Florida.

In the weeks following the Orange Bowl, Noel headed to South America to compete in ITF tournaments which included a quarterfinal result at the 37th Asuncion Bowl in Lambare, Paraguay.

Evan Wen

Wen competed in the Boys 12 Division and reached the quarterfinals before falling to third-seeded Victor Lilov.

“I started off great, I went up 2-0. But after that I couldn’t hit a ball,” Wen recalls. “He started playing great and ended up beating me pretty badly. But I got back out there the next day and felt like I had to redeem myself because I felt like I should have done better.”

He certainly did that as Wen displayed a lot of that same toughness and grittiness, winning three matches, all in straight sets, in the back draw to win the consolation bracket.

“When you lose, you always have to tell yourself there is another match,” said the 6’3”, 13-year-old. “This is just one match in the long run. You just need to learn from it and get better.”

Wen said one of the things he wanted to improve on following his Orange Bowl performance was his footwork and being able to move better on the court, something that can be a bit of a struggle sometimes for players of his height.

“At the Orange Bowl, I felt so confident that I could just make more balls than the other kids because my groundstrokes were on. I kept getting balls to step in on but I wouldn’t step in and take it,” Wen recalls. “I worked with my coach over the next few days after that on stepping and attacking the ball. And it’s paid off. Fitness is based on movement and strength. Coach Clay always tells me how I am a bigger guy and I need to be moving better. In practice he puts the bands on me and it forces me to stay down low and it has helped me a lot.”

A few weeks after the Orange Bowl, Wen captured the title at the Eastern Super Six in Deer Park, beating the top-seeded Samir Banerjee (another Centercourt Academy performance player) in the final, and he hopes to continue the success he has had.

The performances of both Noel and Wen in Florida are indicative of the work they have put in at Centercourt and the two continue to get better with each tournament they play. Each is scheduled to play in the Easter Bowl in California where they will once again represent the Eastern Section against the top juniors the sport has to offer, as well as be ambassadors for not only Centercourt, but the Eastern Section as a whole.

Brian Coleman

 Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at brianc@usptennis.com