Junior Tennis: Xepoleas’ title run ends against Hibi

(Scott Smeltzer / Daily Pilot)

FOUNTAIN VALLEY — Plenty of people showed up to watch Lynda Xepoleas’ big tennis match Monday at Los Caballeros Racquet & Sports Club.

Her parents and younger sister Meredith were in attendence. So was her best friend Shayne Austin, who played doubles with Xepoleas in these 108th annual Southern California Junior Sectional Championships and won the consolation singles title later in the day.

Two important things weren’t there, however, and Xepoleas knew it after she lost to Mayo Hibi of Irvine in the girls’ 18 singles final, 6-2, 6-0. Xepoleas’ big serve and big forehand somehow never made it to Los Cab.

“They weren’t there today,” she said. “That’s kind of it, plain and simple. They never showed up today. It’s kind of hard to play with just a backhand, which is not my particularly strong point.”

The Newport Beach resident, who will play for Corona del Mar High in her senior year this fall, never got into a groove in the surprisingly lopsided loss. Xepoleas was seeded No. 4 but was coming off a big semifinal win over No. 6-seeded Gabrielle Andrews of Pomona on Sunday.

Andrews is the top-ranked seventh grader in the country. Hibi, who was seeded No. 5, is the top-ranked eighth grader in the country. She just turned 14 in April and will attend Woodbridge High as a freshman this fall.

Hibi is ranked No. 6 in the country in girls’ 16s by the United States Tennis Assn. She won that title, girls’ 16s, at junior sectionals last year as a 13-year-old.

Youth was served again Monday but Xepoleas, who will play college tennis for Purdue, could just never get her serve going. She was broken in each of her seven service games.

While Hibi clearly played at a higher level, Xepoleas’ own errors became the source of her frustration.

“I ended the point too soon,” said Xepoleas, tied for No. 12 in the country in girls’ 18 singles. “In the first two or three shots, I was just making an error. I couldn’t start the point, and she was just playing good defense and making me work.”

Hibi constantly had the answers. She and Xepoleas had played close in their two previous meetings, each winning once. But Monday’s match capped an impressive run for Hibi, who beat No. 2 seed Sarah Lee in the quarterfinals, No. 3 Lacey Smith in the semifinals, then Xepoleas.

Hibi said she knew her serve return game would be important.

“I’ve been practicing with a lot of [male] coaches and one of them has a really fast serve,” she said. “I’ve been playing sets against him, and I think that helped me improve my returns. I’ve always worked on my returns with my dad, because I think the serves and the returns are the most important parts of the game.

“I knew if I wanted to beat [Xepoleas], I had to be returning well and I had to be moving well. I think I did both of them, and that helped me throughout the match.”

Xepoleas leaves Wednesday for a Level 2 USTA National Open tournament in Tuczon, Ariz. (the junior sectionals are a Level 3 tournament; Level 1 earns the most rankings points). She said then she’ll play some hard-court tournaments in August in advance of the high school season.

And making it to the finals of junior sectionals as a No. 4 seed wasn’t too shabby, even if she wasn’t happy with the final match. Xepoleas didn’t drop a set in her four previous matches.

“It’s just kind of a fluke, this match,” Xepoleas said. “I just have to put it behind me. But overall, it’s good. I think the first tournament after you move or switch coaches, that’s always the most important. Even though you don’t expect much, it really shows what you’ve been working on, and what you’re going to be working on.”

In another match Monday, Newport Coast resident Max Pham fell in the boys’ 12 singles third-place match, 6-3, 6-1, to Jay Min of Irvine.

Pham was the No. 3 seed in the tournament.