VERO BEACH, May 6, 2019 (Press Release)
Despite some afternoon rain showers delaying play for five of the seven days of play, the 2019 Mardy Fish Children’s Foundation Tennis Championships concluded on time early Sunday evening after Italians Lorenzo Frigerio and Adelchi Virgili won the doubles title, defeating top-seeds Boris Arias of the Bolivian Davis Cup team and Sekou Bangoura of Bradenton, Fla., 6-4, 6-3 in the final.
Earlier Sunday, Dmitry Popko of Kazakhstan was crowned the singles champion of this 25-year annual Vero Beach tennis tradition, a $25,000 event on the ITF World Tennis Tour, defeating Bangoura 6-1, 7-6 (1) in the singles final. Popko, the No. 8 seed and a member of Kazakhstan’s Davis Cup team, was dominant this week in Vero Beach, putting on a dazzling display of shot-making for the scores of enthusiastic spectators and volunteers and won his seventh ITF event this year, a $3,600 payday, and more significantly, three ATP ranking points.
“This one means a lot because it’s a $25,000 event and also gave me three ATP points and put me in the Top 10 of the ITF rankings,” said Popko, 22, ranked 12th before the tournament and just 608th in the ATP, down from a career-high of 178 in 2017. “Now I can play Challenger level tournaments and hopefully I’m going to earn as many ATP points as I can and then see where it’s going to bring me.”
Popko cancelled his plans to play in next week’s Pensacola ITF stop because he has been accepted into a more prestigious ATP Challenger tournament in Shymkent, located in his adopted Kazakhstan. He sped to the airport to fly half way around the world immediately following the singles final Sunday.
This year Popko has won three ITF tournaments in Turkey and four in Florida, including Naples, Sunrise, Orange Park and Vero Beach. He has won his last three ITF tournaments while winning 15 consecutive matches and 31 of his last 33.
“I’m hungrier now and enjoying the wins,” Popko said.
Just as hungry was his opponent, as Bangoura got to No. 213 in 2016, but has since dropped to 400. His ITF ranking of 30th will surely improve after his second final of the year, along with a title in Naples. He was forced to play twice on Sunday because his semifinal against Diego Hidalgo of Ecuador was stopped on Saturday with Bangoura trailing 7-5, 5-3.
Early Sunday morning, Bangoura staved off a match point before capping off his comeback victory, 5-7, 7-6 (5), 6-1. A few hours later, he was getting hammered by Popko’s titanic forehands and pinpoint two-hand backhand, quickly dropping the first set 6-1.
Bangoura, 27, an accomplished chess player, used his analytical skills on a different squared surface, and began attacking the net, pressuring Popko to come up with the passing shot. Suddenly, the match flip-flopped and Bangoura jumped out to a 5-2 lead in the second set.
“He started to come in more and kind of broke my rhythm,” said Popko, who was only truly tested this week in his second-round, three-set victory over young Colombian, Nicolas Mejia. “He adjusted it by himself and made me uncomfortable. I was down 2-5 and had to fight back. I picked up my level and that’s how I went up 6-5.”
However, Bangoura, again living on the edge, saved two match points and broke Popko’s serve to force a tiebreaker. It was there Bangoura ran out of fuel as Popko, perhaps buoyed by his 45-6 match record this year, reeled off six consecutive points in the tiebreaker before finishing off his fleet-footed opponent with a wicked crosscourt forehand passing shot. Checkmate.
“The tiebreaker was a game of nerves and I think I played better because it had a 1-0 [set lead],” Popko said.
Perhaps the most illustrious player to have won this event was Great Britain’s Kyle Edmund, who was ranked No. 513 in 2013 when he took the title. Last year Edmund reached the semifinals of the Australian Open and was ranked a career-high No. 14. Why not Popko?
The USTA reports that ITF events such as the Mardy Fish ITF championships can bring in approximately $500,000 to the local economy and several thousand more for the foundation’s charities, which are geared to getting children involved in healthy activities.
“This tournament didn’t feel like an ITF, it felt like a much bigger tournament because of the great atmosphere,” Popko said. “More than 50 people came up to me after to congratulate me.”