Jelani Sarr Reaches USTA Boys National Clay Court Championships Final

Jelani Sarr (photo:

DELRAY BEACH, Fla., July 17, 2022  (USTA Press Release by Steve Dorsey)

Every day this week, the winners of each match at the Delray Beach Tennis Center have had to walk the steps to deliver their respective match results to the official scoring table. It’s a climb of 20 steps that Jelani Sarr of Pooler, Ga., has done several times the past few days. He’s hoping to do it one more time on Sunday.

Sarr notched a berth in the 18-and-under final of the USTA Boys National Clay Court Championships by defeating his regular practice partner Adhithya Ganesan of Clarksburg, Md., 7-6(4), 7-5 in the singles semifinals Saturday and was selected the Baptist Health Orthopedic Care Boys 18s Player of the Day, which Ganesan was awarded on Friday.

Sarr, the No. 2 seed, has won five of his six matches here this week in straight sets and will face No. 4 seed Nicholas Heng of Madison, Ala., in Sunday’s championship match. Heng, a finalist here in the 18s last year, won his semifinal match against No. 1 seed Lucas Brown of Plano, Tex., when Brown was forced to retire because of a heat fatigue in the third set tied at 5-5.

“He beat me last year a week before (this tournament) when I didn’t know how much he had improved,” Sarr said of Ganesan, whom Sarr has known for several years and who often practice together during tournaments. “I was not surprised at all how well he did in this tournament. I know how good he is and how well he can play. I was leading in the first set but it wasn’t comfortable, but I tried to keep positive.”

Sarr won a ITF J-3 tournament in Coral Gables in May, but this is the farthest he’s advanced at an elite Level 1 USTA tournament.

“When I came here, I was not playing well,” Sarr said. “I had just come from Wimbledon so I only had two practices on clay. I had been on grass for three weeks straight, so I was not used to the bounce, the returns, but right now I’m adjusted. I’ve had my best wins on clay.”

He also said, unlike many other players here, he’s actually thrived in the sweltering South Florida temperatures that have been prevalent here all week.

“I love it so much, I want to be out there all day,” he said.

Sarr has received a tennis scholarship to the University of South Carolina, but his goal is to eventually turn pro. First, however, his primary focus right now is on Heng and winning the 18s singles title Sunday. He and Heng know each other well, but this will be the first time they’ve met in a championship match.

“I know he’ll compete as hard as I do,” Sarr said of Heng. “It’s going to be a fun match for the spectators and us. I haven’t had too many long matches, so we’ll see. I have a lot of respect for him. He’s a good friend but tomorrow I have to see him as my opponent. It was the same today.”

Sarr was hoping to make the finals in doubles, too, but he and playing partner Lincoln Battle lost a 14-12 third-set tiebreaker Saturday afternoon to end that quest.

“Don’t even ask about that. It was a heartbreaker,” Sarr said of that doubles match. “We had match point in the second set. It was upsetting, but it really focused me in (on singles Sunday) because I was angry (at losing) after that match.”

The South Florida BMW Centers Boys 16s Player of the Day is Max Exsted of Savage, Minn., who fell short in his bid to make the championship final but has battled back through the back draw to earn a berth in the consolation final on Sunday.

Exsted’s only loss this week was a three-setter setback to Stiles Brockett of Fairfax, Va., who will be in the championship final Sunday. Following that loss on Thursday in the round of 16, however, Exsted has reeled off four consecutive straight-set wins to earn a spot in the consolation final against Cooper Han of Los Altos, Calif. In fact, all of Exsted’s wins here this week have been in straight sets.

Exsted, a 15-year-old rising sophomore, arrived in South Florida after winning the ITF J-4 tournament in Daytona Beach last week, so his only loss the past two weeks has been to Brockett.

“I played good the last couple of days,” said Exsted, who mostly trains in Florida at the player development campus in Orlando. “I’ve played well. It’s been a good tournament. I just had one tough day, but Stiles played well (Thursday). I had my chances but he pulled it out.”

Smillie Sportsmanship Award winner

Tournament officials announced Saturday that the USTA Sportsmanship Award for the Boys 18s was presented to Connor Smillie of Austin, Tex. The award is recognition for a player who all week has exhibited sportsmanship behavior both on the court with fellow players as well as in his interaction with tournament staff, officials, peers and parents. It’s a recognition that is held in very high esteem by the numerous college coaches and scouts in attendance here this week, so congratulations to Connor, who played in the 18s doubles semifinals and the consolation singles quarterfinals Saturday