By Marty Farmer
During the outdoor tennis season in the Chicagoland area, you'll most likely find Luka and Mirka Bagos at the clay courts of the Oak Park Tennis Center off Harlem Avenue.
Luka (OPTC Tennis Director/Manager) and Mirka (OPTC Junior Tennis Director/Club Manager) spend countless hours at the popular facility sharing their passion for tennis with players of assorted skill levels and ages.
While the OPTC is proudly their home court, it's not uncommon for the married couple to travel around the country as coaches of premier area junior players.
One of the Bagos' favorite trips occurred late last year when they joined juniors Noah Hernandez, Jakub Ostajewski and Gabrielius Guzauskas at the Junior Orange Bowl 54th International Tennis Championship.
Headquartered in Coral Gables, Fla. at the University of Miami but with multiple site locations, the Junior Orange Bowl annually welcomes over 1,500 of the top-ranked male and female 12 & under and 14 & under junior players representing more than 76 countries. The prestigious tournament includes a qualifying draw (Dec. 13-15) and main draw (Dec. 16-22) for each age category.
For those nine days in the southern end of the Sunshine State, elite competition is unequivocally the name of the game.
"The Junior Orange Bowl provides great motivation for the players," Luka said. "I think it's important that these players are exposed to the highest levels of competition in the world. Regardless of results, it's a great opportunity for players to test themselves against the very best."
Tennis legends like Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert, Monica Seles, Andre Agassi and Steffi Graff, along with current pros like Roger Federer, Andy Murray, Maria Sharapova and Caroline Wozniacki, among many other pros, have competed in the tournament.
"Winning the Under-12 event in 1999 is still one of my happiest memories from the sport," said Murray, in a testimonial on www.juniororangebowl.org. "Lifting the trophy was a major stepping stone in my career. You only have to look at the long list of champions to recognize how pivotal this tournament can prove in your career, and it retains that importance to this day."
Martina Navratilova, owner of 18 Grand Slam singles titles, spoke to the players at the 2015 Junior Orange Bowl.
"She talked with the kids and offered great advice on motivation and competition," noted Luka.
Considering the incredible level of competition at the Junior Orange Bowl, the Bagos' charges Hernandez, Ostajewski and Guzauskas acquitted themselves quite well on the courts.
For his part, Luka provided some pre- and post-match coaching, scouted opponents and held practices with the boys.
Once the matches started, however, the boys were essentially on their own between the lines.
Off the courts, Luka and Mirka enjoyed spending time with the players and their accompanying family members.
"We all meet at the site and sometimes we'll even stay together at the same house (during the tournament)," Luka said. "Once we're settled in, we run practice twice a day, get used to the conditions of the court and watch other matches. We're all there together to support each other and work as a camp.
"It's a tennis family. We go for lunch and dinner together. The kids that train and play together also hang out and have some fun."
Aside from extensive match play, the Junior Orange Bowl offers several other tennis-related activities for players, coaches, families and fans.
"It's a wonderful event that truly unites the global tennis community," Luka said. "It's really a beautiful, international atmosphere and you make some nice connections within the tennis world and also meet new friends.
"There are parties, clinics and lots of activities going on during the tournament. Sponsors have tents set up with all their equipment and gear."
While several of the juniors at the event will ultimately play at the ATP or WTA professional levels, or at least for a college program, current pro stars are often seen around the grounds as well.
Luka noted it's not uncommon to find pro stars like Grigor Dimitrov, Kei Nishikori, Ryan Harrison or Eugenie Bouchard hitting on the same practice courts as juniors competing at elite events like the Junior Orange Bowl or Eddie Herr International Junior Championships at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.
"Young players at these events get such great exposure," Luka said. "Pro coaches and players come out and watch because they want to see who the next great players are coming up."
Under guidance of Bagos' coaching, area juniors fare well against world's best
While only time will tell how far Hernandez, Ostajewski and Guzauskas can take their tennis careers, the Junior Orange Bowl offered each player an invaluable learning experience and indelible memory.
They played some pretty solid tennis, too.
After losing a match in the 12 & under main draw, the highly touted Hernandez rebounded well with three wins in the consolation bracket.
"Noah had a couple of good rounds," Luka said. "He played a kid 10 inches taller than him who had a huge serve. I think he got overpowered a bit in that match and wasn't physical enough to handle the ball."
Hernandez, who lives in Chicago, trains at the OPTC and Five Seasons Family Sports Club in Burr Ridge.
Like any player, Hernandez has room for improvement. The current scouting report, however, is littered with positives including tremendous athletic ability, natural feel on his shots and court savvy.
"Noah is very talented and has a great tennis IQ," Luka said. "He knows how to win matches. He's so athletic and quick that he gets away with a lot of stuff on the court.
"The challenges for Noah moving forward are to become a little more physical and disciplined with his technique. The big picture focus is always about improving as a player rather than just winning matches."
At 10, Hernandez was ranked No. 1 in the Midwest and top 15 nationally in his age group.
"His ranking dropped a little bit but he's been working it back up," Luka said. "He's been playing in a lot of tournaments and making progress."
Hernandez consolidated his solid effort at the Junior Orange Bowl by advancing to the semifinals of the USTA National Selection Tournament in Midland, Mich. (Feb. 13-15). Held at the Greater Midland Tennis Center, Hernandez cruised to three straight sets wins before losing to Ozan Colak 6-1, 6-2 in the semifinals.
At the Junior Orange Bowl, Guzauskas was a workhorse with eight victories overall in the 12 & under division (6 wins in qualifying; 2 wins in main draw). Notable match wins included: 6-3, 6-1 over Noah Eisenberg; 6-2, 6-0 over Mikel Josu Garmendia; 6-0, 6-4 over Daniel Green; 6-3- 6-1 over Jake Vassel; 6-3 6-4 over Clovis Benichou.
Guzauskas added a huge tournament title to his resume when he won the Boys 12 Division of the "Little Mo" Interationals in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. in early December of 2015. He beat Ellis Short V 6-2, 6-2 for the championship.
More recently, Guzauskas defeated Yago de la Calle Vicasil 6-2, 6-1 in the final of the Naples Mid-Winter Junior Challenge L6 tournament in Naples, Fla. (Feb. 13-15).
"Like Noah, Gabrielius is very quick and athletic but could be more disciplined," Luka said. "I think he has improved his serve and he's getting more life on his shots overall. He's also attacking more at the right times."
Last fall, Guzauskas moved to Naples to attend the world renowned Sanchez-Casal Academy. Founded in 1998 by former pros Emilio Sanchez and Sergio Casal, the academy will enable Guzauskas to develop his considerable talent while receiving a top notch education as well.
"It's a great opportunity for Gabrielius," Luka said. "He will learn a lot at the Sanchez-Cazal Academy."
Guzauskas played well at a boys' 14 singles tournament (Feb. 20-22) at the academy. He defeated Joseph Manibo 6-0, 6-6 in the Round of 16 and Nick Lauandos 6-1, 6-2 in the quarters. In the semifinals, Mark Dancuart edged Guzauskas 6-1, 0-6, 10-8.
Luka, who is close friends with Sanchez, believes in the teaching methods and philosophy of the former World No. 1 (doubles) and World No. 7 (singles).
Last summer, Sanchez visited the OPTC. During the three-day clinic (May 31-June 2, 2015), Sanchez conducted a coaches clinic, court drills for 10-and-under juniors and 16-and-under juniors. He capped off the clinic with a 2-hour class for season pass holders.
"I think the people who live in Oak Park are very fortunate," Sanchez said. "It's my first time here, but I noticed it's a very safe and clean community and I've seen many tennis courts around town."
As for Ostajewski, Luka has spent the most time nurturing his talent among the three burgeoning juniors.
"I've been working with Jakub now for almost four years so it's been nice to coach him from the get go.
"Gabrielius and Noah have spent a lot of time with us during summer, but the Oak Park Tennis Center is Jakub's home site."
Ostajewski, 13, won a couple of matches in the qualifying draw of the 14-and-under division at the Junior Orange Bowl.
"Jakub's approach is a bit different than Noah and Gabrielius," Luka said. "He likes to be aggressive and wins points at the net. He's been working hard on developing as a player. I think he needs to improve his stamina and flexibility."
Playing up in age again at the Boys' 16 singles Racine February Boys Open L5 tourney, Ostajewski rallied for a 5-7, 6-4, 1-0 (13-11) win over Akshay Saluja in the final. He also earned a hard-fought 6-1, 4-6, 1-0 (14-12) victory against Jason Dundas in the semifinals.
Regarding the Junior Orange Bowl experience, the players weren't the only ones who cherished their time at the event.
Luka and Mirka left Miami more eager than ever for a fantastic tennis season at the OPTC and within the Oak Park community in 2016.
"I think the Junior Orange Bowl is such an inspirational experience," Luka said. "Mirka and I always learn a lot when we go there. It's incredibly beneficial to be around so many great tennis players and coaches.
"I'm a big believer in the lesson of falling so you can stand back up. Not everything goes your way every time, but you have to keep trying and stay positive.
"That's what players learn at the Junior Orange Bowl, which is not only applicable to sports but life."
For more information about the Oak Park Tennis Center, which offers several programs, tournaments and events, call (708) 366-9652 or visit www.oakparktennis.com.
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