It appeared to be a foregone conclusion. Donald Young of Atlanta, who had held the International Tennis Federation's No. 1 junior ranking since his January win at the junior Australian Open, was poised to be the youngest player ever to claim the Junior World Championship.
The player closest to Young in the standings, Croatia's 17-year-old Marin Cilic, lost in the third round of the prestigious Orange Bowl tournament last week in Key Biscayne, Fla., and said he was hanging up his racket for the season.
The U.S. Tennis Association issued a press release Thursday crowning Young, who at 16 years, 5 months looked to be clinching the honor just a month younger than the next-most precocious junior champ, Richard Gasquet of France in 2002.
"It was the goal the whole year," Young said in the release. "I feel like there's been a big target on my chest. It will probably be even bigger next year."
Not so fast, pardner.
Young promptly lost his 8 a.m. quarterfinal singles match the next day, falling to No. 9 seed and eventual tournament champion Robin Roshardt, 17, of Switzerland, 3-6, 6-1, 6-0. That sent the tennis mathematicians to their slide rules and Cilic to his travel agent.
Cilic ultimately changed his mind and decided to compete in this week's Yucatan Cup in Mexico, where play begins Tuesday. Young is headed there as well to try to avoid being knocked off his perch. Both players were awarded last-minute wild cards by tournament organizers.
The two are separated by just 34 rankings points in one of the closest races in recent history. Matters are complicated by the fact that doubles points are included in the total, as they have been beginning with the 2004 season, although they are weighted at only 25 percent of singles points. Cilic actually gained a little ground on Young at the Orange Bowl by reaching the doubles final.
There are many possible points scenarios, but basically, the best way for Cilic to overtake Young would be to win both the singles and doubles titles in Mexico. If both advance to the late rounds as expected, Young also could be unseated if:
• Cilic wins the singles and gets to the doubles semifinals while Young is runner-up in both.
• Cilic wins the singles and is runner-up in the doubles, while Young is runner-up in singles and wins the doubles.
If Young wins the singles and gets to the doubles final, Cilic can't catch him. And Young is certainly capable of that, having won the junior U.S. Open doubles title in September with partner Alexander Clayton.
The pesky Roshardt, now ranked No. 8, is in Cilic's half of the draw.
Young, who grew up in Chicago, turned pro before this season but was winless in his seven ATP matches this year.
His 2005 highlights include the junior Australian Open championship and winning the title in an important junior hardcourt event at Kalamazoo, Mich., in August. That secured him a wild card in the U.S. Open main draw, where he pushed Italy's Giorgio Galimberti to a tie break in the first set before succumbing in straight sets.
"By anyone's measure, at his age, Donald's had an excellent year," said commentator and retired star Jim Courier, who has tracked Young and several other top juniors for the last 12 months for a documentary he is co-producing. "His game is in transition, as it should be, to get him up to speed as he grows older and stronger. I think going back and forth [between junior and lower-level tour events] was a terrific learning experience, and a smart play on the part of him and his parents.
"Turning pro doesn't mean what it used to he's still able to play junior events and gain confidence."
Young is trying to become the third American to win the ITF junior title since the championship system was instituted in 1978. Andy Roddick finished on top in 2000 and Brian Dunn won it in 1992. While the victor hasn't always gone on to greatness, past winners include reigning world No. 1 Roger Federer (1998), Chile's Marcelo Rios (1993) and Sweden's Stefan Edberg (1983).
There's absolutely no uncertainty on the girls side, where 16-year-old Vika Azarenka of Belarus has a nearly 1,000-point margin on the next-closest player, Agnes Szavay of Hungary. The highest-ranked U.S. girl is Alexa Glatch of Newport Beach, Calif., at No. 5, where she probably will finish the year.
Odds and ends
Could Martina Hingis' old doubles partner be following her back to the WTA Tour? Anna Kournikova coyly pushed the door ajar last week, saying a return after two full years away due to back problems wasn't completely out of the question. Kournikova, 24, was about to face Hingis in an exhibition match in Brazil. The so-called "Spice Girls'' tandem won two Aussie Open doubles titles together .
Andre Agassi says the deep bone bruise on his ankle suffered in a racquetball game in October that forced him to withdraw from the ATP year-end championships in Shanghai may also scratch him from next month's Australian Open. He lashed back at the Chinese organizers who criticized his late pullout, saying he actually exacerbated the injury by traveling there and attempting to play. A recent charity exhibition with wife Steffi Graf didn't help the ankle, either .
Australian tennis officials say that if Jelena Dokic wants to compete for Australia again in the Federation Cup, they may consider petitioning the ITF to waive the normal three-year waiting period imposed when a player switches countries. Dokic played for Serbia-Montenegro this past season but now says her controlling father forced her to leave Australia four years ago at age 18.