YARMOUTH – After seeing two match points slip away, Noah Bragg wasn’t about to squander a third.
He raced toward the drop shot, lunged, poked the ball over the net and wound up on his back.
Luke Saunders, seeded first among the 89 men’s singles players in the 24th edition of the Betty Blakeman Memorial Tennis Tournament, was surprised to find the ball at his feet. His scoop attempt failed and he dropped to his knees. After a moment, he stood up, stretched his arms wide and beckoned Bragg for a long embrace at net.
Bragg, a rising junior at Bowdoin College who hails from Brookline, Mass., rallied for a 1-6, 6-4, 6-4 victory Sunday afternoon at the Yarmouth High School courts against Saunders, a native of Halifax, Nova Scotia, who will be a sophomore at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.
“That might have been the best played final we’ve ever had at this tournament,” said Don Atkinson, director of the event, long the most popular on Maine’s summer tennis calendar.
In the women’s final, Cornelia Deeg of Boston frustrated the reigning schoolgirl state champion, 16-year-old Olivia Leavitt of Falmouth, 6-3, 6-4 with a variety of left-handed spins, chips and changes of pace.
“The young ones like to overpower the ball,” said Deeg, who laughingly declined to give her age but whose USTA record shows she has played in 40-and-over tournaments. “Experience gives you the finesse. They go for the power and you take a little off and just get them out of position. Then you just put the ball away.”
Sunday’s weather was cooler than the previous two days, when Atkinson used five sites to incorporate the 226 players involved in the event’s six tournament brackets. Besides open singles, there are 55-plus men’s singles, mixed doubles, women’s doubles and men’s doubles (which drew a record-breaking 54 entries).
Eric Blakeman, who puts on the tournament along with his sister Carrie Davenport in honor of their late mother, Betty Blakeman, said nearly $15,000 was raised for the Cancer Community Center of South Portland. Deeg teared up at the awards ceremony after speaking with the Blakeman children, whose mother died of cancer in 1989. Deeg is a survivor of Hodgkin’s disease.
Deeg is also the fifth different women’s champion in five years, and the second straight mom, following Karolina Pierko’s victory last summer.
Deeg’s path to the final included a 6-2, 6-1 victory over No. 3 Annie Criscione of Falmouth in the quarterfinals and a 4-6, 6-4, 6-0 victory over Julia Brogan of Falmouth in the semis. Leavitt needed three sets in both quarters (5-7, 6-1, 6-1 over collegian Emma Chow of Bowdoin) and semis (4-6, 6-1, 6-2 over Falmouth alumna Analise Kump).
On Sunday, Deeg took a 3-0 lead, saw Leavitt tie the set, then reassumed control. Leavitt jumped to a 2-0 lead in the second before Deeg broke serve to spark a three-game run. Leavitt broke and held to go ahead 4-3 before Deeg, coming out of the changeover, won nine consecutive points to take command. Leavitt fought off two sets points before Deeg converted the third.
“She got everything back,” Leavitt said. “Her placement was really good, so she could set up points nicely.”
In the men’s final, Bragg held serve in the opening game and then watched Saunders reel off the next six in dominant fashion. The son of a three-time world champion curler (Colleen Jones), Saunders knows a thing or two about nerves. He helped Team Nova Scotia to a third-place finish at last year’s Junior National Curling Bonspiel in northern Alberta.
Not until the fifth game of the second set did Bragg, with his quiet demeanor, mismatched socks and overflowing curls, break the serve of Saunders — the first time anyone had done so since the tournament’s opening round.
“He got more touches, and more touches, and the harder it was to hold,” Saunders said. “He did a good job of keeping in it mentally until he found his rhythm.”
Bragg’s initial plan had been to get to net, but deep and powerful groundstrokes by Saunders neutralized that strategy.
“You can’t take that and come in on two or three shots,” Bragg said. “You have to wait 10-, 15-, 20-ball rallies to really get to the net and have the point set up. So I just calmed down and made myself take that time.”
Bragg held serve to close out the second set, then won five games in a row after Saunders held to open the third. Serving for the match, Bragg led 40-love before Saunders survived two match points to set up their dramatic encounter at net.
“He put his body on the line to win that one for sure,” Saunders said. “He definitely earned that point more than I lost that point.”
To reach the finals, Bragg beat No. 7 Zach Hall in the quarters and No. 3 Jordan Friedland in the semis, both in straight sets. Saunders likewise dispatched No. 8 Patrick Ordway and No. 4 Sam King, another Bowdoin player.
“There’s a lot of tournaments out there,” Saunders said, “but I don’t think there’s anything quite like this, where everybody’s happy and everybody’s having a barbecue. It’s the environment you want to be around, in life. It was definitely worth it. I could lose that match 12 times over and I’d still come back.”
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: