BRADENTON -- Lou Belken remembers when Kylie McKenzie didn't think she could compete with the top juniors in the world. It wasn't too long ago -- just the start of September when McKenzie was getting ready to start the US Open.
Belken, who was the head coach at Arizona State and now coaches a handful of individuals in Arizona, met his student in New York in the days leading up to one of her biggest tournaments yet. He assured her she belonged on the stage and was enough to compete at one of the top junior tournaments. She was still unsure.
"She went to the quarters," Belken said. "When she left in the quarters she was like, damn, I should've won the tournament. That was the start of the transformation."
Two and a half months later, McKenzie came to Bradenton for the Eddie Herr International Junior Championships and Saturday the unseeded American scored the biggest individual win of her career to complete an improbable run to the 18s final at IMG Academy. In less than 90 minutes, McKenzie stunned top-seeded Hungarian Dalma Galfi, 2-0 (6-4, 6-3), in the semifinals.
Fresh off a win against the reigning Eddie Herr International champion, McKenzie will meet No. 5 seed Tamara Zidansek at 9 a.m. Sunday for the most notable championship of her young career. The Slovenian knocked off unseeded Amanda Anisimova, the only other American remaining, in three sets Saturday to reach the final round.
The boys final round will begin after the girls final and not before 10:30 a.m. No. 4 seed Alex De Minaur, an Australian who spent time training at IMG during the summer, will face Canadian No. 6 seed Felix Auger Aliassime.
"I've been playing well lately," De Minaur said. "I had two weeks here in IMG just before the U.S. tour and I think that really helped me."
In a field stocked with overt individual displays of excitement and frustration, McKenzie stands out for her virtual silence. When she fell behind 4-2 during the first set Saturday, she barely even muttered under her breath. Not even 20 minutes later, she held a 1-0 lead on the former No. 1 junior in the world.
It was similar two days earlier when McKenzie was a game away from exiting against fellow American Hanna Chang during the third round. After splitting the first two sets, McKenzie trailed 5-1 during the decisive third.
Eventually, she climbed back to force a tiebreak and took the match in three. During two weeks in New York, the 16-year-old started to click.
"She'd never done that before," Belken said. "She's just growing up."
He remembers April, when McKenzie made it all the way to the semifinals of the Easter Bowl Championship in California. At the time it was her highest profile match and "she was just terrified," Belken said.
Her first challenge at the US Open came in the second round against Anna Blinkova. The Russian was the No. 3 junior in the world at the time and McKenzie swept her with ease. Even in the quarters, McKenzie dropped the first set to Hungarian Fanny Stollar, an IMG trainee who peaked at No. 7, and still forced a third set before bowing out.
In Florida this week, her initial reaction to the quarterfinal loss was confirmed. She knew the tournament was winnable and Saturday she knocked off the current US Open champion.
"Coming here today and playing her, it was exciting and it was a good opportunity," McKenzie said. "I thought I handled my nerves pretty good today."
She also farmed confidence from her training with the United States Tennis Association (USTA) in Boca Raton. After the US Open and before the Eddie Herr, the USTA stuck her into an fitness camp.
The result was partly improvement, but mostly a revelation that her physical ability could be a strength. When she needs to grind out three-set matches, like the one she trailed by four games during the final set in Thursday, McKenzie has the edge.
Sunday morning, Zidansek will enter the championship round after taking three sets to win each of her two previous matches.
"I'm treating it just like any other match," McKenzie said. "I'm excited to play tomorrow. It's my first final."