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(Photo by Bill Allen/NJ SportAction)

GRAND SLAM: Princeton High senior tennis star Ilia Shatashvili displays the medal he earned by winning the top singles flight last Wednesday at the Mercer County Tournament. The win gave Shatashvili four straight MCT individual titles, making him just one of five players to accomplish that feat since 1989 when the current format was adopted.
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Unflappable Shatashvili Cruises To Fourth MCT Singles Crown

By Bill Alden

Ilia Shatashvili seemingly came out of nowhere in 2001 when he won the second singles title at the Mercer County Tournament as a freshman to help lead Princeton High to the team title.

The next two springs, Shatashvili turned heads as he moved up to top singles and won MCT titles in that flight as the Little Tigers followed suit making it three straight team titles.

Last week, with a bull's eye firmly planted on his back and the fans at Mercer County Park openly rooting against him, the imperturbable Shatashvili cruised to history as he swept to his fourth straight MCT individual crown, topping Jon Yu of Steinert in straight sets in the championship match.

While Shatashvili's win was tempered by the fact that PHS was edged by WW/P-S in the team standings, he had to acknowledge satisfaction in his individual accomplishment.

"The first year as a freshman no one knew me," said Shatashvili, reflecting on his first MCT title. "The second time I wasn't seeded high. All of them are memorable. Looking back that I did win four championships, I find it pretty impressive. Obviously, I'm really happy about it."

Shatashvili is happy with his development on the court. "Basically, I've grown a lot since freshman year," added Shatashvili, who is just one of five players to accomplish the feat of winning four MCT titles since 1989 when the current format was adopted. "My game has gotten a lot bigger everywhere, I've gotten more consistent and mentally stronger. My game has really developed in the last four years."

The mental strength that has come with the progression of his game served Shatashvili well last week as he dealt with a hostile atmosphere.

"I knew that everyone wanted to beat me," said Shatashvili with a grin. "You could notice it in the fans, they were cheering against me. Before the match, I just focus on trying to play my own game. I just go out and do the job and get the points."

PHS head coach Stuart Woody marvels at the progression in Shatashvili's game. "When I met Ilia in eighth grade, I said I could beat this guy," recalled Woody. "I saw him as a freshman and I didn't recognize him. The difference in his game was mind-boggling-his size, his strength."

Woody, who conceded laughingly that he would now lose 0 and 0 to his star, maintains that it is Shatashvili's mental approach that sets him apart from the competition.

"He's so confident, he's so calm,² asserted Woody. "He's got very thick skin. He just doesn't get rattled. All he's done is win every match. If he's not seeded in the top four in the state tournament, life just isn't fair. He has as good a shot as anybody."

Shatashvili, for his part, has a feeling that the rest of his last spring at PHS could turn out special.

"This year I've been playing really well from the beginning," said Shatashvili, who is headed to Columbia University this fall and hopes to have a major impact on the Lions' tennis program.

"In the past seasons, I've started slowly and had to work myself into it during the MCT and the states. I'm playing well, I'm pretty happy with my season."

The PHS tennis program has certainly been happy to have a star like Shatashvili in its lineup the last four years.

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