Michael Zhao’s play exemplified the highs and lows experienced by the Princeton Day School boys’ tennis team last week at the Mercer County Tournament.
The precocious eighth grader turned heads as he advanced to the first singles final at the MCT, which was held at Mercer County Park.
With Neeraj Devulapalli also making the finals at third singles, the Panthers headed into the championship round tied with WW/P-S for first in the team standings.
But in the title match against senior star Kenny Zheng of Hopewell Valley, Zhao dropped the first set 6-1 and retired from the match due to cramps.
Devulapalli also lost, falling in two hard-fought sets to John Hu of WW/P-S, as the Panthers took second to the Pirates, the winner of three straight MCT titles and nine of the last 10.
In reflecting on his defeat, Zhao didn’t make any excuses. “It was a tough match,” said Zhao. “I cramped up a little bit but Kenny was playing really well. He deserves it.”
As Zhao took the court for the final match, he knew he couldn’t afford to fall behind.
“Towards the end of the second set of my first match, I felt it a little bit,” said Zhao, who defeated Michael Song of WW/P-S 6-4, 6-0 in the semis earlier on Wednesday. “It was my left quad. It wasn’t bad but I knew that it would cramp later on in the final.”
Zhao was proud to see the Panthers end up second in the team standings. “It was really great,” said Zhao.
“This year, our team is really strong and I really enjoy playing here and playing as a team. Last year, we got 11th. I think this year doing so well gives us confidence. We know that we can play with these top teams.”
For Zhao, playing with high school teammates as an eighth grader has turned out to be an enjoyable experience.
“It has been a little bit new but I have played with a lot of these kids in USTA tournaments outside of school so I am used to it,” said Zhao. “I see them all the time so we are good friends.”
Zhao recently earned a big tournament victory on the national scene when he won the doubles at the prestigious Easter Bowl competition in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
“That was really unexpected,” said Zhao, who teamed with Bryce Periera to win the title.
“I had never been past the quarterfinals at a super national. Actually my original doubles partner got injured and at the last minute we found a doubles player to play with. We started out a little bit slow but we clicked.”
In assessing his game, Zhao is focusing on being more powerful. “I would like to improve my serve and return a little bit; those are two really important shots,” said Zhao. “Also, I need to work on my overall fitness so I don’t cramp as often.”
PDS head coach Will Asch saw Zhao’s victory in the semis as an important step forward.
“I was really happy with Michel Zhao’s win over Michael Song,” said Asch.
“That was a great win against an older player. He is more experienced; Michael [Song] has been in three semis already here.”
Freshman David Zhang and junior Devulapalli gained some valuable experience at second and third singles, respectively.
“I think David Zhang lost because he doesn’t have the experience that the boy from South does,” said Asch of Zhang, who fell to Tom Weng of WW/P-S in the semis.
“I think that my player is going to be a much better player. He is not there yet. Neeraj had a tough battle. I was very impressed by the player from West-Windsor South. He is obviously a very good athlete, he moves very, very well.”
The PDS second doubles team of Josiah Meekins and Luka Graonic produced an impressive performance as they defeated the top-seeded WW/P-S pair of Pranay Nadella and Yuefang Zhu on the way to the semifinals.
“They had a great tournament; they knew they had nothing to lose in the first round,” said Asch.
“While they were playing I was trying to keep them from thinking about winning and losing because they got in a zone and they were able to stay in it. I had never seen them play like that before. Josiah is a very good competitor. He is a very good athlete; he is a very good player. Luka just had an unbelievable day against West Windsor South.”
Asch believes that the lessons gained from the MCT will help PDS as it goes for a title in the state Prep B tourney later this month.
“We know what we have to do in practice,” said Asch, whose team has matches at Solebury School (Pa.) on May 1, at WW/P-S on May 2, and at Pennington on May 3 as it tunes up for the preps which are slated for May 19 and 21.
“We have to help David and Neeraj get ready and make sure Michael gets better with the cramps. I am confident that we have a very good team. I have to see what the other teams look like. I thought we had an excellent chance to win today but we needed that win at second singles; that was a very tough loss. We were still in it but the loss at third kind of ended the day for us.”
Zhao, for his part, thinks the Panthers can end the spring on a high note.
“Hopefully we come out of that with a win,” said Zhao, referring to the Prep B tournament. “We have had a good season. We are going to play some good teams coming up like South (WW/P-S), and I hope we do well.”