While Rory Lewis is affectionately known as “the machine” by her teammates on the Princeton High girls’ tennis team due to her unyielding work ethic, she views the time spent on the game as a labor of love.
“It is not really training to me, it is just fun,” said junior Lewis, who plays second singles for PHS.
“It is a break from school and all those other things. I love to do it and you get better if you work at it so that it is a good by-product. It is just about loving to do it.”
Last Friday, Lewis had plenty of fun as she posted a 6-1, 6-1 win over Artemis Tapliga of Wall as the Little Tigers posted a 5-0 win in the Central Jersey Group III sectional semifinals.
On Monday, she defeated Rachael Peters 6-0, 6-0 as PHS topped Steinert 5-0 to win its third straight sectional title and earn a date in the state Group III final four, which is slated to take place on October 17 at Mercer County Park. The Little Tigers, now 15-0, will face Chatham, the North Jersey Section 2 champion, on Thursday morning with the winner advancing to the state championship match that afternoon against the victor of Montville-Moorestown semi.
In reflecting on her win in the Wall match, Lewis credited a positive approach with helping her prevail.
“I just came out aggressively; I was confident in my strokes,” said Lewis. “That is the most important thing in tennis and it was working. I played well.”
For Lewis, moving up to singles from doubles this year is a reflection of her increased confidence.
“It was a big change but last year I got a lot of confidence,” said Lewis. “My doubles partner, Maddie [Cahill-Sanidas], was great. She really helped me build my confidence. In the beginning of preseason, I really wasn’t sure of my strokes. She helped me gain the confidence needed to play in any spot. When I got second singles this year, I was glad and I decided I had to step it up and I was able to.”
In order to step up in her new spot, Lewis has learned to deal with the solitary nature of singles.
“You have to pump yourself up more, especially if you are down,” said Lewis, who took third in second singles at the Mercer County Tournament last month.
“You don’t have somebody out there giving you advice. At the same time, you get used to it. Obviously, it means you moved up, and you have to stay focused and not feel alone and just enjoy it. I have been through a few rough patches where I am not so sure but I have been able to pull through most of the time.”
Lewis was pumped up to see PHS pull through in the state tournament. “It is awesome; it is a great experience,” said Lewis. “We all love tennis and it means we get to play more. It is fun, it is great.”
PHS head coach Sarah Hibbert loved seeing her team advance. “Any time you are able to get to a sectional final you are pleased with the result,” said Hibbert, whose first singles star Christina Rosca is in the running for another title as she will play in the state singles final on October 16.
“I knew we had a lot of potential this year and it would come down to how we could get the doubles players fitting into their roles. We obviously have strength at the top of the lineup with Chris and Katelyn [Hojelbane] returning and Rory making the jump up from doubles. One of the things we do best is carry depth through our lineup. I knew that the doubles [Zhenia Dementyev/Gillian Samios at first doubles and Allison Hubert/Nikhita Salgame at second doubles] would be a key to our season and they have come together really well so far.”
A key to PHS’s success this fall has been Lewis’ development into a singles star. “I think the biggest thing she has improved on this year is her confidence,” said Hibbert.
“She has really been able to play up to her level. Last year, she came in and she didn’t play as well during preseason because of the nerves and the pressure she puts on herself. I think partnering with Maddie helped her. Maddie was such an outgoing aggressive, terrific person that it kind of pulled Rory along. She has more confidence and belief in herself. She has really been able to translate that into winning matches. She still puts pressure on herself and she still wants to win and work as hard. She is the first one there; she is always willing to work harder and do more. She is a good asset.”
Hojelbane had to work hard in her match at third singles as she rallied from an early deficit to pull out a 6-4, 6-1 win over Shaina Donner.
“I went out there when she was down 4-1. I could tell it was just nerves and not tennis right now so I said you just need to relax, move your feet, hit your shots and play your game and don’t look at the scoreboard and you will be able to come back,” recalled Hibbert.
“She won 12 out of the next 13 games so she listened quite well and got herself relaxed and was able to play her game. It is nice to have that taken care of because doubles is funny, the better team doesn’t always win. You always want to have confidence in your team but it is always nice when you can just watch.”
Hibbert is confident her team can take the final step in the state final four, having fallen in the semis in 2011 and then in the finals last year. “It depends on matchups; we were hoping it was a possibility,” said Hibbert.
“We take it one match at a time and see how it goes. Five of these girls played in the states last year and I think having that experience and being as close as we were last year and we just missed out on it. I know they are going to want it just as much, if not more. It may or may not happen. There are a lot of strong teams out there. We want to get there and see what happens.”
Lewis, for her part, believes that the strong bonds the team has developed this fall lead the players to compete harder for each other.
“It is support all around; we give each other a lot of support,” said Lewis, noting with a smile that every player on the team has a nickname.
“That is part of it, you have to feel like your team has confidence in you, and that win or lose, they are not going to care. It is just about friendship and being really close. We have gotten closer with each match and it is great.”