Noah Lilienthal looked like a freshman in over his head as he played in the first singles semifinal at the Mercer County Tournament last Thursday.
The Princeton High freshman dropped the first set 6-2 to defending champion Jerry Jiang of Pennington.
Coming into the match, the third-seeded Lilienthal knew that he faced a big challenge in top-seeded Jiang.
“I train with him at the Marc Hill Tennis Academy, I think of him as the big kid and I am the kid at a lower level,” said Lilienthal. “In the first set, he really blew me away the way I expected.”
But Lilienthal raised the level of his game after that, winning the next two sets 6-1, 6-3 to pull out the match and earn a spot in the finals.
“The second set, I hung in there,” said Lilienthal. “I knew I could win if I really kept the pressure on him. I was able to force him to make errors.”
Building his rally in the semifinals, third-seeded Lilienthal went on to beat second-seeded Kabir Sarita of WW/P-S 6-3, 6-4 in the finals to earn the first single crown.
His heroics helped PHS place a strong second in the team standings as it finished just 1.5 points behind champion WW/P-S, 21.5-20. The first doubles team of Andrew Lin and Andrew Wei won their flight while second doubles team of Eric Lin and Kevin Yang was second and Tyler Hack took second at third singles.
For Lilienthal, winning the final over Sarita came down to clutch play on the big points.
“Kabir is my best buddy, he is almost part of my family,” said Lilienthal. “We play matches almost every Sunday and some I win, some I lose. I come in with the same strategy every time, just to play my best and hope he won’t play as good as I can. When I play Kabir, it is just about a few points.”
With Sarita pushing hard in the second set to even the match, Lilienthal showed his maturity. “I have had a history of losing matches when I have been up,” said Lilienthal, who recently competed in the prestigious Easter Bowl tournament in California. “I have learned from those experiences and now I don’t do that.”
In reflecting on his triumph, Lilienthal said it was a product of a lot of hours on the court.
“It was really exciting,” said Lilienthal. “At first I couldn’t believe it, and that was the same with the last match. It is a win that will give me confidence, but I am the same player I was yesterday and the same player I was the day before that. It just shows that I have been putting in the hard work and hopefully I can continue.”
PHS head coach Sarah Hibbert was excited by Lilienthal’s championship performance in his first MCT.
“Noah is great, everyone today got to see his quality of tennis on display, his shotmaking, his feet, his footwork, his movement, all of that,” said Hibbert.
“The presence as a freshman to be able to take out last year’s champion in the semi and then take out another highly experienced, solid player in the finals back to back — he had an amazing day.”
In Hibbert’s view, Lilienthal’s comeback win over Jiang in the semis spoke volumes about his amazing composure.
“Jerry played lights out in the first set, he was just on fire,” said Hibbert. “I told Noah to just wait it out, don’t give up, stay tough, fight through everything and see what happens. He did a great job of coming back, playing a really strong second set and then the third set got really close but he was able to play the big points well. All those tournament matches really helped him.”
Juniors Andrew Wei and Andrew Lin did a great job at first doubles as they outlasted Chiru Kolloth and Kai Zheng of WW/P-S, 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 to earn the title.
“They worked really hard, they dropped a real close one in the first set,” recalled Hibbert.
“They were up in the second set and then it got really close … and then they closed out a tight one and it got close again. In the third set, it came down to that really long deuce game at 4-all, that was the difference there. I am really proud of them, the way they were able to come back and fight through that last game and close it out.”
The second doubles team of Kevin Yang and Eric Lin showed plenty of fight, advancing to the finals where they fell 7-5,6-2 to Martin Malik and Rahul Ramanathan of WW/P-S.
“Kevin is a freshman, Eric is a sophomore, it is their first time in the county tournament,” said Hibbert. “They had a good showing, hopefully they can improve their partnership.”
Senior Tyler Hack made a good showing in his final MCT as he placed second at third singles, losing 6-0, 6-1 to Scott Altmeyer of Princeton Day School in the championship match.
“Tyler had a great semifinal match, he played quite well,” said Hibbert, referring to Hack’s 6-0, 6-0 win over Dan Goldstein of Robbinsville.
“He ran into a very tough opponent in the finals. Scott played a really strong match.”
Hibbert believes that her team’s strong performance at the MCT will be a plus going forward with the state tournament on the horizon.
“I think it will definitely help us going into states, any time you have good competition, it helps,” said Hibbert.
“There are a lot of strong teams in the county. There are a lot of good players, a lot of strong, young players. It was a good competitive day.”
Lilienthal, for his part, won’t soon forget his big day last Thursday.
“I actually didn’t really know that much about the tournament, I just came in and played,” said Lilienthal. “Looking back at it now, it is a pretty good accomplishment. It is a big deal.”