Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 29
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
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(Photo by David Martin, Courtesy of Longines)

MIKED UP: Michael Chen Zhao was interviewed this spring after he won the 2011 Longines Future Aces Tournament at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, N.Y. The victory earned Zhao, 12, a rising seventh grader at Princeton Day School the right to represent the U.S. against 15 fellow finalists from other countries in the Longines world competition at Roland Garros in Paris during the French Open. Zhao won his first round match at Paris before falling in the quarterfinals.

Rising Tennis Star Zhao Mixed With the Game’s Elite As PDS Middle Schooler Competed at Roland Garros

Bill Alden

Michael Chen Zhao’s favorite tennis player is Serbian superstar Novak Djokovic.

Zhao, a tennis standout himself and a rising seventh grader at Princeton Day School, has had plenty to cheer about this season as his idol has gone 49-1, climbing to No. 1 in the world after winning the men’s singles title at Wimbledon.

While Zhao, 12, might not have the nearly spotless record of his hero, he did join Djokovic last month by competing at Roland Garros in Paris during the French Open.

In April, Zhao won the 2011 Longines Future Aces Tournament at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, N.Y. to earn the right to represent the U.S. against 15 fellow finalists from other countries in the Longines world competition.

For Zhao, getting the chance to travel to Europe and play at one of the storied venues in the sport was thrilling on several levels.

“I had never been to Europe before,” said Zhao. “It was really cool; I got to miss some school. The club where I go has clay courts but not like the courts at Roland Garros. The pros were playing right next to us and we saw them walking around.”

Zhao got to interact with tennis legends Andre Agassi and Jim Courier although he didn’t get to meet his current hero.

“I met Agassi and Courier and got to talk to them a little bit,” said Zhao. “ We got autographs and photos. Djokovic is my favorite but I didn’t get to see him.”

On the court, Zhao won his first round match, topping Juan Alejandro of Mexico, 4-0, 4-4 (7-3) before falling 4-1, 4-1 in the quarterfinals to Samuel Ferguson of Great Britain.

“It was my first international tournament and I was happy to get through,” said Zhao, noting that the sets were shorter than the usual six-game format due to court availability.

“In the quarters, the guy was quite good. I didn’t play my best but I don’t think I could have beaten him even if I did.”

While Zhao wanted to go further in the competition, he took a lot from his time at Roland Garros.

“The biggest highlight was meeting Agassi and Courier,” said Zhao. “I also got to watch the women’s final. I think the whole experience will help me for other international tournaments.”

When Zhao took up the game as kindergartner, it didn’t look like he was on the path to international competition.

“My dad started hitting with me when I was five and that got me hooked,” recalled Zhao. “I started playing tournaments when I was about eight. I didn’t go very well at first. I gradually got better.”

It didn’t take long, however, for Zhao to have a breakthrough. “When I was nine or 10, I got to my first final and that gave me confidence,” said Zhao.

While Zhao brought confidence into the Longines U.S. national competition, he knew nothing was guaranteed.

“I was the No. 1 seed but I knew that there would be a lot of good players there so I didn’t have great expectations,” said Zhao.

“I play my game no matter where I am; my baseline game is my strength. I couldn’t really believe it. It was amazing, I was so excited.”

Over the rest of the summer, Zhao is taking his game up an age level in order to become an even stronger player.

“I was up to the top 10 nationally in the 12s but now I am playing more 14 events,” said Zhao.

“I have a couple of national events coming up, I also have some zonal stuff and middle states stuff. I am on the court five hours a day, I do drills, fitness and match play. I also have a private lesson once or twice a week. I want to go as far as I can go in the game. I know how hard it is to be a pro.”

No matter how far Zhao goes in the game, he will always remember his time at Roland Garros in June of 2011.

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