October 21, 2020

Freshman Iyer Making Impact at First Singles, Helping PHS Girls’ Tennis Produce 10-0 Start

IYER LEVEL PLAY: Princeton High girls’ tennis player Shaila Iyer hits a backhand in a recent match. Freshman Iyer has starred at first singles, helping PHS produce a 10-0 start. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

Shaila Iyer is ahead of schedule when it comes to her role on the Princeton High girls’ tennis team.

Ascending to the first singles spot in the PHS lineup this fall as a freshman, Iyer has even surprised herself.

“I didn’t even think I would be on varsity this year, let alone be No. 1,” said Iyer.

“For me and my mom, when we started tennis, our goal was to get to varsity as a junior.”

Last Saturday against visiting Hightstown, Iyer showed how she can be a force at the varsity level, posting a 6-3, 6-0 win over Diana Kalajdzic to help the Tigers defeat the Rams 5-0 in a battle of teams that brought 8-0 records into the match.

“They beat us for the past four years and last year was the first time we won,” said Iyer. “We are really excited.”

In her match against Kalajdzic, Iyer took a little while to get rolling.

“At the beginning of matches, I am a little bit tense; I have to figure out the player,” said Iyer, who started playing tennis around eight years ago and competes in USTA Middle States tournaments.

“After I start doing that and after things start going a little more smoothly, I think I am really able to go to my fullest and play my best.

In the second set, Iyer produced some dominant tennis. “I think really being aggressive and staying confident, even though I kept almost humbling myself, saying three games means nothing, 40-15 means nothing, keep it up,” said Iyer, reflecting on her approach in closing out the match.

While playing at the top of the lineup as a freshman can be nerve-wracking, Iyer sees a plus in being younger than most of her foes.

“I feel it gives the opponents a little more pressure, especially if they are upperclassmen,” said Iyer. “I think I use that to my advantage and it is fun.”

It has been a lot of fun for Iyer to join the PHS squad this fall. “I actually hit with the Princeton University coaches in a group there and I have watched a lot of the college matches there,” said Iyer.

“It is a very similar dynamic; it is a lot different than USTA Middle States because you are all on your own.”

PHS head coach Sarah Hibbert is excited to have a dynamic player like Iyer in her lineup.

“Shaila has great groundstrokes, she is willing to mix it up and come to net,” said Hibbert.

“She is a tournament player so we are working on her adapting to high school. There are always some nerves in high school matches but it has been really nice to see how she has settled in. Playing today, it was very close at the beginning in the first set and then she was able to find her rhythm and pull away in the second.”

Hibbert was excited to see her team pull away to the 5-0 triumph over rival Hightstown.

“They have been a powerhouse the last couple of years but we turned it around last year but it was a 3-2 nail-biter and in the counties was a point here or there,” said Hibbert, who guided PHS to the title at the Mercer County Tournament in 2019, snapping Hightstown’s three-year winning streak at the competition.

“This year, I didn’t know what to expect going in, I told the girls that they have a lot of potential. I really thought we would really be able to pull out good wins, I said ‘let’s go for 5-0 ladies, we need three but I want five.’ They were able to respond.”

Displaying her potential at second singles, freshman Eva Lependorf posted a 6-0, 6-2 win over Lara Koppel.

“Eva is really doing well at second, she was comfortable today,” said Hibbert.

“She has a very nice serve. She hits the ball really well, she has good point construction as well.”

With Lependorf’s older sister, junior star Bella, playing at third singles, the PHS lineup is very strong.

“Having Bella at third singles after having been county champion at second last year, I have no complaints there,” said a smiling Hibbert of the older Lependorf, who defeated Anjali Rabindran 6-3, 6-2.

“She is a solid player, she hits the ball really well. She constructs points nicely, she has a good serve. She brings the experience of having played singles for a year.”

The  battle-tested pair of juniors Sophia Kim and Lucia Marckioni at first doubles showed some grit last Saturday as they outlasted Morgan Koppel and Maeve McGowan 5-7, 6-3, 1-0 (12-10).

“Those two teams have gone back and forth the past couple of years, they have had some really good matches,” said Hibbert.

“This is their second year at first doubles and is at least Hightstown’s second year together. Last year, Sophia and Lucia beat them in two tiebreaks in counties and they beat them in a third set when we won 3-2. They always have close matches and today they were really able to gut it out in that tiebreak to close it out.”

At second doubles, sophomore Monica Li and senior Annie Wei had a good match as well against Hightstown, posting a straight-set win over Siya Buddhadev and Laora Normand. 

“They are a new pairing but they really stepped up today, winning four and four,” said Hibbert.

“They have been playing nicely the last couple of matches. They played a fantastic match today. I am really pleased with how they have been playing.”

With the state sectional tournament around the corner, Hibbert believes her squad, now ranked 11th in the state by NJ.com, is ready to step up down the stretch.

“It is winning as many matches as possible,” said Hibbert, whose team defeated Lawrence 4.5-0.5 on Monday to improve to 10-0 and hosts Trenton Central on October 22.

“I have no idea who we are going to face, I have no idea how it is going to be so we are just going to try to win as many matches and play as well as we can the whole way.”

The precocious Iyer, for her part, is focused on living in the moment.

“It is keeping calm, staying focused,” said Iyer. “I think those are the big points and not being over confident.”