Khandkar’s Mental Toughness Proves to be an Asset As PDS Girls’ Tennis Made History in Non-Public A
MAKING HISTORY: Princeton Day School girls’ tennis player Neha Khandkar hits a forehand in the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) Non-Public A team final last Thursday at Mercer County Park. Junior star Khandkar fell at first singles as PDS lost 5-0 to Pingry. It marked the end of a superb debut as the Panthers had won the South Jersey Non-Public A sectional team final in their first-ever appearance in the competition. On Sunday, the Panthers started play in the state Prep B tourney and saw Amy Zhou advance to the final at third singles with Sophie Zhang and Jackie Baranski making it at first doubles. The Panthers, who sit second in the team standings behind Montclair Kimberley Academy, will wrap up play in the event on October 20. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Bill Alden
Princeton Day School girls’ tennis first singles star Neha Khandkar knew she was facing a challenge when she played Pingry’s Anika Paul in the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) Non-Public A team final last Thursday at Mercer County Park.
A week earlier, Khandkar had lost 6-3, 6-3 to Paul when the teams met in a regular season match won by undefeated Pingry 5-0.
Coming into the rematch, Khandkar tweaked her strategy.
“My approach was to hit high to her backhand because it as the weaker stroke off her two groundstrokes; her forehand is really solid and aggressive,” said Khandkar.
“It was just to keep mixing up the pace and not let her get into a rhythm.”
While Khandkar battled hard, she never found her rhythm, falling 6-1, 6-1 to Paul as PDS lost 5-0 again to Pingry.
“It was sort of the same honestly,” said Khandkar reflecting on the setback.
“It could have gone a lot better but at least I had a strategy going in.”
It marked the end of a superb debut for the Panthers as they had won the South Jersey Non-Public A sectional team final in their first-ever appearance in the competition.
“It is amazing, we get to literally make history, we get a plaque at the school,” said Khandkar.
“We were pretty confident going into the sectionals. It was this area where we knew it would be a little harder. We know most of these schools, we have played a lot of them before in regular school matches so we sort of had a sense. It was the first time, so it was a new experience.”
The Panthers took that experience into state Prep B tourney which started last Sunday and saw Amy Zhou advance to the final at third singles with Sophie Zhang and Jackie Baranski making it at first doubles
“I think this is exactly the kind of match practice we need for Preps,” said Khandkar, whose semifinal match at first singles in the Prep B tourney was suspended and will be concluded on October 19 with the finals set for the next day.
Over the years, Khandkar has put in a lot of practice to improve her game.
“I think my serve placement has gotten a lot better, it has dropped a little bit in consistency but I think that is OK,” said Khandkar.
“I am sacrificing the consistency a little bit for placement and power. I have solidified my touch a lot at the net.”
Khandkar’s mental toughness has helped made her a solid player.
“I think it comes from my parents, they have always been very quiet,” said Khandkar.
“They are never the kind of parents who cheer in the stands. It is this quiet thing in my head and I translate that.”
PDS head coach Michael Augsberger credited Khandkar with fighting hard in defeat.
“Neha battled, it came down to holding her serve,” said Augsberger.
“She is really mentally strong. In a match like that, you just look for her to continue thinking through the match and do anything she can.”
The PDS doubles teams of Baranski and Zhang along with the second doubles pair of Stella Ringblom and Eshaa Doshi ran into some tough matches as they both fell in straight sets.
“They hit really smart volleys at us, the toughest place to field a volley is at your feet and that is where they continued to go after us all day,” said Augsberger.
“That is why the match takes only 50 minutes because they would hit that spot all of the time. It was tough for us to pick that up, it is tough for anybody to pick that up.”
In Augsberger’s view, the matchup with powerhouse Pingry was a good learning experience for the Panthers.
“We are really proud that we made it this far,” said Augsberger, whose team moved to 8-6 in dual match play after losing 5-0 to WW/P-North last Monday in a regular season contest.
“There is always another level above you in tennis. It is good for them to be exposed to that even if you are the state champions, there is always a higher level. They are No. 1 for a reason and they proved it today.”
PDS was looking to bounce back in the Prep B tourney. “What is really interesting about tennis is that even though you may go in feeling good or feeling favored in another level of tournament than here, the feeling that you have after losing a match this tough can linger,” said Augsberger.
“Even though we should feel confident given our history and the regular season and how good we know we are, we have to nip it in the bud to have them feeling good again.”
But no matter how the season ends up for the Panthers, their success in the Non-Public A tourney will leave them feeling good about the 2021 campaign.
“We are so proud to be the first sectional title winner in the long history of our prestigious school,” said Augsberger.
“We get such support from the athletic staff and from the school. They are really proud of us too. You always want to play the best and our schedule reflects that and coming into this reflects it. There is no shame in going out to this team and losing.”