June 22, 2022

PHS Junior Standout Gu Wins State Boys Singles Crown, Prevailing in Marathon 3-Setter to Cap Unbeaten Season

STROKE OF BRILLIANCE: Princeton High boys’ tennis star Jonathan Gu blasts a forehand last Thursday in the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) boys singles championship match at the Mercer County Park tennis complex. Junior Gu defeated East Brunswick’s Jack Wong 7-6 (9-7), 4-6, 6-2 to win the title and cap an undefeated season. Gu is the first state boys’ singles champion from PHS since Jacob Leschly in 1984. Christina Rosca won the girls’ state singles crown in 2013 to earn the most recent title for PHS. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

Jonathan Gu had just gone to a new racket tied, 3-3, in the first set tiebreaker of New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) boys singles championship match when he dropped three straight points to fall a point away from losing the set.

As was a theme all day, the Princeton High junior rallied when he needed it most. He won the next three points, held off one more set point for East Brunswick’s Jack Wong, then won the final three points of the set to build momentum for a 7-6 (9-7), 4-6, 6-2 marathon win to earn the singles state crown last Thursday at the Mercer County Park tennis complex.

“It feels pretty good,” said Gu. “I didn’t expect it at all, but with the withdrawals and a couple of matches that could have gone either way it feels pretty good.”

Gu becomes the first state singles champion from PHS since Jacob Leschly in 1984. Mark Leschly was the last Little Tigers male to reach a state final in 1986. Gu joins Christina Rosca, who won the girls state singles crown in 2013, as state champions coached by Sarah Hibbert.

“It’s absolutely fantastic for Jonathan,” said Hibbert. “He really works hard. He has had an amazing season this year. Obviously Christina winning it in 2013 was super exciting for the school. We hadn’t had a champion in certainly my time and looking back in the record books, it’s been since 1984 since we had a boys’ champion. It’s been decades since we had a state champion be able to put it all together.”

Gu’s state title capped an unbeaten season for him. He also won his first Mercer County Tournament title — in his first time playing in it because of prior year’s cancellations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Gu was a guaranteed point for the Tigers at first singles, who reached the Group 3 state final, and he appreciated the return of a full season schedule.

“It’s definitely fun,” said Gu. “Last year we didn’t have the county tournament. This year the county tournament was a new thing for me since freshman year it was canceled. That felt pretty good winning that. Last year, in the state tournament, I had a tough loss. I was glad I could play better and get farther this time.”

Gu fell to eventual state finalist Newark Academy’s Nicolas Kotzen last year in the fourth round of the state singles tournament. This year, Gu was seeded in the 5-8 range. He went through four opponents on his way to the final without dropping a set, including a convincing 6-3, 6-2 win over Kotzen’s brother, Andrew, in the semifinals last Wednesday while Wong needed three sets to overcome top-seeded Eric Li of Montgomery High.

“I felt good,” said Gu. “I played pretty well yesterday (Wednesday). And I know that Jack beat Eric, which is a huge match but they played a while so he might have been a little tired.”

Gu also felt nervous given that Wong had proved his ability with the upset win, but he kept the pressure on Wong throughout their finals match even when it looked like he was losing momentum.

“He’s had a lot of tough tennis a lot of days in a row,” said Hibbert. “We see conditioning can play a factor in it when it comes down to the very end of it, and he was able to stay really tough throughout a lot of tough days of tennis. There’s a lot of hard work and sacrifice on his part over the past years.”

Gu lost a long rally to fall behind in the first-set tiebreaker, 5-3, and when Wong held serve it was 6-3 and Gu was one point away from dropping the set. But Gu’s mindset stayed positive at that point.

“I was down 6-3, but it was only one mini-break and I had two serves,” said Gu. “I knew if I got my two serves in, I just thought one more point and it’s back to even. One point at a time I tried to win.”

Gu held serve twice and broke Wong to tie the tiebreaker. After Wong put him on the ropes up a point again, Gu held serve twice more for points and won the set on Wong’s service to take the first set.

“It was definitely good for motivation since I was down 6-3 and the set was really in his hands,” said Gu. “To be able to come back was really good.”

Gu’s resilience in a tough spot made a big difference in the outcome. He battled back to put the pressure on Wong before taking the first set.

“That was one of the big points in the match — he didn’t give up on that tiebreak and was able to come back,” said Hibbert.

“Jack is an amazing player. He has a wicked forehand. Jonathan had to withstand a barrage of tough balls going past him and he was able to keep it together and he was able to play smart points when it really mattered. It’s fantastic he was able to come away with a title today.”

Fatigue factored in after the first set with Wong twice taking injury timeouts, with the first of those coming after just two games of the second set. Wong recovered to use more drop shots, volleyed more consistently and came up with some big winners to take the second set, 6-4.

“Second set, he hit a couple more winners,” said Gu. “His forehand he really took aggressively and he put me behind the baseline. I was missing. I got it back later on in the set, but by then it was too late.”

One point into the third set, Wong was treated for another leg injury, but he came back to break Gu’s serve and hold his own to put Gu behind, 2-0, in the deciding set. That’s when Gu rallied again to win the next six games to take the match. He muted his celebration as Wong was treated post-match for his leg injuries.

“He was obviously hurt so I didn’t want to cheer for his injury,” said Gu. “I hope he feels better soon. I’ve been in that situation. It’s not fun at all.”

Hibbert was impressed by the way Gu handled the ups and downs of the match. There were delays for Wong’s injury treatment as well as referee warnings to Wong for delay of play. But Gu remained focused in the biggest spots, came up with consistent crosscourt backhand winners in key spots, used his serve as a weapon, and took advantage of some unforced errors by Wong as the match went just over three and a half hours.

“For him to be able to put it all together in this tournament and come out and shine against some fantastic players, it’s a really tough state and we have some really good tennis,” said Hibbert.

“He really played an amazing first set, got a little tight in the second, and it was tricky for him to keep mentally focused through two injury timeouts and a lot of other things going on. When it counted, he was able to put it together and play some really great tennis. I’m very pleased and excited for him. It’s a great accomplishment, especially as a junior. We’ll hope for good things next year too.”

No Princeton player has ever repeated as state champion. Gu was just happy to be a part of history on the boys side as the first champ in 38 years.

“My coach told me,” said Gu. “It’s definitely nice. It’s pretty surprising because a lot of good players have been to Princeton.”

Gu isn’t the sort of athlete to rest on his accomplishment. He continues to develop as a player. Over two seasons he has become a tougher player and more hardened competitor.

“I think there’s a bit more maturity to his game, a bit more of being able to bounce back when your frustration level starts to get high,” said Hibbert.

“He’s able to take it back down and not let your frustrations or poor shot choices get the better of you, be able to wipe out your mistakes and be able to go forward and not be hindered by the past. He’s added more pace on his game as well, and a little more variety. He’s always a hard worker, he’s always training those extra hours, and it’s great to see it pay off for him.”

Gu didn’t expect a state title coming into the year. He didn’t even expect it coming into Thursday’s final. He went in just looking to play his best, and did so when the points were biggest to capture a historic win and set up the chance to repeat next season.

“Every year is tough,” said Gu. “We’ll have to see.”