May 3, 2023

PDS Boys’ Tennis Takes 3rd in County Tournament As Li Makes Memorable Debut by Winning 1st Singles

DAZZLING DEBUT: Princeton Day School boys’ tennis player Heyang Li smacks a forehand last week at the Mercer County Tournament. Sophomore star Li made a memorable debut at the MCT, upsetting defending county and state champion Jonathan Gu of Princeton High in the final to win the title at first singles. Li’s heroics helped PDS finish third in the team standings at the event. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

Heyang Li opted not to play for the Princeton Day School boys’ tennis team last spring as a freshman so he could focus on USTA tournaments.

Coming into 2023, Li took some advice to heart and decided to join the PDS squad.

“One of my private coaches, Glenn Michibata, helped convince me to play high school tennis because he thought it was really fun,” said Li. “It is really fun playing with all of these guys.”

Last week, Li had a lot of fun as he won the first singles title at the Mercer County Tournament, upsetting defending county and state champion Jonathan Gu of Princeton High 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 in the final.

In facing the formidable senior star Gu before a big crowd at the stadium court at the Mercer County Park tennis complex, sophomore Li kept things simple.

“It was staying solid and being positive the whole time, playing my game, getting to the net, and hitting to his backhand,” said Li, reflecting on taking the first set. “I was taking my time, creating space and finding an opportunity to win the point.

After losing the second set, Li caught his breath and looked to take his time in the final set.

“I wasn’t playing my own game, I was making more unforced errors in general and then I just started playing more solid,” said Li. “I went to the bathroom and I filled my water. I took my time. One of the strategies I used was taking  more time between points and not rushing at all. I don’t think I showed any frustration in the whole match, that was one positive thing that helped me through the third set.”

For Li, winning the MCT title in his debut at the competition was special.

“It is my first time playing high school tennis,” said Li. “It means a lot, I have never played this before.”

PDS head coach Michael Augsberger was impressed with the way Li kept his composure in overcoming Gu.

“That shows a lot of mental toughness to be able to think it might be there in the second set and then you have to re-set yourself,” said Augsberger, whose team rode Li’s heroics to finish third in the team standings at the event won by PHS.

“Jonathan is smart, he is a senior and a savvy player. He knows how to handle things, the pace of the game. He made the adjustments that you needed to make. Heyang had to adjust and readjust. It was really a nuanced match that was played. To pull it out in the last part of the third set is really satisfying for him.”

In pulling out the win, Li displayed his savvy and skill. “It was about attacking his backhand,” said Augsberger of Li’s approach. “I think in the third set, it is hard to keep that up. Both guys were tired, it was their second match of the day. Heyang had really good touch at the net today. He was able to pull him in when he didn’t necessarily want to be in. His drop shots were good, that was where he was able to get it done.”

Senior star Joshua Chu produced some good moments, placing second at second singles.

“We are really proud of Josh, he wasn’t feeling 100 percent today but he fought really well,” said Augsberger of Chu who fell in straight sets in the final to Melvin Huang of PHS. “Melvin is a really tough guy to play, he gets to everything. He has got power, he is not just a pusher. You have to have a lot of patience to play Melvin. When it is your second match of the day, it is tough.”

The first doubles pair of senior Oliver Silverio and junior Steven Li advanced to semis and ended up taking fourth in their flight, falling to Nikita Medvedev and Shaan Zaveri of PHS in the third-place match.

“It is good for the Prep B for them to play this level of competition and push themselves,” said Augsberger. “We pushed ourselves against Germantown Academy (Pa.) and against Rutgers Prep. You get here and we had really good aspirations as a team. You realize that Princeton is out of this world this year and that is just the way it is.”

With the Prep B state tournament and the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) Non-Public tourney on the horizon, Augsberger believes that his players will benefit from the MCT experience as they go after titles in those competitions. 

“You want to be able to peak at the right times and the boys season is longer than the girls so you have to manage it a little bit more,” said Augsberger. “This is one of those peaks in the middle of the entire season, hopefully we can ride the momentum. You can’t stay on that high because it is just too long of a season. The state tournament is not for another month.”

Li, for his part, gained confidence from his triumph over Gu and is looking to have more fun over the rest of the spring.

“It is mentality, it has made me a lot stronger,” said Li. “I feel great.”