MIDDLETOWN — The key word for Archmere’s Andy Zhu in his DIAA tennis championship match on May 27 was “break.” More specifically, service break. Zhu, the third seed in the first singles field, broke the serve of Sanford’s Charlie Sternberg seven times in a 6-2, 6-2 victory on a steamy afternoon at St. Andrew’s School in Middletown.
“I’m a tall dude. People expect me to be good at serving. But I guess we just returned well. I had some good deep returns, always to the backhand, so he couldn’t really go in after the serve,” Zhu said after the match.
Zhu jumped out to a 4-1 lead in the first set before Sternberg, the top seed, rebounded to take a game. With Sternberg serving, Zhu took advantage of a double fault, then placed a backhand winner just in to go ahead, 5-2. He jumped ahead, 40-0, on two aces and an unforced error, before winning the set when Sternberg sent a backhand into the net.
Sternberg used a two-handed grip on nearly every shot, generating a lot of power. Zhu didn’t face Sternberg this season, but the two have played before, so the grip was not a surprise.
“I used to practice with Charlie about a year ago, so, yeah, I know how he plays, and he knows how I play,” he said. “I don’t think about (the two-handed grip). I just try to focus on my game. Also, I try to pull him out wide sometimes because it’s harder for him to grip that two-handed backhand. That’s usually how I deal with it.”
Sternberg opened with the serve in the second set, but Zhu quickly won the first three points. The Sanford sophomore got back to 40-30, but Zhu broke serve again with a lob that went high over the approaching Sternberg.
Sternberg picked up some momentum when he scored four straight points to turn a love-30 deficit into a win to tie the second set at 2-2. But Zhu did not falter. He rebounded in the next game, again taking a big lead at love-40, then dropping two points, but this time coming up with a winning shot. Leading, 3-2, Zhu held serve with another lob shot that increased the lead to two games.
He did not approach the net very much during the match, but he made it count in the penultimate game. Twice, Zhu knocked down potential winners from Sternberg, then he took the game with a backhand winner that eluded his opponent. With the serve and needing four more points for the state championship, the freshman opened with an ace. But the point, like so many others during the match, would need extra points.
Zhu took the advantage one time with another ace, but Sternberg scored the next two points for the advantage. Zhu got it back to deuce, and a wide shot gave him the advantage. A few swings later, Sternberg sent a ball just over the end line, and Zhu – with his parents, coaches and other supporters looking on – broke into a wide, state-championship grin.
“It feels great,” Zhu said. “I’m doing it for my school, and it’s a big title. I couldn’t have done it without my team and my coaches, Mike (Hamilton) and Steve (LaPerle), and also my parents. It feels amazing.”