The stage was the National Clay Court Championships in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The Jimmy Evert Tennis Center where Chris Evert learned to play her counterpunching style of play that won her 18 Grand Slam singles titles. It was a fitting place for Evan Zhu (pictured above in yellow) to make his mark on American tennis, as he had been grinding and counterpunching for almost three years since his family left Delaware to move to College Park, MD, joining the Junior Tennis Champions Center.
For the last three months, he had been training exclusively on clay to prepare for the event, and to further develop his skill set. He was moving better, sliding, slicing and hitting heavier. Something else had also changed. He shed his tendency to become fragile in pressure moments and instead transformed into a poised player beaming with confidence. He played some tough opponents early, but never seemed phased. He just played his game and competed well. Most impressively he beat two players, in the quarters and semifinals that he had lost to in the last six months. Combined they won five games against him. Three years of doing the next right thing was starting showing its work.
In the final against Jonathan Small, it looked like it would be more of the same. Evan won the first set easily, 6-2, and was up a break in the second. Then, he started to feel the pressure. He got a little tentative and his tempo dropped for the first time in the tournament. His opponent, able and ready, wasted no time and quickly took the second set, 6-3. In contrast to previous matches, Evan remained mentally tough. Evan calmly grabbed his towel, walked off the court with shoulders back, and began to prepare mentally for the third set. All those long matches at College Park, all the days of extra work and fitness, once again showed their effect.
The third set started off a battle as both players fought for control and neither one gave an inch. The fist pump’s and “Come On’s!!!” were in abundance. The match was locked at 3-3, 30-30, and tensions were high. Both players traded groundstrokes for what seemed like 30 balls, killing each other side to side. Then Small came off the ground with a big forehand down the line for a seemingly clean winner. Evan though was there and countered with a sliding backhand crosscourt (ala Djokovic). Small then hit a backhand down the line, thinking he had the point won. Surely Evan couldn’t take two shots like that. But, Evan on the run hit a forehand cross court with his legs nearly ready to buckle. Small recovered half way back to the middle to cover the shot but stopped halfway at mid-court and bellied over.
Evan won that game and two more after breaking the back of his opponent. Not with an ace, a fancy drop-shot, or even his trademark backhand…but a forehand crosscourt, admittedly not his best shot. It was something he had worked on every day, for three years to improve. Some would say it was not an ESPN top ten shot, but for someone who worked on that shot countless times to improve it, it was beautiful. Evan took the beating of that rally and with so much on the line, held his discipline under pressure. It was the culmination of years of hard training at College Park, months of playing on clay to learn a new style of play, and over two hours of going to the body of his opponent until in one moment, he finally cracked. Evan stood strong, and head held high, realizing the time was his. It was a moment that was three years, three months, 3-3, 30-30 in the third, in the making.