Feruza Norqulova and Catherine Wang don’t say a lot on the tennis court, but they don’t feel like they need to.
Four years of doubles together for the West Windsor-Plainsboro High North girls tennis team has forged a bond that keeps them close and makes them tough to defeat.
“I think now after four years we know each other better and, despite what our coach might say, we don’t really talk to each other on the court because we both know what’s expected,” Norqulova said. “She knows what I want her to do, and I know what she wants me to do.
“A lot of the new doubles teams come to us for advice and ask how we’re so successful,” she said. “I think it’s a matter of knowing your partner really well outside and on the court.”
The WW-P North seniors are in their fourth year of playing doubles together. On a rebuilding Knights team, the first-doubles tandem is the only flight that has returned to the same spot in the lineup as last year, and their experience together is a big plus.
Knights head coach Rich Arnold paired the two on the junior varsity four years ago, and they have grown closer each successive year.
“Freshman year, we didn’t really know each other,” Wang said. “I also came in really late to the season. Coach Arnold just paired us up, and sophomore year we just naturally went back together. We had a really successful year so junior and senior year we just kept it up.”
Neither knew exactly what to expect when they started together. In fact, neither would have guessed initially that they’d grow so close.
“My first impression of Catherine was she was really shy and dorky,” Norqulova said. “Before I even saw her play, I questioned her tennis ability because I had never seen her even with the middle school tennis team, but we started out really strong. I’m glad I made this friendship. It turned out good.”
“I thought that Feruza was pretty headstrong and knew what we she wanted to do, in terms of school and outside stuff as well as tennis,” Wang said. “If she wants to do something, she can do it.”
Both went to Community Middle School, but only Norqulova played on the middle school team. They are fairly equally matched when they play singles against each other, and their complementary games in doubles make them a strong fit together.
“I think from the beginning I was more of a groundstroke person whereas Feruza really liked to poach,” Wang said. “I think that’s continued, and she’s added a drop shot component so that’s something to look out for. I tend to hit the ground shot winners and Feruza will poach it at the net and the end the point.”
The tandem played junior varsity for their first two years of high school before making a big jump to varsity first doubles last year. They finished fourth in their flight at the Mercer County Tournament, and the Knights team placed third overall. They were thrilled with the chance to match up one last season.
“We know we’re going to try our best because this is our senior year and we really want to do better than we did last year,” Wang said. “Whoever we play, we’re going to go out strong, and if we’re down we’re going to try to recover and rebound from there. I think it’s a matter of the mindset. We have to play smarter and try not to get down.”
The Knights started the season 7-8, and their losses have come against some of the best teams in the state. It’s a promising enough start given that they graduated last year’s No. 1 and 2 singles players. While playing some of the toughest competition early was difficult for the inexperienced WW-P North girls, it could pay off.
“Especially for some of the younger kids, yes it’ll help,” Arnold said. “We have a lot of good tennis players in our area, especially at the upper schools. I think it’s a good experience.”
Sharing so much time on the court gives Norqulova and Wang an edge. Their busy schedules kept them apart over the summer, but they have been unified in their approach since reuniting in the preseason.
“I think we have to work on our game in terms of mentality and smartness,” Norqulova said. “I think we both have the strokes down and the ability to play tennis, but we just have to outsmart our opponents and finish them off quickly.”
Norqulova and Wang picked up a 6-3, 6-2 win over Allentown on Sept. 23 to help the Knights take a 5-0 team victory and pull within a win of .500 heading into the MCT.
“We started off kind of shaky and we weren’t moving our feet that much and we were a little down,” Norqulova said. “But I think after we hit some winner shots we started to move our feet, and we also started hitting some trick shots down the line or some drop shots that ultimately they couldn’t get to.”
The Knights singles lineup hardly dropped a game in their sweep. Picking up convincing wins were Nora Binder at first singles, Melinda Mao at second singles and Ishneet Sachar at third singles. Binder jumped from third singles last year and Sachar played second doubles.
“Nora is good,” Arnold said. “I think she’s working herself into playing these top girls. We’ve played 15 matches so far and she’s getting used to it.
“Ishneet Sachar, I think she’s gotten thrown to the wolves too,” he said. “She’s played a lot of good girls. I hope she continues what she did (Sept. 21) at Robbinsville. She played well and won by a lot.”
The top flight for the Knights this year could be their second doubles pairing of Shreyavasi Gowda and Ruhani Nigam. They dropped just two games in their straight-set victory over Allentown, and already own a win over Moorestown.
Norqulova and Wang are trying to do their part to help push the Knights to a season comparable to last year’s 14-13 record and helping them also build for the future.
Arnold is looking for his first doubles team to set a winning example. The MCT presents a big challenge with a highly competitive county meeting to determine the best in the area.
The two came into the season knowing what to expect because of last year. Gaining a year of experience at the highest level was a big plus.
“I think last year playing varsity definitely helped Catherine and me,” Norqulova said. “Even last year when we were fighting for the first doubles positon we had to prove ourselves multiple times. That gave both of us a huge confidence booster because I know throughout the harder schools, we would use that pressure and motivate ourselves to play even better. Last year, it was tough to get and stay on first doubles, but in the end I think it was all worth it.”
Norqulova and Wang are enjoying the chance to play their final matches together after their friendship and partnership has blossomed over the past four years.
“We never talked to each other before,” Norqulova said. “It was from tennis that we actually met. I think the teamwork just worked out.”