Dharsini Rangaswamy warms up before a home match against Robbinsville Oct. 6, 2017. The Cardinals won, 3-2. (Staff photo by Samantha Sciarrotta.)

When the Mercer County girls’ tennis tournament got underway in early October, no one was paying much attention to Lawrence High sophomore Dharsini Rangaswamy. She was unseeded at first singles and pretty much flying under the radar despite having reached the state singles tournament last year as a freshman.

Funny how things change.

By tournament’s end, Rangaswamy emerged in third place, was the only girl in the tournament to win a game against two-time champion Avnika Naraparaju of Hightstown and became the first LHS player since Mark Nichols in 2002 to reach the MCT semifinals. It is uncertain when the last Cardinal girl made it that far.

“The MCTs were the highlight of my tennis season this year,” she said. “I am really happy with my achievement of getting to the semis and winning third place, because last year I lost in the second round. I think it’s really cool that I have made tennis history at Lawrence.”

Rangaswamy had a first-round bye before defeating Princeton Day School’s Grace Marshall, 7-5, 6-3.

“She was fighting and doing really well in that match,” Lawrence coach Antonio Stapleton said. “At one point she was down, and she just found the energy and won the match.”

That was followed by an impressive 6-1, 6-3 victory over Notre Dame’s Abigail Higgins, who had upset 3rd-seeded Rosemary Esquivel of Nottingham. To show how equal those two are, Higgins took an intensely tight three-set victory over Rangaswamy on Oct. 12. The scores were, 2-6, 7-5 and a 10-8 tiebreaker.

Beating Higgins brought Rangaswamy up against Naraparaju in the semifinals. The defending champion had blown through her first two matches 6-0, 6-0, barely breaking a sweat. She suddenly discovered what it felt like to lose a game when Rangaswamy took two off of her in the first set.

Afterward, Rams coach Chip Rorer praised Rangaswamy for being consistent and being “able to move the ball and create a lot of angles.” Naraparaju added that “she was a good player, she got everything back.”

‘She does not let anything bother her. And she just plugs away and she’s doing what she’s supposed to do when she’s on the court.’

Even in the straight-set loss, Rangaswamy played some long points and made the champion have to work. It is all part of her attitude, which does not allow her to become intimidated. In her mind, she under-achieved in the semifinals.

“I go into every match with the mindset that I am going to win, not hoping to get a few games off a player,” she said. “During the match, and all the matches, I just focused on playing my game. I was obviously not happy with the result of the semifinal match, but I used that loss to work on improving my game.”

She quickly dismissed the setback and came back to defeat Hun’s Sophia Lin, 6-4, 6-2 in the third-place consolation match. Her mental toughness comes from a decade’s worth of experience.

Rangaswamy moved to Lawrence at age 3 and began playing tennis two years later. Her father enjoyed the game and coaxed Rangaswamy into giving it a try in kindergarten. She was quickly hooked.

“I got started in the sport at a very young age,” she said. “I definitely enjoyed playing tennis from the moment I started. Because my dad liked playing and my family liked watching tennis on TV, I became obsessed with the sport.”

That obsession led to her playing in serious USTA tournaments by age 12. She lists her first tournament victory as her biggest career highlight to date.

“I worked hard to get to that point and remember being so happy when I received a trophy,” Rangaswamy said.

When she arrived at Lawrence last year, Stapleton did not foresee her at the top of his lineup any time soon. She quickly changed his mind by blowing through the stepladder matches.

“She was this little girl, I didn’t expect her to be first singles when I saw her,” the coach said. “But she knows how to play the game. She’s a good baseline player, she likes to keep it deep.”

Rangaswamy not only gained the prestigious first singles spot, she excelled at it by going 13-5 against some of the toughest competition in the state.

“I did not know what to expect coming into high school tennis, so I just took it match by match,” she said. “I already had tournament experience, so I had a good feeling about the high school tennis season.”

Stapleton was immediately impressed by Rangaswamy’s icy attitude on the court. She does not let her emotions show, nor does she let the situation dictate her play, whether she’s up or down.

“She’s like a rock,” the coach said. “She’s solid. She does not let anything bother her. And she just plugs away and she’s doing what she’s supposed to do when she’s on the court.”

Knowing she was facing top-flight competition against girls who featured impressive USTA rankings, Rangaswamy knew the only way to compete was to work at it.

“Playing in Mercer County can be tough, but I always focus on the motto ‘Practice makes perfect,’” she said. “The only way I can compete with better players is by improving my game.”

And while Stapleton identifies Rangaswamy as mostly a baseliner, she is quick to point out she won’t just sit back on the baseline and wait for a mistake. She wants to be pro-active in that part of the game.

“I strive to play pressing tennis,” she said. “I try to hit deep balls from the baseline, but once I get a short or soft ball, I am ready to attack and go to the net to finish off the point. I win my matches by playing on my terms, which is hitting winners and forcing others to make the mistake, not waiting for the player to mess up.”

Despite her solid showing in the MCT, it has been a somewhat up and down season for Rangaswamy. After avenging an earlier loss to Hopewell Valley’s Marissa Liu—who finished second in the MCT—she defeated Robbinsville’s Richa Mandrekar before dropping four straight matches to Holmdel’s Alexandra Wojciak in the Central Jersey Group III tournament; Higgins and Naraparaju in regular-season contests; and Northern Highlands Riya Rav in the NJSIAA state singles tournament.

‘I love the sport a lot and love spending the time to improve my game, so I hope I get far.’

It was a step back from last year’s state singles, when she won a match before being ousted.

That brought Rangaswamy’s record to 12-10 this season.

“This year has been a bit of a struggle, which is why I was so happy with my accomplishments at MCTs,” she said. “During the summer, I went on vacation, so I did not get to practice as much as I would’ve hoped to. This definitely affected me during the tennis season, but I am working on getting better and better each day.”

Rangaswamy is looking to constantly improve her overall game, specifically her forehand, backhand, footwork and conditioning. But there is one aspect she is extremely focused on.

“At the moment, I think if I work on improving my serve to make it a weapon in my game, that will help take me to the next level,” she said.

And that is exactly where she wants to go.

“My goal is to play tennis in college,” Rangaswamy said. “I love the sport a lot and love spending the time to improve my game, so I hope I get far.”

She certainly got further than anyone expected at the MCTs.