Melinda Mao grew up inspired by her sister’s tennis success.
Now the West Windsor-Plainsboro High North sophomore is enjoying some of her own.
“I’m really happy this season,” Mao said. “Compared to last season, I think I’m doing really well. I think I’m doing a lot better than last year. I think I’ve improved a lot from last year when I was a freshman.”
Mao took up the game when she was 6. Her sister, Jessica, who is six years older than her, was doing well on the courts and Mao watched her reap the rewards of her efforts over the years as Jessica moved up to the high school team.
“When she was around 14, she was excelling,” Mao said. “I think she was No. 1 in the state at one point. I think seeing my sister with all her trophies really motivated me to get out there and play more tennis.”
Mao got her first taste of varsity tennis last year. She debuted at second singles.
“I think there was a lot of pressure,” she said. “I was new and didn’t know how things would work. I was just scared of other players.”
The season helped to motivate her for a return this year. She returned determined to be a better player for the Knights, which finished the season with a 14-9 record.
“I knew that there were new players coming so I wanted to improve,” Mao said. “I didn’t want to lose my ranking. Over the summer, I practiced a lot with my dad and was playing a lot with different people. I wanted to play with different people, not just my parents and my teacher.”
Mao could not overtake senior Nora Binder, who has been solid at No. 1 singles, but she’s been far more successful this year. She won 14 of her first 20 matches, but did not lose to anyone from the Colonial Valley Conference in a regular-season match until the Knights faced Mercer County Tournament team champion Highstown.
Mao placed fourth at second singles in the MCT after falling in a three-set match to WW-P South’s Michelle deSouza, whom she defeated in three sets to open the regular season.
“I don’t think she realized how many great girls she was going to play last year,” said WW-P North head coach Richard Arnold. “We played 28 matches. She played a lot of good No. 2 girls. She got in a rut because she was losing so much. She’s improved, she’s working with her dad and a pro, and I think her attitude has improved.”
Mao helped the Knights move into the second round of the North Jersey, Section 2, Group 3 state tournament with a 4-1 win over Warren Hills. Mao was a 6-2, 6-0 winner over Maria Marucci. The win pushed seventh-seeded WW-P North into a rematch of last year’s second-round loss to Chatham on Oct. 9. The Knights ended up losing the match 5-0.
“In the beginning, before South dropped out, we had played five of the top 20 teams,” Arnold said. “We played Moorestown, Haddonfield, Cherry Hill East, Princeton, South, and then we have Hightstown, and Allentown is surprising everybody.”
The Knights started the year 8-8 against the strong lineup of opponents. Facing tough competition has enabled Mao to gauge her development.
“I think freshman year, I played a lot, but my mentality has changed a lot from freshman year,” she said. “Freshman year, I was a lot less patient with my game. I would get mad and I would lose to people that I could have defeated. This year, I think I’m remaining calm and I’m playing smarter than I did last year.”
The Knights have been working as a team at being able to handle the different teams they face. They have stuck together through the early tests.
“We’re all really close to each other and we support each other no matter how we do, even when the matches are hard,” Mao said. “At Moorestown and Haddonfield, there were really top players there and we still played strong.”
Binder has been a good senior leader at the top of their ladder. She has been taking on every opponent’s top player.
“She just needs a little more confidence,” Arnold said. “Nora just needs to believe a little more. She can hang in with any of these top girls.”
At third singles this year is Nikita Tripurana, who was a 6-0, 6-0 winner in the first round of the state tournament. Like Mao, she’s only a sophomore. She enjoyed a big wins over players from Cherry Hill East and Princeton.
“She’s moved into the singles lineup,” Arnold said. “She’s doing fine.”
The doubles teams are new combinations from a year ago. Arnold likes the way that they have been fighting for wins.
“We’ve improved with first doubles,” Arnold said. “Shreya Gowda and Pranavi Linga, they didn’t play together last year. Shreya will probably be in the singles next and she could be a really good third singles player. They’re paired together this and working out fine. They won the consolation doubles in counties. Hopewell Valley’s doubles were pretty good at No. 1.
“The second doubles’ Durgha Natrajan and Vainavi Mukkamala, they’re getting their feet wet. They’ll be all right. One’s a junior and one’s a sophomore. They haven’t been on the big stage before, so they get a little nervous, but they’re improving.”
The Knights were disappointed to place an uncharacteristic ninth at the MCT as a team, but otherwise have been pleased with the way that they have competed together this season.
“They all enjoy each other’s company,” Arnold said. “As long as everybody’s happy with each other, they have a good time.”
Now that the season is over, North is looking ahead to next season. With Binder graduating, the first singles spot will be open, and Mao is hopeful to move up.
“That would be pretty big,” Mao said. “I just want to improve from this year to next year. Even if the spot is there, I don’t want to relax. I want to keep improving and pushing forward.”
“I think right now I just need to work on my serve and my footwork,” she added. “I think it’s getting better, but I still need to work on those. I’m also trying to play with more variety. I’m a good backcourt player. I’m strong with groundstrokes, but for slices and coming in to the net, I haven’t mastered those skills yet so I want to work on that.”
Mao has seen significant progress in her play, and she’s determined to continue her work. As she eyes her final two years with the Knights, she draws inspiration from her improved results this season.
“I’ve been practicing a lot and I think my strokes have gotten stronger and my overall game has improved,” she said. “I’ve gotten more experienced with my matches, and I think last year I was less experienced and I was more scared because it was my first year on the team. I’ve been gaining more confidence this year.”