By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
VINELAND — Vineland junior Tess Fisher and Egg Harbor Township senior Anne Mkrtchyan each won their third straight Cape-Atlantic League tennis championship on Wednesday, but the roads they took to the trophies couldn’t have been more different.
Fisher, a South Jersey phenom and one of the top five players in the state, fought off a valiant effort by EHT sophomore Emily Manzo to win in straight sets in less than an hour. Mkrtchyan, teaming up with sophomore Gabrielle Guimapang in the doubles championship, had to come back from a first-set loss before eventually upending the Mainland Regional doubles team of Jen Margolis and Christina Collings in a three-set match that lasted nearly two hours.
Although Manzo lost 6-0, 6-0, she made Fisher work for it, twice tying games at 30-30. She was able to return many of Fisher’s powerful forehands, and her strategy of luring Fisher to the net to try to get winners past her worked on several occasions.
“I was a little bit surprised (at her strategy), but I try to prepare myself for every shot. I like coming to the net, but she did have some good shots coming back at me,” said Fisher, who improved to 35-1 on the season and 111-3 in her career with the win. “Winning it feels great. I put in a lot of work at practice, and I gave it all I had. It didn’t matter what the outcome was. What really mattered was me seeing an improvement in my game.”
It was a tough ask for Manzo, going up against an player who advanced all the way to the semifinals of the state singles tournament and whose only three career losses have come against eventual state champions. But Eagles coach Alene Hartman said she was proud of the way Manzo never gave up.
“That was a real fight she put up against Tess today. I’m very proud of her and the match she played today. She fights for every single point,” Hartman said. “There were shots today that Tess hit that I thought were going to be winners, and Emily scrambled to get them back. She’s a real fighter.”
Fisher was buoyed by the arrival of the Vineland football team midway through her victory. They added to the cheering section by taking a break in their afternoon practice.
“That shows how supportive Vineland High is. They really are, and that means a lot to me,” Fisher said. “I just took it one point at a time out there and just focused on playing my game. I didn’t let what happened last year or the year before get in the way. I just thought of it as a new match, a new game. Emily is a great player. She’s a really fast runner and hits a lot of balls back, so I knew I had to be on the top of my game in order to do well.”
“She’s really impressive. Her record speaks for itself,” Hartman said of Fisher. “And the other thing I think is really important is, she really is a nice kid. She’s always gracious with the other players when she wins. Yesterday, when we were here at the start of the CAL tournament, I noticed that here she is the No. 1 seed in the tournament and she’s the one out there putting out the scorecards. I think that says a lot about her humility and her character.”
Mkrtchyan had to work much longer for her third straight league doubles championship. Margolis and Collings were in control throughout much of the first set, taking a 3-2 lead before winning 6-3.
“Mainland’s team is a very good doubles team. They are both very strong at the net and they had beaten Anne and Gabby both times we played them during the regular season. So we were very concerned about this match today, but they knew when to turn it on,” Hartman said. “They know they are good players. And Anne and Gabby both knew they had to bring their best game today to beat Mainland. I think after the first set they were frustrated, but they decided that if they were going to go down, they were going to go down swinging.”
Egg Harbor Township, as a team, beat Mainland twice this season, but in the doubles portion, Margolis and Collings scored a straight-sets win in the season opener, then beat Mkrtchyan and Guimapang 5-7, 6-2, 6-2 on Oct. 5.
But this time, Mkrtchyan and Guimapang corrected their mistakes in the second set and began to gain momentum. They made some adjustments at the net and began to play more aggressively.
“This year, I wasn’t so sure how it was going to go because I was with a new partner and they had beaten us before, so I knew we had to come out strong,” said Mkrtchyan, who partnered with Tiffany Trivers the past two years before Trivers moved up to singles this season. “We’re not the type of team to let go. We’re always going to push, push, push until we get it. I think that was the key. That really helped us get 6-0, 6-0 in the last two sets.”
“We started being more aggressive. I needed to step in (at the net) because I was going back. We just had to go back to the basics,” Guimapang said. “I feel like (in the beginning of the season) we were nervous playing together, but as we got to play more matches we started doing a lot better.”
Hartman said she knew her doubles team had great chemistry, and if they could pull it together mentally after a first-set loss they would have a chance.
“They improved every single match they played this season. I wish I had a video of the first match they played together and the match they played today, because it looks like an entirely different (doubles) team,” Hartman said. “They got used to each other’s strengths throughout the season and became more comfortable with trusting each other.”
Mkrtchyan said the first-set loss was just a mental hurdle she and her partner had to get over.
“Tennis is more of a mental game. It’s 10 percent physical, and the rest is mental,” she said. “We just had to make sure we were still in it and had the right form. All the little things count.”
“It feels great,” Guimapang said. “They are a good team, and they had beaten us two times already (this season), so it feels great to win against them.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN