Huang's game not for faint of heart

Huang's game not for faint of heart

URBANA — The aura at the hotel in suburban Chicago was unlike any Lindsay Huang had ever experienced.

She was up before the sun on Saturday at the girls' tennis state meet last month, the third day of the postseason in what is a condensed two-week high school season for the Uni High senior. It was Huang's first time in four tries that she reached the tournament's final day, and as she walked around, she felt a tense and focused tenor dissimilar from the previous two days.

"By the third day, you cut out a ton of girls, and I think it's a lot more intense, the atmosphere," she said. "Everybody's less chatty, and people are just eating, getting ready, and getting out as soon as possible."

This was Huang's goal all year.

For her first few years of high school, the state tournament blended into the rest of her year of tennis. Because Uni High doesn't have a team, she and fellow senior Grace Qiu, whom she practices with throughout the fall, don't play a full fall season.

But this year, this was what she wanted: a spot in the final 16 and a shot for something more. Ultimately, she fell in her first match of the day, but her performance at the state tournament was enough to earn her The News-Gazette's All-Area girls' tennis Player of the Year honors.

Picking it up quickly

Huang's dominant performance on her way to a sectional title marked the end of a Uni High career in which she won two sectional titles and won at least one match at state every year.

Of course, all that she accomplished came with a handicap. While other athletes around the state played full seasons leading into state, she was left to play only a few tournaments.

"No matter how much you practice, you don't have those matches behind you," said Paula Agramon, a former player at East Tennessee State who began practicing with Huang at the start of her high school career. "I think that's the main challenge."

Huang's tennis experience, though, goes back far before her time at Uni High.

It was a particularly hot day when Huang was formally introduced to tennis, and the sixth-grader couldn't take the intensity of the sport during her first practice with a coach. After all, she was used to indoor activities like ballet, which she excelled at as a small child.

After about 20 minutes, she fainted.

"That was a great start," she said sarcastically. "I remember my parents telling me that my coach said, 'Wow, she lasted 15 minutes.' "

Of course, Huang improved steadily. Her ground strokes were natural, even when she played with her dad, who picked up the sport after moving from China, even as her serves and her volleys lagged behind.

"I'm not a good tennis player," her father, Jun Huang said. "I know how to play, but my form is really bad. But when she got a coach, I was surprised. She really learned quick. Now, every time she hits the ball I say, 'Oh, that looks really pretty,' and I really enjoy watching her whenever she plays."

Proving herself

When she arrived at Uni High, Huang was a refined player. The only problem was that Uni High didn't have a team. Luckily, an opportunity came about wherein Huang would be able to play only in the postseason. The next year, classmate Grace Qiu joined her, and soon, the two began practicing together under Agramon. Now, she had a teammate, even if she didn't have a team.

"It helped a lot that they had each other. It helped tremendously," Agramon said. "It's been awesome. I'm so happy that they've become so close. It's been great to see that relationship develop off the court as well."

Huang quickly proved she belonged with the best in the area, finishing third in sectionals her freshman and sophomore year only behind Centennial duo Lauren Neitzel and Madison Scaggs, two previous News-Gazette Player of the Year recipients. Those first two years, she won a combined three matches at state.

"State was a huge eye-opener for me," she said. "Just seeing those girls, I was like, 'I want to play at that level.' It wasn't even about winning, it was just about, 'Those girls are good, and I want to be that good.' "

Her junior year, when girls' tennis moved from one to two classes, she won a sectional championship and went on to win three matches at state to finish one match away from the tournament's final day.

But something was missing from her game.

While her forehand and backhand were always strong, her serve left something to be desired. This spring and summer, that started to change.

"I focused being able to place my serve here or there and using it to my advantage," she said, "instead of using it as a means to get the ball over the net."

That tweak transformed her game. Now, she started service points out on the front foot and could dictate play.

During her postseason run, that helped immensely. She lost just one game on her way to the sectional final, when she topped Qiu, 6-4, 6-0.

Huang closed out her Uni High career on that dark morning in a 6-2, 6-2 loss to Joliet Catholic's Mia Bertino, a performance that Huang called "a little disappointing."

But Huang met her main objective for her tennis career. She played among the best in the state, and she showed she belonged.

"State was the cumulation of everything I felt like," she said. "My goal was to get to the third day. I got that goal, and that was really happy for me."