INDIAN HILL, Ohio – Four years back, as a Cincinnati Country Day School freshman, Vishaal Nalagatla, wearing cargo khaki shorts with a mountain of over grips covering an ancient racket, decided to try out for the high school tennis team.
Prior to that, tennis was a hobby, far from something he took seriously.
Today, the argument could be made that Nalagatla is the most successful tennis player in Ohio high school history.
“We kind of run a loose try out because we’re such a small school,” said CCD tennis coach Matt Dektas. “It’s basically whoever plays tennis and then whoever doesn’t play — you can tell pretty quick; what they’re wearing, or if they have a decent stroke at all.
“Vishaal came out wearing his cargos and (fellow CCD tennis player) Kevin Yu came up to me. I’m like, ‘Is there anyone else I’m forgetting? Kevin, we have our eight.’ Kevin’s like, ‘You might want to put this kid (Nalagatla) at nine.’
“I said, ‘Come here man, what’s your name,’ and he said Vishaal. I asked to see his racket. He had a grip size my grandpa would have. Way too big, just terrible. I said, ‘You can be on varsity if you take three of these grips off.’ He had like five over grips on.”
Nalagatla, who a few months ago won his third straight doubles state championship, becoming the first player in OHSAA history to win three straight doubles titles with three different partners, said, “Freshman year, well, the first thing I heard was Asher (Hirsch), J.J. (Wolf) and Patrick (Wildman) were there. Then Shaheel (Mitra) and Kevin (Yu) came in also. Everyone was just like there’s no way you’re gonna make it. I went and saw them play and I was like there’s no way I’m gonna make this team this year.”
He did make the team, but he didn’t play very much. CCD won the state team title that year and Nalagatla was bitten by motivation.
“I never took tennis seriously until the summer after my freshman year,” said Nalagatla, who won doubles titles his sophomore, junior and senior year, in addition to the three state team titles he was a part of.
Dektas said, “Such a special run. I’m kind of a history guy with things and the history of what he’s done is amazing. You could make an argument that he’s the most successful high school player in history, but it’s Division II.”
The growth, through effort and dedication, over four years will always be special to Dektas.
“It’s probably the biggest improvement, most exponential growth I’ve ever seen from a player,” said Dektas, especially considering how late Nalagatla got started.
The same could be said of Nalagatla’s doubles partner this year, senior Justin Baker.
“Justin, in some ways the growth is similar,” Dektas said. “When he started he wasn’t really a tennis (guy). He was a basketball player. They’re a great story for me because they’re both guys who improved so much. I had some alumni like Asher Hirsch (three-time state singles champion for CCD) and those guys text me when (Baker) won the title like, ‘He won it?’ They were like, ‘Oh my gosh, the kid has gotten so much better.’ That’s been cool. He’s one of those kids who really morphed from a participant into a leader.”
En route to the doubles title, Baker and Nalagatla failed to win sectional or district titles, but they found a way to win the big one.
“It was a little bit shocking,” said Dektas. “Right when they teamed up we said, ‘You’re teaming up to win the title.’ We looked them in the eye and they said they’ll do it. They didn’t win sectionals and they didn’t win districts. As a coach, the growth stories are the ones that really excite you.”
With the doubles title this year, it marks the seventh individual state title in the last five seasons for CCD. A feat, Dektas said, has only been accomplished one other time in state history by Walnut Hills during the Tony Trabert era.
Nalagatla has decided to hang up the racket and focus on academics in college. He plans to study bioengineering at Miami University, and then head to medical school.
“Out of the three doubles titles, I think that first one (sophomore year) was the most special,” said Nalagatla, who traveled from a humble beginning to become a state champion in the span of a year. “Each (title) had something special, but me and (doubles partner) Shaheel Mitra were complete underdogs. We didn’t really expect to win honestly. I dedicated that next year to playing tennis, putting in reps and putting in time.
“It paid off in the end.”