Although the clock ultimately ran out, Avni Bali and Neeharika Kishore continued to play well.
Bali and Neeharika of South Brunswick, who became household names around the Garden State’s premier high school tennis venue this past week, lost despite a strong effort at Sunday’s NJSIAA doubles semifinals at Mercer County Park.
The unseeded Vikings made second-seeded and unbeaten Stephanie Chen-Schmidt and Sandy Xie of Millburn labor for a spot in Wednesday’s final. The duo led 5-4 in each set, but were out-executed down the stretch each time and bowed, 7-5, 7-5, capping a magical week.
“I think (Millburn) turned it around and changed their game to combat what we were doing,” South Brunswick coach Nancy McDonald said. “I think the maturity of (Millburn) having played much more experienced competition and having been here before also played a role.”
The Vikings dropped the first three games of the first set. However, Neeharika’s baselining and Avni’s play at the net enabled them to reel off three straight game-winners.
“We just came to play, and I think as a team we’re really good,” Avni said. “We played together and sometimes unexpected success happens. When we take what our strengths are and put them altogether, we’re a pretty tough draw.”
Anvi, a junior, and Neeharika, a freshman, showed the fortitude of veterans. After facing deuce three times in the seventh game of the first set, the tandem endured, winning the game for a 4-3 lead.
After Millburn knotted the score 4-4, again Anvi and Neeharika responded for a 5-4 lead.
Bali and Neeharika, who lost in the semifinals and finished third at the Greater Middlesex Conference Tournament last month, shocked everyone but themselves as they upended a trio of seeded tandems in the tournament.
“I think our doubles has always been our forte at South Brunswick, and I think that this run just indicates the strength of the programs in our area,” McDonald said. Coming into a tournament like this, you never know what the draw from the teams from the north and south will be like. This week definitely gave us the belief that we can play with the top teams in the state.”
In the singles semifinals, the signs for Linden junior and top-seeded Joanna Zalewski were ominous from the day’s first serve.
Despite rallying from being down 2-0 and winning four straight games for a 6-3 first set victory, Zaleski never found the rhythm she’s accustomed to and fell in three sets, 6-3, 0-6, 2-6, to sophomore and fourth-seeded Christina Rosca of Princeton.
Zaleski was in search of a return trip to the final where she lost as a freshman in 2011 before sitting out her sophomore season.
“I think (Zaleski) was in the game. It was a hard fight between the two players, and Christina just had a few more shots,” said Linden coach Barbara Kolesa. “I certainly can’t say one player was better than the other, but Christina did make a few fantastic shots and she got quite a few breaks.”
Zaleski was foiled by Rosca’s ability to get a touch on almost every ball within hailing distance, and that spurred a run of eight consecutive game-winners spanning the second and third sets.
“I just played badly, and she started making good shots,” Zaleski said. “I made some silly mistakes at inopportune times.”
Still, Zaleski rallied and drew within 2-3 in the third set. She was dealt a monumentous blow though, when Rosca claimed the game after it went deuce four times.
“I felt that was a game where I might have been down, but I still wanted to win it and play my best,” Zaleski said. “I didn’t feel like that was the end. I still wanted to fight.”