No one expected Jonathan Gu to win the national singles tournament title. Not even Gu himself.
But the draw on his side of the bracket worked in his favor, and the 5-8 seed Princeton secured a more than three-hour 7-6 (9-7), 4-6, 6-2 win on fourth -seeded Jack Wong of East Brunswick in the Singles Championship Thursday afternoon at Mercer County Park in West Windsor.
” It feels good. I didn’t expect it at all,” Gu said. “There were a few dropouts and I had a few games that could have gone either way. I felt good coming in. I played well yesterday. I was nervous though. I didn’t even expect to win even yesterday after he beat (Eric Li, number one seed in the semis) I was just trying to play the best I could.
“It was really competitive. The first two sets took a long time. Even in the third set I was down 2-0. It could have gone either way, but then he started not feeling Well, that’s not how I wanted to win the game.
Normally, in tennis, celebrations are low-key and short-lived. For Gu, there was little to celebrate despite becoming Princeton’s first singles champion since 1984. Wong was suffering from severe cramps. He took two medical timeouts and was in terrible pain in the third set. He could barely walk.
“He was obviously injured, so I didn’t want to cheer. I hope he feels better soon,” Gu said. “I’ve been in this situation before. It’s not fun at all. (He and Li) played for a while yesterday, so maybe he was a little tired.
Wong won the first game of the match, but Gu then won the next two, including a break to go up 2-1 in the first set. But then Wong broke Gu’s serve and then held back to take a 3-2 lead. The two talented counterparts would each hold out until it was 6-6. In the tiebreaker, Wong took a 6-3 lead and was close to winning the critical first set, but Gu stormed back to win the tiebreaker 9-7 and the first set, 7-6 .
“I was up 2-1, then I lost a close game on my serve. We both held on until the tiebreaker,” Gu said. “I was down 6-3, but it was only a mini break. I had two services. I got my two serves and fought one more point and it was back to a tie. I took it one point at a time. It was good for extra motivation. I was down 6-3 and the set was in his hands. Being able to come back there was good.
Being able to win the first set after Wong took the lead was a real game-changer.
“He had a tough game today for sure, and there was a lot going on. There was the tie-break in the first set. It was back and forth the whole time. “He was a nail biter. He traded his racquet. To be able to fight through everything and have the first set in his pocket was great for him,” Princeton coach Sarah Hibbert said. “He’s tough. He played a really tough three to equalize and from there it was anybody’s game. It was an amazing set and then the roller coaster happened.
To start the second set, Gu continued his momentum by winning the first two games. After that, Wong took his first injury timeout. That seemed to help, and he even changed his style to include more drop shots to level the match by a set apiece. Wong even led 2-0 early in the third set before hobbling, grimacing and making pain noises.
“The second set, the injury timeouts started, and it made him lose his rhythm. Jack is amazing. He’s a solid player. He had an amazing game yesterday with Eric, and I’m sure there was still a residual hangover and physical stress from it,” Hibbert said. “He was ripping forehands and he’s a tough player. Jonathan gave up the second set and went to bed early in the third set and weathered the storm and we were able to put his mental focus back in the right place.
“Jack was feeling the effects as you can see. It was shameful. It would have been better had it been fought on a level playing field, but conditioning is part of that. They had to play a lot of matches. All in all, it was great fun to watch. It was back and forth. Going into the game, Jack was likely favored on paper based on UTR and seed. It proves that on any given day, you never quit a game. Always believe in it and fight as hard as possible. To have an undefeated season and the first state champion since the 80s is an incredible accomplishment.
This season has seen Gu remain undefeated. He won all five games in the state singles tournament, went 14-0 as a team as he helped guide Princeton to the Group 3 final, and he won every game in the Mercer tournament. Court held at the MCP.
“I had some hopes for the season and one of them was winning the national tournament which he did right here. But in the state there are a lot of great players,” Hibbert said. Sometimes you need a little luck. He was disappointed to be considered inferior to someone he was beating. It’s a shame that Josh Mandelbaum can’t play. You never want injuries to have an impact on things, but at the end of the day you have to beat your opponent that day, this year he was able to beat everyone that was put in front of him and was able to walk away with the win at the end of the day. It was a good season.”
In last season’s state singles tournament, Gu lost in the fourth round to second. He got past that round this time in a super tiebreaker and then was crowned champion when all was said and done.
“It was fun,” Gu said. “Last year we didn’t have a national tournament and the season was canceled when I was a freshman. Last year in the singles tournament I suffered a tough loss, I I’m glad I was able to go further this time.
As a junior, there is a chance that Gu will come back in 2023 and revive him.
“We’ll see. Every year is tough,” Gu said. “We’ll have to see.”
Wong, who goes to the University of Chicago, gave it his all and fought until the end. Although he couldn’t play at all as the third set progressed, he finished the match until the end. He lay on the ground in pain, with ice on his legs and his arms outstretched. He eventually left in an ambulance and was taken to a nearby hospital. It is expected to be OK.
“Yeah, it was cramped everywhere,” East Brunswick coach Cory Widmaier said. “He had bad calf cramps that went up to the quadriceps. At some point, his knee locked up and he couldn’t walk. He’s a soldier out there and he fought the pain.
“I’m so proud of him that he was able to fight until the end. He fought and hung on. It bothered him towards the end of the first set. It got really bad in the second set and he “changed his way of playing and it worked. In the third set it’s even worse. I don’t know if the 10-minute rest tightened things up. He was a warrior.”
East Brunswick saw not only a singles player in the final in Wong, but both of their doubles teams in the doubles championship. The Group 4 champions and Tournament of Champions runners-up became the fourth team to have runners-up in both tournaments. East Brunswick did it twice (2004).
“It was super exciting to arrive today,” said Widmaier. “Not having to worry about duplicates was kind of nice. I let them do their thing. I’m proud of everyone who got here today. It was a great race to go all the way. It was a fun and great run for the program. I was looking for good tennis. It was like watching a challenge game from March.
Full results Day 1 | Day 2: Singles | Doubles | Quarter-final results | Semi-final results | Doubles Final
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