The mental component of playing tennis is as important as the physical, and that’s a key area for Hinsdale Central sophomore Nicole Hu.
She excels at the mental aspect.
“She comes across as very unflappable,” Hinsdale Central coach Shawna Zsinko said of Hu. “She can dig her heels in and get balls back in the court, and she can dictate. She’s just a very mature player.”
From Hu’s standpoint, tennis trains her mind and makes her think more than one step ahead. For example, if she’s losing in a match, she pivots her thinking to what strategies she’ll need to employ to exploit her opponent’s weaknesses.
Hu took fourth place in singles at last fall’s Class 2A state meet, but with the coronavirus pandemic and the layoff she had from United States Tennis Association tournaments over the spring and summer, she started thinking.
Would there be a high school season? And if there was, would it even include state or West Suburban Silver tournaments?
That’s why she nearly decided to take a pass on playing for the Red Devils this fall. But there was one factor that stood out.
“When I found out there were going to be more meets, I thought about my teammates and how much I love them so much,” she said. “I wanted to see my teammates. We’re not going to school, so it’s nice to see them and very refreshing.”
Hu began playing tennis at age 6, hitting balls at the local park in her hometown of Clarendon Hills with her dad, Wenwei. A year later, she began playing in USTA tournaments.
Fast forward to her freshman year at Hinsdale Central, where she advanced to the state semifinals before losing 6-1, 6-0 to Lake Forest’s Kiley Rabjohns, the eventual champion. In the third-place match, Hu lost 6-1, 6-4 to New Trier’s Ali Benedetto.
Still, a pretty impressive accomplishment, and once again, it was the thinking that allowed her to go as far as she did.
“Going into the tournament, I was hoping to do well,” she said. “With my team, the support I had, and the environment of state, I had a really good experience. I had a lot of adrenaline and played better.”
Everything was setting up for an even better sophomore season until coronavirus pandemic took hold and her club, Five Seasons Family sports Club in Burr Ridge, shut down.
That meant she had to get creative as far as training.
She and her friends still hit with each other as often as they could, and she did workouts at home. By the time things opened back up somewhat, she was able to attend summer camps and play in a USTA Labor Day tournament in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
In other words, it was a long stretch without competitive play. Plus, there was the matter of social distancing on the court, which has carried over to the high school season. For example, she has to use her own assigned tennis balls when serving and not those from her opponent.
Does Hu have a favorite player on the professional tennis tour? Well, not really, but again, she goes back to the mental aspect of the game.
“I definitely appreciate all of their hard work and determination,” she said. “The U.S. Open for the men and women, Naomi Osaka and Dominic Thiem, watching their progression to stay mentally there, it’s something I really appreciate.”
Gregg Voss is a freelance reporter for Pioneer Press.