Anna Chen

Athens senior Anna Chen poses with her district runner-up medal last week in Portsmouth. Chen is the first Bulldog singles player to advance to the state tournament.

Athens coach Dana Morehead said it was a setback that allowed Athens senior Anna Chen to become one of the best tennis players in Bulldogs’ history.

Chen came a win away from making the state tennis tournament as a singles player during the district tournament her junior season.

“I think the big word is determination,” Morehead said, when describing Chen. “Just last year, not getting to that next point I think really pushed her to have that drive to be that better player, be a team leader and just come out and be ready for her opponents.”

Chen will conclude her high school tennis career this weekend, competing in the OHSAA Division II singles state tournament.

Chen is the first Athens tennis player to ever qualify for the state tournament in singles competition.

She’s also the first Bulldog to ever be a two-time state qualifier, as she competed at the state level as a doubles team two years ago with Ami Brannan.

Chen got a taste of state competition as a sophomore, and worked nearly year-round to get back as a senior.

“I really wanted to get back this year,” Chen said. “When I finally did it, it was really great. Felt like all my hard work paid off. I’ve been practicing since January.”

The hard work will culminate on Friday when Chen takes part in the Division II state tournament, held at the Lindner Family Tennis Center, in Mason, at 9 a.m.

Chen’s opening-round match is against Chardon Notre Dame-Cathedral Latin freshman Elena Fleming.

Chen’s journey as a singles player began last season. She had previously teamed with Brannan in doubles’ competition, but when Brannan graduated, Chen became the Bulldogs’ No. 1 singles player.

Chen advanced out of sectionals, but lost in the district semifinals to South Point’s Madison Riley.

Chen turned that disappointment into motivation, training with her coach in Taiwan over the winter.

“I practice with him for two hours every day and he helped me with all my basics, to keep up with what I already had and to improve my ground strokes mainly,” Chen said.

Chen posted a 7-3 record during the regular season — one of the losses a medical forfeit — gaining the No. 2 seed in the sectional bracket, only behind the top-seed Riley.

Chen’s losses all came to competitors in Division I.

“Going into the tournaments, she knew what to expect,” Morehead said. “She had beaten everybody. There was no one in that sectional tournament meeting that even gave me flack about giving her that second seed. So I think that has a big saying for her.”

Chen posted runner-up finishes in both the sectional and district tournaments. She lost to Riley in both tournaments, but the second-place finishes were good enough to advance.

Chen won four matches in the sectionals and two in the district brackets in straight sets.

Chen said she tried to have fun, and lower the pressure during those two tournaments in Portsmouth.

“I knew if I lost, especially in districts, it would have been my last game for my whole tennis career,” Chen said. “So I just wanted to have fun with it. I didn’t want to stress about it. I guess even though it was straight sets and the scores looked pretty easy, they were still tough matches.”

Chen said the biggest adjustment the deeper in the tournament she’s gone has been endurance and concentration. Many of her regular season matches are easily won, but longer volleys are the norm in district and state competition.

“I have to focus more on being consistent because a lot of times when I play during the regular season, the rallies aren’t very long,” she said. “Here, I know the players are going to be really good so I have to keep consistent, keep the ball going and be ready to hit the next ball. It’s not going to be an instant winner all the time.”

There are 16 singles players in the Division II bracket. If Chen were to win her opening match, she would face either Shaker Heights Laurel junior Ellie Brotherton, or Lexington senior Gracie Pfieffer.

The semifinals and finals will be held on Saturday, in Mason.

Chen’s opening-round opponent, Fleming, is the No. 3 seed from the Northeast District.

Chen has already made Athens history, and a win would add to that. The Bulldogs’ only other state tennis history for the girls’ program came in 1992, when Sara Mickelson and Kelly Mickelson lost an opening-round Division I doubles match.

Athens has never had a girls’ tennis player advance in the state brackets, and Chen hopes to break down that barrier on Friday.

“Obviously, I want to win, but just a more practical goal is to win at least one game each set and see what happens,” Chen said. “I’m not putting a lot of pressure on myself, because I know they’re good players.”

Regardless of this weekend’s state tournament results, Chen has set a new standard that future Athens tennis players can strive to reach.

“It’s the Super Bowl of tennis for our area,” Morehead said. “Just to make this qualification point, this is something she’s wanted to do. When I first met Anna two years ago, I said this is where we are, and this is where we want to go.

“Anna has the determination and has made those strides to be that better player.”


Email at kwiseman@athensmessenger.com; follow on Twitter @KevinWmessenger

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