They say patience is a virtue, and if that’s the case, then call Zain Ali virtuous.
Ali, Half Hollow Hills East’s first singles player, has been on the cusp of reaching the top of the Suffolk boys tennis totem pole the last few seasons. On Tuesday, he took one step closer in building his confidence and résumé on the way to reaching his ultimate goal.
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Ali beat Whitman’s Brandon Stone, the 2011 county singles champion and 2012 county runner-up, in a grind-it-out, back-and-forth battle between two of Suffolk's best, 7-6 (9), 6-3, to lead Hills East to a 7-0 victory in League I.
“It’s a pretty big win for him. Over the last few years they’ve been about 50-50 where Brandon has had a slight edge,” Hills East coach Tom Depelteau said. “I think the best thing was his patience. He was willing to hang in the points with Stone and that’s Stone’s strength. Zain didn’t hurry it.”
The most intense moments of the match came in the first set when Ali and Stone exchanged two breaks and were ultimately caught in an edge-of-your-seat, 20-point tiebreak that finally went in Ali’s favor.
Before that, Ali and Stone were in every point, extending rallies throughout the set to as many as 40 or so strokes with excellent court coverage and fine-angled shots. At 4-4, Stone won a rally that went 52 strokes, but Ali came back and won that game to go up a break at 5-4. Stone then broke Ali to tie the set at 5, and both players then held serve to force the tiebreak.
In the tiebreak, Ali saved three set points as he trailed 4-5, 7-8, and 8-9. He battled back with a volley winner at the net to tie it at 9 on-serve, and then after holding to go up 10-9, he withstood another long rally to break Stone and win the set.
In the second set, Ali earned an early break and didn’t look back, going ahead 3-0 before closing it out.
“Some of those rallies went 30 or 40 shots and it was a real test,” Depelteau said. “Zain showed great patience and let the points come to him. He matched Stone shot for shot.”
Ali's win avenged a 1-6, 7-6 (5), (10-7) loss to Stone earlier this season. The Hills East junior has reached the state singles championships in each of the last three seasons, but has yet to win the Suffolk singles title.
Tuesday’s victory could prove a turning point going forward.
“I think it’s good for him mentally,” Depelteau said. “If he had lost twice to [Stone] this year he would’ve been down. This could give him the No. 1 seed in our division tournament, and it’ll certainly boost his confidence for the county championships.”