Towards the end of 2019, Michael Zheng headed north to Wayland, Mass. to compete in the USTA National Indoor Championships, one of the top junior circuit tournaments in the United States.
Zheng, a high school sophomore, had entered the event playing good tennis, and felt solid about his game.
“I was playing really well heading into the Indoor Championships. I had a decent run in Kalamazoo where I lost to the eventual finalist in three sets. So that gave me a lot of confidence,” recalls Zheng. “And I continued playing well that week. I was just extremely focused, was hitting clean and didn’t commit a lot of unforced errors.”
All of that added up to one of the best weeks of Zheng’s junior career where, as the seventh-seed, he won six consecutive matches, including a straight-sets win over the top-seed in the quarterfinals, culminating in a 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 win over Walker Oberg in the championship.
“Before each match I would take down notes of my opponent, and I was just really focused on winning that event,” he said. “It gave me a lot of confidence afterwards; it showed me that I was at the same level as other nationally-ranked players. I think it also validates the hard work I was putting in going into the tournament, and that I’m doing the right things in my training. It was a great experience.”
The victory was the culmination of the dedication to training and work ethic Zheng has had throughout his young career as a tennis player. He began playing tennis when his father took him and his sister over to a local high school and fed balls to them. Soon after, they would try out and gain entry into the feeder program at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
“I played there for two years, it was a great program. And it really set the foundation for me as a tennis player,” said Zheng. “I had also played basketball and soccer growing up, but tennis took up most of my time, and I was always better at tennis than I was at other sports. I had good eye-hand coordination, and I think that was definitely more beneficial for tennis.”
Zheng’s training brought him to Centercourt Performance Tennis Academy a couple of years ago, a facility that is much closer to his New Jersey home, and a place that has helped his game develop over the last two years.
“I first moved to Centercourt when my coach, Adrian Contreras, went there and it’s been great. Everyone in the program is really good and it’s very competitive,” said Zheng. “We do a lot of point play, and everyone is trying to move up the ladder to the top court. That aspect, where everyone is aiming to beat the person ahead of them, helps make everyone better.”
Helping to make him better was his participation in the Centercourt Men’s Professional Tennis Shootout, an event featuring touring professionals and $50,000 in prize money. Just a teenager, Zheng held his own in the tournament’s draw and reached the finals where he faced off against American Stefan Kozlov.
“I was really nervous,” Zheng said, recalling that final match. “I had watched Kozlov a lot when I was growing up and going to the US Open. So I was definitely nervous. But when I arrived, I had so much support, so many players from our program were watching on the next court over. They were rooting for me, and I really felt the love from Centercourt. Despite the loss it was such a great experience overall.”
His success over the last year has catapulted Zheng into one of the top players in the country, ranked eighth nationally in the Class of 2022 by TennisRecruiting.net. And like the rest of his peers in the nation and around the world, he will remain ranked there for the foreseeable future with no tournaments or events being played because of the coronavirus global pandemic.
Being forced to stay at home and unable to go to the gym or courts have forced athletes to get creative with their workouts and training regimens, and Zheng is no different.
“It’s been tough trying to stay fit; most of the time I go for runs around my neighborhood, and do some squats, push-ups and things like that in my house,” he said. “Centercourt has posted a lot of webinars online about mental training and that’s been really helpful. There have been mental coaches from around the world posting a lot of different tips, so I’ve been taking notes on that. Just doing what I can to maintain a sense of training.”
When the tournaments do return, Zheng will look to pick up where he left off and continue his winning ways. Despite being 15-years-old, Zheng has transitioned into playing in the 18s division in USTA Eastern tournaments, and is making the full transition into playing all of his national-level tournaments in the 18s division as well.
He has goals of playing Division I tennis and then he wants to try to play professional tennis. These are aspirations that he will pursue with the dedication and hard work that has brought him to this point.
“I just want to be the best that I can be,” he said. “If my best is being a top college player, that would be amazing. But if you work hard and push yourself harder than everyone else, then maybe you have a shot to go pro. I just want to see how far I can go.”
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org