Earlier this year, Michael Zheng had to make one of those crucial decisions that all top high school athletes face towards the end of their junior careers: where to attend college.
Zheng, a blue-chip, five-star recruit from Montville, New Jersey, is one of the top tennis players in the country in his age group, and was fielding many collegiate offers from some of the nation’s most elite programs.
His decision-making process led him to stay local, and take his talents to New York City and attend Columbia, which has established itself as a perennial Top 25 team in men’s college tennis.
“I felt like Columbia had the best combination of tennis and academics in the country,” said Zheng. “I also have a couple of friends that I grew up hitting with that had committed to Columbia, and I felt that having friends to push me to be better every day was an environment that I would excel in. I’m excited for what’s coming in the fall and I know under the leadership of Coach Howie [Endelman] and some of the older players on the team we will be in a good spot.”
Zheng’s tennis journey began 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.”
As Zheng continued to improve and move up the junior tennis ladder, dedicating more time to traveling and competing in some of the bigger tournaments became more of a requirement. The ability to attend a school that was flexible and understanding of his tennis schedule became imperative, and Zheng found this at Dwight Global Online School in New York City.
“This was my first year at Dwight, and the flexibility that Dwight offers is indispensable because it allows me to travel for tournaments for extended periods of time while also keeping up with the school,” said Zheng. “The online classes they offer also allow me to choose my own schedule so classes don’t conflict with my training schedule. It’s been a great help and the teachers have been nothing but supportive.”
Dwight School has created an atmosphere that allows all students to chase their dreams outside of the classroom, and many tennis players have taken advantage of this throughout the years. The support and flexibility provided by them has permitted Zheng to pursue competing in many professional events over the last year, including several ITF and Futures events, and has helped him find success in those events.
Recently, Zheng was down in Orange Park, Fla. competing in a $15K ITF tournament. After fighting to come back from a set down in the quarterfinals, Zheng responded by winning a 15-13 first-set tiebreaker en route to winning his semifinal. While he would fall in the finals, it was still a positive week for Zheng, who continues to make strides playing in professional events.
“It was a great tournament overall and I’m happy with the way I played,” said Zheng. “Making finals for the first time definitely helps my confidence going forward, knowing I can compete at the professional level.”
As we head into the summer, the goal for Zheng now is to maintain the progress he has seen over the last year or so, and prepare to play in the bigger tournaments. Traveling constantly for tournaments can be a grueling process, spending a lot of time away from your home, family and friends, but it is something Zheng is getting used to, and the results are showing that.
“It’s been tough at times, especially when I’m spending weeks to months at a time away from home while traveling from tournament to tournament. But when I do well at one of the higher level events it’s very rewarding,” Zheng explained. “In the last month or so I’ve made a big jump in my game and am starting to play better. I’m looking to do well at the junior Slams, and do well at the Future and Challenger level events going forward. Hopefully by the end of the year I can get my ATP ranking higher and make some higher-level professional tournaments without relying on wild cards.”
Zheng is just a few months away from beginning his collegiate career, and will be playing a lot of high-level tennis as we move through the spring and summer. He is excited for what lies ahead of him, and will keep putting in the necessary work to reach his potential.
“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 email@example.com