There are a few things one notices right away when Angie Zhou walks onto a tennis court. The first is that Angie is a girl – and by definition, she is playing boys’ tennis for the Huron River Rats this fall.
The second is just how good Zhou is with a tennis racket in her strong and confident hands. She does more than just compete against the boys – she beats most of them, and rather easily in many cases. She is 12-4 on the season playing against the other team’s top player.
A senior, Zhou also is playing No. 1 singles for Huron – one of the top tennis programs in the state. And you have to earn your way to one singles, there are no gimmies here in varsity tennis.
Zhou, who is preparing for this weekend’s Division 1 State Finals with her Huron teammates, says there were many factors that went into her decision to play on the boys’ team instead of the girls team in the spring – and you can’t play both.
“The main reason that made me consider boys’ high school tennis was the cancellation of the girls’ season last spring and the doubts of the future,” Zhou says. “Playing high school tennis has been some of the highlights of both my tennis and high school experience, so I was really sad when I found out that the girls’ season was cancelled. When I made the decision to play boys, there was still a lot of uncertainty around the pandemic, such as talk about the virus getting worse in the winter.”
This raises concerns about whether spring sports will get off the ground in March. As we’ve learned, change is only right around the corner with this virus.
“Along with that, playing on the boys’ team gives me really strong competition and the chance to play more tennis, which I haven’t been able to do much because of the pandemic,” she says. “I wanted to challenge myself and go out of my comfort zone.”
She seems to have settled in right away and quickly find her comfort zone.
“It’s a very unique opportunity for her to play with the boys and she plays 1 singles for us,” says her Huron coach, Zsofia Towne. “She is very talented, left handed and smart on the court. She is quiet, but respectful and the boys give her lots of respect as well. She is a fighter out there, too.”
Zhou has no doubts she made the right decision after doing so well at one singles for the second-ranked team in the state. She is having fun and has improved her game – two huge factors in her decision.
“It’s definitely different than playing with the girls, and it’s challenged me, but I’ve enjoyed the challenge,” she says.
Let’s go inside tennis and examine the fine points of her game and strategy and how playing the boys has helped her develop on the court both physically and mentally.
“Playing with the boys has helped me improve my rally balls and be able to handle more pace and top spin,” Zhou explains. “In a neutral situation, I have to be sure to hit a deep, heavy ball, because otherwise they can dominate the point early on.
“I’ve also gotten better at constructing points, because all of the boys are really fast and can retrieve difficult balls. This forces me to be a little more patient and use a sequence of shots to win the point, rather than just hitting a winner outright. Because of this, I’m also forced to move in and take the ball early so they can’t recover in time.”
Zhou was the fifth seed at one singles as a sophomore during the 2019 girls’ season. She lost in the quarterfinals, helping her team to a sixth-place finish in the state. As a freshman, she was a third seed and reached the semifinals, helping lead Huron to fifth in the state in 2018.
Of course, playing against boys has only been one challenge for Zhou in 2020. At the beginning of the pandemic, all of the tournaments were cancelled and the tennis courts were closed. So no one was allowed to practice.
“It felt weird to go so long without picking up my racket,” she says. “Dealing with the uncertainty was difficult, because no one had any idea when we would be able to get back on the courts again. The only thing we could do at that time was wait patiently and see what would happen, but it was comforting knowing that we were all in this same situation together.
“I had to remind myself that these circumstances were out of my control, and that I just had to stay calm and patient in these difficult times.”
The patience has paid off for Zhou and the River Rats, who open up state finals play on Thursday against 15th seed Canton. “One of our main goals since the beginning of the season has been to win States this year,” she says. “We’ve been focused on the process that it takes to get there, like using every practice to improve, doing our best in each match, and overall just helping each other and enjoying the experience.”
Zhou says everyone brings something different to the team.
“We all get along and come together to support each other,” she says. “Everyone on the team is hardworking, competitive, and constantly looking to improve, but we always make sure to have fun both on and off the court.”
Off the court, Zhou serves up a 4.0 GPA and has always been an excellent student. The daughter of Wei Zhou and Lijun Han, Angie has participated in HOSA, Academic Games, Book Club and Stock Investment Club.
This year has been a little bit different “in the classroom.”
“School has definitely been different this year, but I’ve been adjusting to online learning,” she says. “I think the most challenging aspect of school so far has been the self-motivation. Especially with tennis, I can get very busy, and after practice or a long day of matches, it can be hard to motivate myself to do my schoolwork. Since everything is online, it’s even easier to procrastinate and push my work off to the next day.”
But there have been some positives to logging onto her senior year.
“Yeah, there are some positive aspects to online school, such as being able to wake up a little later and having a more flexible schedule,” she says.
Zhou, who took lessons with Eric Johnson at Huron Valley Tennis Club and now takes lessons with Dan Goldberg from Liberty Athletic Club, is eager to take on her next challenge of playing tennis at the next level.
“I plan to play D3 tennis at Pomona College in California next year,” she says. “I’m really looking forward to continuing to play tennis in the future and hopefully have a lot of fun playing college tennis. I don’t know what major I plan to pursue yet, but I’m excited to discover what path I’m going to go down in the future.”