One big reason the Conestoga High School boys tennis team captured the PIAA 3A title this spring was the heart and grit of senior Justin Xu, the Daily Local News 2023 Boys Tennis Player of the Year.
Xu, who finished fourth in the PIAA 3A singles tournament last year, suffered a wrist injury in April that forced him to withdraw from a match and suffer his only loss of the season. But he bounced back, did not lose a match the rest of the season (posting an 18-1 record) and won a crucial singles match in the Pioneers’ 3-2 win in the state championship final, against a Lower Merion squad that had not lost a match in nearly three years.
“He is mentally stronger than anyone else on our team, with a tremendous work ethic,” said Conestoga head coach Britt Aimone.
Xu displayed some of that grit last year in the quarterfinals of states. He finished fifth in the district, and in the quarterfinals was matched against District 1 runnerup Justin Yi of Lower Merion, who was the Aces’ top singles player in 2022. Xu, who was recovering from a COVID infection, beat Yi, 6-3, 6-4 to advance to the semifinals.
“My strongest memory of that tournament was just serving it out for the semifinal spot and feeling a rush of adrenaline playing out those final points,” said Xu.
Then, last April, Xu had to overcome a recurring wrist injury that prevented him from competing for the Central League singles title, which kept him from qualifying for district and states.
“I believe I have some weird wrist tendonitis going on in my left wrist, where it flares up from time to time after putting my wrist in a vulnerable cocked back position,” said Xu. “I went to physical therapy for a little but the main thing that helped me deal with it was playing less tennis; all my wrist needs is rest to ease the flare up and go back to playing. I also wore a wrist brace throughout the season to ease the impact hitting backhands had on my wrist.”
Xu supplemented his limited on-court time with plenty of running – three miles a day if he played tennis that day, and 5-10 miles on off days.
“I think the biggest part of my game I improved this season was my cardiovascular performance, as I always dealt with cramps on court which hampered the amount and intensity of my play,” said Xu. “Because I couldn’t train on court as much (just after the wrist injury), I would spend my days running and in the gym.”
During his recovery time, Xu also watched the first three “Rocky” movies for inspiration.
“This is going to sound really stupid, but the movie characters Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed really inspired me to train harder and stick with and defeat my opponent no matter what,” said Xu. “I trained incredibly hard off court for the rest of the season.”
In the Pioneers’ state semifinal match against District 7 champion Gateway, won 3-0 by Conestoga, Xu picked up the lone singles win in straight sets, 6-0, 6-3. Xu said it was his best match of the spring season.
“I was just serving and moving particularly well,” said Xu. “I was hitting through my shots and the wide forehand cross was causing a lot of trouble for my opponent, who particularly struggled to deal with the spin I generated on the cross court forehand duels.”
In the championship final against Lower Merion, Xu fell behind early in his singles match against senior Mark Lancaster but rallied again to win, 6-3, 7-5.
“I fell behind incredibly quickly in the beginning, struggling to serve anything in,” said Xu. “I usually like to dictate the match with my serve and forehand, like I did in the state semifinal match, but during the state final I was really struggling to hit through the ball and serve; my opponent Mark was doing a great job keeping the ball incredibly deep and heavy while I was running around just trying to get another ball back.
“I came back playing a scrappy counterpunching game — and in some of our rallies I was just a ball away from cramping.”
Xu got started in competitive tennis relatively late, at the age of 11.
“I started playing tennis as a chubby kid trying to lose weight, and started playing tournaments the next year, but I was a very lackluster player in my early years playing,” said Xu.
“Two people who really brought me to a different level in tennis were my dad, who constantly helped me discover weaknesses in my game and practiced with me, and Fazal Syed, a coach at Level 7 Tennis Academy (in Malvern). Fazal did an incredible job teaching me the correct techniques and strategies to bring my game to a level I never thought would’ve been possible in the early years of my tennis career.”
Xu’s favorite tennis players are Carlos Alcaraz and Roger Federer.
“I can’t copy Federer’s game at all, with how stylish he plays, but Carlos and Novak Djokovic are great players to watch and learn from,” said Xu. “I try to model my game to be similar to Djokovic or Alexander Zverev.”
This fall, Xu will attend Georgia Tech, where he will major in Industrial Engineering. Georgia Tech has a top-ranked Industrial Engineering program.