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Girls’ tennis showcases depth in impressive season

Elise Spenner
Sophomore Samantha Tom returns a deep shot in her doubles match against a pair of Mills twins that played almost “telepathically,” she and partner Evelyn Du said.

“It’s good tennis.” 

Listen closely, and that’s what senior Mila Mulready’s dad says the most while she’s playing. She might close out a point with a devious slice backhand, and he won’t whoop or cheer. All you’ll hear is: “Let’s go. It’s good tennis now.” She might get beat on a passing shot down the line. No groans or complaints. 

“Good tennis.”

Watch enough matches — maybe half as many as Mulready’s dad has — and you learn that winning and losing matters, but playing “good tennis” matters even more. 

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Here’s the point: It’s easy to rattle off Burlingame girls’ tennis sterling resume this season — they are the Peninsula Athletic League (PAL) team tournament champions, have the individual singles winner on their roster and secured an automatic Central Coast Section (CCS) berth. But more importantly, it’s been a year of “good tennis” for the program. 

“Real good season,” head coach Bill Smith said. “We had so many players playing that had never really played varsity tennis.”

Here’s why it was such a good season: While it was never a secret that Mulready would remain the “top dog,” as Smith described, it was Burlingame’s best-kept secret that any of their other nine scoring players could push the Panthers to victory on any given day.

In their team PAL championship on Thursday, Oct. 26, it was the first-year singles stars — No. 3 Evelyn Du and No. 4 Samantha Tom — who kept the Panthers’ hopes alive. Even more unlikely, No. 3 doubles pair Ella Wang and Lyra Shang were the only Burlingame pair to win, claiming a tie-breaker victory over their Menlo-Atherton opponents to clinch the Panthers’ title. 

“Singles is definitely a different game,” said Du, who was dominant at No. 2 doubles with Tom last year. “Obviously, it’s yourself, it’s much more independent. And I think it’s a lot more mentally tough and physically tough because you have to do everything by yourself.”

The day before, it was two different doubles pairings that helped Burlingame eke out their first 4-3 win in the tournament. Against Aragon High School, both No. 1 doubles Natalie Gyde and Lily Grenier and No. 2 Lexi Podkaminer and Hailey Miller notched victories, compensating for an unexpected three losses on the singles side. 

Neither the Gyde-Grenier duo nor the Podkaminer-Miller pairing played varsity tennis until this year. Just two seasons ago, Miller and Gyde were freshman trying out among an unprecedented number of eager players — in fact, their year was the first season that Smith made cuts. The two survived the winnowing, stuck it out and are now reaping the benefits.

“To survive that, then to maintain, and now they’re playing solidly, and they had the signature win against M-A to propel us into our CCS berth,” Smith said. “We have a lot of kids playing up.”

But on Thursday, Nov. 2, Mulready had the spotlight one last time — while nobody can deny that she is a once-in-a-decade talent, among what must be a crowded bureau of trophies and medals, Mulready still lacked a legitimate PAL individual title. There was no tournament during her first janky, COVID-19 pandemic-impaired season, she won on a walkover sophomore year and she missed the junior year competition. 

For a moment, it looked like Mulready would end her high school career without the title. The senior gave up her serve on a double fault, giving her perennial rival, Aragon’s Varsha Jawadi, a break and a 4-2 lead. And then maybe Mulready got a little mad, because playing “good tennis” wasn’t quite enough anymore. She wanted to win. 

A few well-placed backhands did the trick. Suddenly, it was Jawadi making unforced errors, and Mulready capitalizing on every crack in her opponent’s armor. On set point, Mulready dug out a Jawadi drop shot and delivered one final slice backhand. It was a point that felt more like an encore than any other, and a shot that screamed “this is my match.” 

But it is the players in Mulready’s wake who will spearhead the team next season. Du and Tom — who just last year were shy transfer students with an immediate on-court bond — should headline the singles ladder next fall alongside Mulready’s younger sister, Shea. Gyde must find a new partner, but will remain a steadfast doubles player. Also, expect the doubles pair of Shang and Wang to continue to deliver in the biggest moments. 

And don’t worry, the girls have no shortage of aspirations for the coming season — beyond just playing “good tennis.”

“Making No. 1 at PALs next year,” Du said, when asked what she is most looking forward to. “Winning first place in the league. Doubles, team and overall. Everything.”

This story was originally published on The Burlingame B on November 5, 2023.