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Unionville's Grace Li Named Player of the Year

As Featured on PAPREPLIVE.com

By Bruce Adams

East Marlborough >> Unionville High School junior Grace Li, the Daily Local News Girls Tennis All-Area Player of the Year, saved her best performance this fall for last, in the PIAA 3A singles championship.

In that match, Li got better as the contest progressed, defeating Council Rock South junior Dasha Chichkina, 6-4, 6-2, to win her first PIAA state singles title. Li finished the fall high school season with an undefeated record at singles, and at the PIAA tournament won all of her matches in straight sets.

“My best match of the season was the finals against Dasha,” said Li. “I’ve played her so many times during the season (including the District 1 3A finals) and she played so well in the state championship finals. It was difficult because she gets to every ball so I had to really be patient but still play my aggressive game style.”

Li, who was also the 2021 Girls Tennis Player of the Year, finished second last year at the PIAA tournament, losing in the championship finals.

“Getting second place last year, I’ve been on both sides of the spectrum and finally being able to win the state title this year just made all the hard work feel worth it,” said Li. “When I won the second set, it was a monumental moment, and I was just so happy and relieved.”

Unlike 2021, Li entered states as the No. 1 seed.

“It’s tough to be the first seed,” said Unionville head coach Janet Johnston. “There is a lot of pressure … most of it, many people put on themselves. Teams can feel it. Individuals can feel it.

“It was evident that Grace was feeling that pressure early on (in the championship final), but she very quickly responded to it, and rose to the occasion. It was really fun watching the evolution during districts and states as she calmed herself down and found her game. You could feel it from off the court.”

Li said, “In the beginning (of the finals), I struggled a bit. There was a lot of pressure, being the first seed, because I was expected to win. I think a big part was breaking (Chichkina’s) service game at 0-2 to get the score to 1-2. If I lost that game, it would have been a lot more difficult to come back.”

Johnston said, “Grace is a very determined player. Her baseline game is one of the strongest aspects of her game, but I would also include her serve as a weapon. When her first serve is on, she sets the tone in a match very quickly. In tougher situations, she’s very good at assessing her opponent and finds ways to counter their strengths.”

Johnston also admires Li’s even-tempered personality.

 

“Grace is realistic about things and never gets too high or too low. She can be quiet but often jumps into a conversation with something really funny to say and is a really good teammate… well respected and clearly well liked.”

Led by Li, Unionville advanced to the PIAA 3A team championship final.

“Grace brings out the best in her teammates,” said Johnston. “She works hard on her game and that energy and effort rubs off on the team. It’s like a spark that starts a fire when you have a player that can bring their teammates along and inspire them to improve their game.

“I also know it’s a two-way street. Grace enjoys team success as much, if not more than her own. That’s the definition of a good teammate. I am confident she will play tennis in college and I hope her experience here at Unionville will serve her well at the next level.”

Li started playing tennis at six-years old at her family’s club, Penn Oaks Country Club. At around age 11, Li started training at High Performance Tennis Academy in Bala Cynwyd, where she came under the tutelage of Dylan Comerford, who is one of the owners and directors of the club.

“Dylan has taught me so much for my game including tactics, mentalities, and techniques,” said Li. “Another person who has helped me a lot is my brother Victor, who has been my hitting partner since a young age and has really helped my game drastically.”

Li has been making her presence felt on the junior tennis circuit too, and is ranked second in her age group, 13th in the Middle Atlantic and 57th nationally per tennis recruiting.net.

Li’s favorite tournament tennis experience outside of playing for Unionville came last summer at the Billie Jean King Hardcourt Championships in San Diego, Calif. In a 256-player singles field including many of the top 16-under players from around the United States, Li won her first three rounds to advance to the field of 32 before dropping a match.

“It was an incredible experience,” said Li. “Flying across the country in a completely different environment was a very exciting thing. I played really well that tournament and got to meet up with a lot of my friends.”

Li is a left-handed player, and enjoys watching many WTA Tour pro lefthanders such as two-time Grand Slam champion Angelique Kerber.

“I feel like my game style is quite similar to (Kerber’s),” said Li. “I also like (former French Open champion) Iga Swiatek, who has such a good game that I love to watch.”