|Somerville senior Mesa Mei is 45-0 in high school tennis.|
For tennis ace, team takes first place
SOMERVILLE — Tall and lanky, his lean, toned arms extending from a casual T-shirt, Mesa Mei is clearly an athlete. Before he utters a single word, Mei communicates something else, too: a quiet confidence.
Posting an unbeaten record through an entire high-school tennis career will give you that feeling.
Indeed, Mei has singlehandedly kept the Somerville High boys’ tennis team focused, determined, and in good spirits, his coach says. A struggling program that went winless last spring, and won a combined three matches in 2008 and 2007, the Highlanders rose to a 5-6 finish this season with Mei’s help.
Individually, Mei’s career has been one big W: Since his sophomore year, he has ranked in the top 5 in New England and has been on the radar of national tennis scouts. Mei wrapped up his final season as a Highlander last weekend, notching an overall record of 45-0.
A superstar on a struggling team, Mei never once complained.
“I knew the high school program wasn’t the best when I joined as a sophomore, but I had a couple friends who wanted to go out for the team and asked me to come,’’ said Mei. “They said I could play and make us better. I like being on a team. I saw our team come together this season and we got better, so that was nice.’’
Somerville head coach Sunny Malex agreed.
“He could’ve not even given us a chance because he knew we weren’t the strongest program,’’ said Malex. “But he comes on the team and really changes the way his teammates think. He’s always encouraging and always reminding them that someday it’ll just click and we’ll come together. For a high school kid who is so talented on his own, to be that supportive of a losing team is something special.’’
The 18-year-old boasts a tennis resume brimming with one accolade after another. This season, he is ranked second in the state among seniors and No.3 in New England; nationally, he holds a 133 rank.
Last year, he committed to play at Division 1 Xavier University, checking off a step toward his dream of playing for a top collegiate program; as a sophomore Mei won the US Tennis Association’s New England Junior Clay Court championship, beating fellow Bay State tennis power Alex Steinroeder of Concord.
Training with a private tennis coach since he was 8, Mei has yet to miss a lesson. Devoting four to five days a week to the sport, Mei has made sacrifices, missing out on holding part-time jobs or taking part in other extracurricular activities or sports.
At 6 feet, 165 pounds, Mei boasts a creative, all-around game based on strong quick strokes and a stifling backhand. Still, he is perhaps one of the most underrated tennis phenoms in the state.
Does he mind?
“Not at all. When it comes to my high school career, I just look at it as a time I can be part of a team and be around friends,’’ said Mei. “I know I’m not leading a state-tournament team, but I’m part of a team and I like that. We won three straight matches this year, and it was nice because you can see how we came together. It also prepares me for being on a team in college.’’
Introduced to the sport at age 4, Mei learned the basics from his mother, Pippin Huang. A native of China, Huang first picked up a racket when she was 30 and found a tennis partner: her son.
Once a week, Huang would bring Mei to Somerville’s Perry Park, armed with a rope to make up for the lack of nets on the park’s courts. Since then, Huang has fostered and supported her son’s love for tennis.
“She’s my No. 1 fan. My dad is there, but he’s not a huge tennis person,’’ said Mei. “But my mom’s always there, she wants to play with me. She’s the one who looks after my tennis life because she really enjoys the sport, too.’’
Sapna Pathak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.