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Saturday, April 22, 2006

Sidelines: Pai charts a course in singles after reaching state doubles

Maumee Valley senior Abi Pai is playing at the No. 1 singles spot this season. Pai and Craig Choka reached the Division II state tournament in doubles last season. His sister, Shweta, played for the school and qualified for the state tournament four times.

Ohio, USA: Abi Pai brings more to the tennis court than meets the eye.

Maumee Valley Country Day’s top player brings plenty of experience from past endeavors he believes have helped make him one of the better tennis players around.

Pai, a senior, began looking at tennis seriously when he was in the seventh grade. It was around the time when he had to narrow his list of extracurricular pursuits.

By then, Pai had already achieved second-degree black belt status in karate. He was an accomplished gymnast who had experienced success against national competition. He also played organized soccer and studied piano.

However, staying with tennis came down to which activity piqued his interest the most.

“It was something we got into as kids and we just kept on playing,” said Pai, speaking of himself and older sister Shweta, a former standout tennis player at MVCD who was a state qualifier four straight years.

Abi, who reached the Division II state tennis tournament a year ago as a doubles player, has been channeling much of his attention to honing his skills on the tennis court. Past activities remain a part of his repertoire.

Pai, who earned a first-degree black belt by the age 9 and his second-degree belt by 11, said his karate experience has been a benefit with the “mental aspect” involved in playing tennis. He said studying karate raised his focus level and taught him plenty about perseverance.

He also said competing in gymnastics and soccer helped him recognize the importance of conditioning.

Pai placed as high as third in a national gymnastics competition held in Las Vegas when he was 11. However, he eventually put an end to a difficult balancing act trying to juggle gymnastics and tennis, which represented his two favorite extracurricular activities.

He settled for applying his gracefulness to the tennis court.

“The main reason I gave up gymnastics was it also was a huge time commitment,” he said. “I’d have to spend three to five hours a day training for gymnastics.”
Pai believes playing soccer when he was younger also helped him with developing quick and agile feet, which he now uses to run down lobs or speedy returns. He also says learning how to play piano has helped him develop a general understanding that nothing is accomplished without practice and dedication.
“Learning how to play the piano is not something you can pick up in one day and learn how to play a song,” he said. “And you just can’t come out here and play tennis one day and expect to be good. You have to work hard.”

Quality time spent on the tennis court shows in Pai’s game, according to MVCD’s first-year coach Jarin Jaffee.

“He’s got all the shots,” Jaffee said. “He’s strong on both sides and he’s very fast on the court.

“He’s a good thinker on the court and he’s a fighter. He’s got the package.”

Pai said playing tennis regularly with Shweta when they were younger also played a major role in his development. It wasn’t until about the time he reached high school when he finally was able to defeat his sister, who is a freshman playing tennis at Washington University in St. Louis.

“When we were growing up, we just hit with each other all the time and I think that’s why I improved,” Pai said. “My sister and I pushed ourselves. We both really tried to beat each other.”

He played most of his junior season as the Hawks’ No. 2 singles player before teaming with Craig Choka to form a doubles tandem that proved good enough to make it to the state tournament. Choka graduated and this year Pai is playing as the No. 1 singles player.

He entered the season excited about the opportunity to serve as a team leader.
Pai, who has a 3.5 grade-point average, plans to attend Miami University to study business.

“I’m really just going into the season looking to have fun,” said Pai, who has won his two singles matches this season in just two sets each. “I really want to do well and see my teammates do well.

“Breaking through to state last year helped me to gain some confidence and now I know what to expect.”

He anticipates a tougher road to get to the state tournament this year if he decides to stay with singles.

“I know at first singles I’m going to get a lot more quality matches during the season,” he said. “Those kinds of matches will help me get ready for sectionals, districts and hopefully state.”

Coming up short of placing at state serves as motivation this time.

“It’s a completely different feeling when you’re on the [Ohio State University] tennis courts,” he said. “When you’re down there it’s no joke. It’s good competition down there and you realize to get there it’s a feat.”

But Pai’s ready to serve his best shot for a return trip to Columbus.

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