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Mystic - Joan Li overcame several obstacles to capture her first Eastern Connecticut Conference tournament girls' singles championship Friday.
She had to fight off defending champion and top seed Annika Burgess of Stonington. She had to adjust to playing at Mystic Indoor Tennis. And she had to battle back from a 4-0 deficit in the third set.
"I still can't believe it," said Li shortly after rallying for a 3-6, 6-2, 7-5 victory. "Annika is such a great player. … I definitely admire her a lot."
Li, an East Lyme senior, capped her ECC career with her biggest victory in her first ECC final appearance. A tenacious, tireless competitor, she made Burgess earn every point. Li, the No. 2 seed, consistently kept the ball in play.
"She's a fighter," East Lyme coach Laurie Privett said. "She never gives up, no matter what. That's what I love about her. She's just so determined. … You can never rule her out."
Both singles players dominated the competition during the regular season. In head-to-head meetings, they split. As expected, they reached the ECC final for another showdown.
The match featured some big momentum swings. Burgess pulled away to take the first set and then Li dominated the second, building a 5-0 lead.
But Burgess seized command again, scoring several forehand winners. Between the second and third set, she won six of seven games.
Burgess was in prime position to defend her title after bolting to a 4-0 lead in the third set. But Li refused to buckle. She blocked out any distractions and mounted a furious comeback.
So what turned the momentum in her favor?
"I stopped thinking," Li said. "I think that was the key. I kind of shock myself sometimes."
Li started her rally by breaking Burgess' serve in the fifth game. Mistakes began to mount for Burgess. Li didn't lose a point while winning two straight games to grab a 5-4 lead.
"Joan Li is one of the best I've ever seen as far as keeping the ball in play and hitting angles," Stonington coach George Crouse said. "She's been the giant killer this year against us."
After Burgess forged a 5-5 tie, Li put the match away. She went up 6-5, thanks in part to three double faults by Burgess. When Burgess' return sailed out on match point, Li raised her arms over her head to celebrate her first title.
"She's just really consistent," Burgess said. "She's a great player. I feel like I lost my head and she kind of took advantage of that. She started hitting better shots and I just started making more mistakes."
Extra training paid off for Li, who added long distance running to her workout plan this season.
"I started running long distance on my own time, so that really helped," said Li, whose two previous ECC tournament trips ended in the semifinals.
The first-time winner theme also applied to the doubles competition, as Stonington sophomore Hannah Fabianski and senior Emily Buxton beat Waterford's Jessica Hudson and Katie Lewis, 6-2, 6-3.
The Stonington duo avenged their only defeat this season, dropping a three-set match earlier in the season. In the rematch on Monday, Fabianski and Buxton won convincingly in straight sets, losing only one game.
"There's always been that rivalry and tension between us and Waterford," Fabianski said. "It's great competition… But we've been practicing really hard specifically for Waterford. We kind of noticed their strengths and weaknesses and have tried to work on that in practice. They were really our only tough competition throughout the year."
The Stonington duo made fairly quick work of Waterford. Fabianski controlled the net and Buxton delivered punishing shots. They focused on maintaining a positive attitude and keeping the ball in play.
"It's just so exciting," Buxton said of the win. "I've been playing since my sophomore year on the team. This is like the ultimate prize."