At age seven, Darien’s Lilly Ma started playing tennis as a way to keep up with her older brother. Now nine years later, the 16-year-old rising DHS senior is the FCIAC 2018 Girls Tennis Player of the Year.
The prestigious honor is backed up by some pretty impressive statistics: Since making the varsity team as a freshman, Ma has gone undefeated in every regular season, first at number two singles as a freshman and sophomore, and then this year at number one singles as a junior.
Her only loss this year was in the Class L state championships to rival Alyssa DiMaio of Staples, who Ma had previously defeated in the FCIAC championships.
On the court, Ma seems unflappable, almost inscrutable.
“I like to pinpoint my opponent’s weaknesses, and then just focus on that throughout the match,” Ma said of her playing style.
Joining the team as a freshman in 2016, Ma started at number two singles behind DHS star number one singles player Kateri Martin. Playing behind Martin, who graduated as an All-American, was inspiring, Ma said.
“She was really my role model,” she said. “She had really good leadership skills and was able to lead the team for so long and be so successful on the team. I looked up to her because who she was on the team and as a player.”
With Martin’s graduation last year, Ma stepped up to the number one singles spot this spring.
“I thought it was a little bit scary at first, because I had to lead the team,” she said. “But once I started playing I really liked leading the team.”
Ma continues to play United States Tennis Association (USTA) tennis year-round at Solaris Racquet Club in Stamford, competing in local and national tournaments. She is ranked in the top 15 players in New England in both the 16 and under and 18 and under age categories. She hopes to continue to play tennis in college, although she has not decided on a school yet.
And while she has found success both in USTA matches and at DHS, Ma said she prefers the team atmosphere of high school sports to individual competition.
“I like playing high school tennis more because you have the whole team supporting you,” Ma said. “You get to make friendships you wouldn’t really make at a USTA tournament.”
As she enters her final season with DHS, Ma thinks this could be the year that the girls’ varsity team goes all the way to win a state championship. This past spring, despite going undefeated in the regular season, the team ultimately lost in the FCIAC finals and the state championships, both times to Staples.
“I’m really looking forward to the team next spring,” Ma said. “I think we can do even better than we did this year and hopefully win FCIACs and States.”
In the meantime, Ma remains focused on improving her game. When asked what she does when she is not playing tennis, she had a simple response: “More tennis.”
“I do fitness and play tournaments,” she explained, although she does try to squeeze in playing the piano, a hobby she has enjoyed for the past six years.
And to the next seven-year-old who may be out there dreaming of playing number one singles at DHS, she had this advice: “Keep working hard. Sometimes tennis may be tough, and you just have to keep working through it no matter what.”