Gritty and tough are terms used to describe any athlete in any sports, tennis included. While it certainly takes talent to excel in any endeavor, those who can stay in the fight and grind out winners are those who raise championship trophies at the end.
Menlo School junior Addie Ahlstrom, the Knights’ No. 1 singles player, has proven to epitomize all three attributes. While having developed her talent over years of playing tennis, it was her grittiness and will to win that helped propel the Knights back to the top of the Northern California girls’ tennis mountain, earning her the Daily Journal’s Girls’ Tennis Player of the Year award for the second year in a row.
“I don’t think this season could have gone any better,” Ahlstrom said. “Not only the unity of the team, but also in terms of results.”
Ahlstrom helped the Knights extend their league winning streak to 266 matches and to their 26th consecutive league championship. She lost only two matches during the regular season — both to out-of-section opponents at a tournament in Southern California — but it was her performance during the postseason that locked up player of the year honors as she helped lead Menlo to its first Central Coast Section and Nor Cal championships since 2015.
“She was always a fighter, but this year she really solidified herself as one of the toughest players in Northern California,” said Menlo head coach Bill Shine. “After last year, she grew so much (as a player). This year, she’s a more polished player. .. She is a legit No. 1 player.”
Menlo’s program focuses on players being their best when they take the court — not so much for their own individual achievement, but for that of a team. For the Knights, it’s all about team and pulling your own weight.
So when Ahlstrom found herself down 5-1 in the first set of the Knights’ second-round CCS match against visiting Gunn, there was never a thought of dumping that set and moving on to the second. Not only did she kick her game into another gear, she went on to smoke her opponent, winning 12 straight games to post a 7-5, 6-0 victory as the Knights swept to a 7-0 victory over the Titans.
“I think I came into that match … and I wasn’t mentally prepared,” Ahlstrom said. “I was looking around and my teammates were up 5-0, 4-2 (in their opening sets). I learned that every match matters. It’s important I always put my best foot forward. I just had to click into that.”
Ahlstrom carried the lessons learned in that match through the rest of the team tournament and it was that experience against Gunn that enabled her to dig deep for clinching wins in the CCS finals and Nor Cal finals, both by the final score of 4-3.
“Come CCS and Nor Cal time, we were just hungrier and we wanted to prove to ourselves that we could win close matches,” Alhstrom said. “We stayed intense and focused the entire playoff.”
Ahlstrom had the perfect foil in both those championship matches — St. Francis’ Alisha Chulani, an opponent with whom Ahlstrom was very familiar as the two had paired together in a number of doubles tournaments on the juniors circuit. In the CCS championship match, Menlo jumped out to a quick 3-0 team lead after sweeping the three doubles matches, but St. Francis returned the favor, winning the No. 2, 3 and 4 singles spots.
As the other matches came to a close, Ahlstrom and Chulani were still battling. As players from both teams gathered around to root on their teammates, it was Ahlstrom who prevailed in straight sets, 6-3, 6-3.
Roughly two weeks later, Ahlstrom and Chulani hooked up again in the finals of the Nor Cal team tournament. The Nor Cal final played out like the CCS final — Menlo sweeping the doubles matches and St. Francis taking the same three singles wins.
Which, once again, left Ahlstrom and Chulani to determine the Nor Cal champ. The second meeting could not have been any different than the first as Chulani burst out to a 6-3 win in the first set and took a 3-0 lead in the second.
But like she did in her match against Gunn, Ahlstrom found another gear. She rallied to win six straight games to take the second set 6-3. It was only appropriate that the third set was decided by a tiebreaker, with Ahlstrom finally putting Chulani down for a 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7-2) victory.
“I was proud of the way I played,” Ahlstrom said. “I think I do tend to perform a lot better with the team riding on my back. My matches with [Chulani] in the CCS final and Nor Cal final, both those could have gone either way. I was proud to close (out) those wins.”
Despite the Nor Cal title, the high school season wasn’t quite over for Alhstrom as she chose to participate in the CCS singles tournament. She was given the No. 2 seed and advanced to the semifinals before dropping her first match in more than two months, a 5-7, 6-0, 4-6 loss to third-seeded Claire Galerkin of St. Ignatius.
And while no one likes to see their season end with a loss, Ahlstrom realizes that she gave every match her all every time on the court and she was satisfied with the results.
“I didn’t really have an easy singles match in my CCS matches. That helped that I had to work hard for all my wins,” Ahlstrom said. “That made me feel good.”
Said Shine: “She’s as good as I’ve ever had and I’ve had some good No. 1 players. With one year to go (at Menlo), the sky’s the limit.”