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PAWTUCKET â Saturdayâs RIIL Girls Tennis Singles Championship was won before East Greenwichâs Aleksandra Drljaca stepped on the court.
In the past, a match like this would have been the only thing on the mind of the EG junior. She would have thought about every point and practiced as much as possible in the days leading to the match.
With a steady rain falling Friday, Drljaca took the day off. She had a normal day at school, went home and relaxed afterward before going to bed early. Drljaca was up at 6 a.m. Saturday, took the three-hour PSATs beginning at 7:30, finished at 10:30 and then went home and lay in bed. She arrived at Slater Park early, hit some balls with her uncle for a few minutes and waited for the match to start.
She was relaxed and ready to go. This is the new Aleksandra Drljaca and armed with a mental game that matches her skill on the court, sheâs now a state champion after Saturdayâs 4-6, 6-2, 6-1 win over Smithfield's Jenna LaBarre.
âThe past couple of years Iâve always doubted myself and I think thatâs why I havenât gotten this far before,â said Drljaca, who failed to make it past the quarterfinals her freshman and sophomore seasons. âItâs something Iâve had to work on, my mental game, and just being confident knowing I am No. 1. Iâm the No. 1 seed because of my game and because I am being confident in myself.â
âShe had some things she needed to work on and she did that,â EG coach Marc Brocato said. âShe was a similar player freshman and sophomore year, but this transformation from sophomore to junior year has been magnanimous. Itâs been a tremendous climb.â
Saturdayâs win showed how much sheâs changed.
The opening set didnât go poorly for Drljaca, but La Barre â who lost to North Kingstownâs Hannah Zangari in the final last season â was clearly in control and won the first set 6-4 after winning three of the final four games.
Instead of focusing on the loss, Drljaca kept a clear head. Brocato reminded her of her regular-season victory over the Smithfield star, where Drljaca dropped the first set before taking the final two.
As a wind swirled in Pawtucket, Drljaca showed off her powerful baseline game, hitting precise shots down the line and crosscourt and turned the second set into a rout. LaBarre looked shocked more than anything.
âWith her, sheâs just consistent. My game plan was consistency with power and definitely moving her everywhere,â La Barre said. ââŠ She admitted sheâs a baseline player so my strategy was to move her in but I didnât do too good with that.â
Drljaca remained unnerved. She held serve in the first game of the third set, and broke La Barre to go up 2-0; LaBarre broke Drljaca to make it 2-1, but it wasnât with the same type of shots she hit in her first-set win.
âIt was obvious Jenna was in a funk; she was hitting balls off the frame and hitting shots she didnât normally hit,â Brocato said. âI didnât want that to affect Aleksâ outlook on the whole match. You can let down sometimes when you see your opponent losing it and one of the things I told Aleks was you need to be a shark in the water, see blood and go attack her.â
Drljaca has a killer attitude, but she keeps it bottled within. Her biggest showing of emotion was the occasional fist pump following a winner or when she closed out a game with a big shot.
Four games away from a title, Drljaca didnât get herself worked up. She played the game she was familiar with and won all four.
âI do think; I just donât try to over-analyze,â said Drljaca, who became the first East Greenwich player to win the singles championship. âI just play my game and thatâs hitting on the baseline and giving it my all. Thatâs it.â
âI knew she was going to win this match,â Brocato said. âI had so much confidence in her.â
Confidence is something Drljaca is starting to have. When she steps on the court she believes not only that she can win, but she should win.
Itâs a different type of determination than sheâs shown in the past and itâs why, barring some freshman phenom coming through the ranks, she should win her second title next fall.
And while she wouldnât be as outrageous as the 2011 champ Zangari, who guaranteed her victory over La Barre last fall, Drljaca knows she can make it two in a row.
âI really want to win this again,â she said, âbecause itâs a great feeling.â