PAWTUCKET – Saturday’s RIIL Girls Tennis Singles Championship was won before East Greenwich’s 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, she’s now a state champion after Saturday’s 4-6, 6-2, 6-1 win over Smithfield's Jenna LaBarre.
“The past couple of years I’ve always doubted myself and I think that’s why I haven’t gotten this far before,” said Drljaca, who failed to make it past the quarterfinals her freshman and sophomore seasons. “It’s something I’ve had to work on, my mental game, and just being confident knowing I am No. 1. I’m the No. 1 seed because of my game and because I am being confident in myself.”
“She had some things she needed to work on and she did that,” EG coach Marc Brocato said. “She was a similar player freshman and sophomore year, but this transformation from sophomore to junior year has been magnanimous. It’s been a tremendous climb.”
Saturday’s win showed how much she’s changed.
The opening set didn’t go poorly for Drljaca, but La Barre – who lost to North Kingstown’s Hannah Zangari in the final last season – 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.
“With her, she’s just consistent. My game plan was consistency with power and definitely moving her everywhere,” La Barre said. “… She admitted she’s a baseline player so my strategy was to move her in but I didn’t do too good with that.”
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 wasn’t with the same type of shots she hit in her first-set win.
“It was obvious Jenna was in a funk; she was hitting balls off the frame and hitting shots she didn’t normally hit,” Brocato said. “I didn’t want that to affect Aleks’ 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.”
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 didn’t get herself worked up. She played the game she was familiar with and won all four.
“I do think; I just don’t try to over-analyze,” said Drljaca, who became the first East Greenwich player to win the singles championship. “I just play my game and that’s hitting on the baseline and giving it my all. That’s it.”
“I knew she was going to win this match,” Brocato said. “I had so much confidence in her.”
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.
It’s a different type of determination than she’s shown in the past and it’s why, barring some freshman phenom coming through the ranks, she should win her second title next fall.
And while she wouldn’t 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.
“I really want to win this again,” she said, “because it’s a great feeling.”