A 14-year-old from El Cerrito, Andrew Gu, was unseeded and, for the most part, unknown in early May as he headed into the championship tournament for high school tennis in the large swath of California stretching from Fremont to Eureka.
He was competing for the singles title against the top players in the region, known officially as the North Coast Section, or NCS. The NCS represents 169 schools, making it the third largest of 10 regions in the state. He was entered in Division I, home of the bigger schools, in contrast to Division II for the smaller schools.
“I felt a little nervous for NCS," said Gu, who was a freshman at Albany High School at the time. "It was my first time there and it was a big tournament. “No one knew me, though, so there was no pressure.”
But the days of Gu being a nobody in the high school tennis world are over.
He powered his way through the tournament without dropping a single set in his four matches. With 6-1 and 6-2 wins in the finals, Gu earned the NCS Singles title and the East Bay Boys Tennis Player of the Year award.
Winning the section title is Gu’s biggest tennis achievement to date, and the journey to reach this point has spanned most of his life.
Gu, who has lived in El Cerrito all his life and attended as a child, was only 3 years old the first time his father took him to the tennis courts.
He still remembers his first few times playing tennis, and realizing that it was a sport he wanted to pursue.
“When I started playing, I just enjoyed the game so much—it became my favorite thing to do,” Gu said.
When Gu’s father, James, was growing up, he played competitive ping-pong at the national level in China.
It was only much later in life that James decided to teach himself tennis as well, and it was at that point that he also began teaching his son.
For many years, Gu and his father continued training and playing together on the courts behind Albany High, working hard to develop the fundamentals of his game. Gu remembers how practices with his father changed over the years from just learning to hit the ball cleanly over the net to perfecting his serve.
“Every time when he practices, I always see an improvement,” his father said.
At age 8, Gu played in his first United States Tennis Association novice tournament. The USTA regulates and oversees competitive tennis in the United States, and becoming a USTA member allows players to compete in tournaments and be ranked.
After this first tournament, it was clear that tennis was becoming Gu’s serious focus, so he began training with a professional coach and attending more competitions, cheered on by both his mother and father.
For the last two years, Gu has trained under Morgan Shepherd, a former coach at Boise State University.
Shepherd remembers being surprised by Gu’s skill at their first practice, when the then 12-year-old kept up a rally for almost 10 minutes. Since then, Gu has made huge strides in his game, developing a unique and versatile approach, Shepherd said.
“He can figure out what the opponent doesn’t like,” Shepherd said. “At the same time, he really plays an aggressive game style that is really his own.”
Helping Gu’s progress in tennis has been his physical development. Gu said he has grown four inches in just the last six months, and Shepherd believes Gu’s improvements in speed, strength and size have paid big dividends.
“Once you have the fundamentals and the experience, athleticism means so much at that point,” Shepherd said.
According to Gu, more significant than the changes in his height have been the improvements in his mental toughness.
“My mental game is my first most important thing, because without your mental [game] in tennis, you just crumble in the first set,” he said.
Gu also underwent a huge transition this spring when he decided to play for Albany High’s team.
In high school and college, tennis is played as a team sport. When two schools compete, the results of six singles matches and three doubles matches decide which school wins.
Approaching tennis as a team sport was unfamiliar territory for Gu, who was only familiar with playing as an individual in tournaments. But he said he came to enjoy it, and he is looking forward to next year's team.
“I actually enjoyed that more, because you get to support your teammates,” he said. “And with your whole team there watching you, you have to play your best for them.”
Helping the transition was the fact that Gu was playing on the courts where he first started tennis with his father.
“It reminds me of the past, and it feels like it’s really my home court,” he said.
During the regular season, Gu worked his way up to the No. 1 singles spot on Albany’s team. Albany, a member school of the Bay Shore Athletic League (BSAL), did not advance as a team in BSAL post-season play.
But as an individual, Gu won the BSAL Singles Tournament, earning himself a spot in the NCS Singles Tournament. Because Albany has an enrollment greater than 1250, Gu competed in Division I.
Going up against the top players from the North Coast Section, many of them upperclassmen, was not a completely new experience for Gu.
Although only 14, he elects to play in many 16-year-old USTA tournaments, including the recent NorCal 16 Juniors Sectional Championships, where he placed third in doubles.
Not only is he accustomed to competing against older players, he relishes in it.
“You have to enjoy the challenge. If you don’t, there’s no point in playing,” he said. “If you show you want to win, people are going to respect that.”
Currently, Gu is ranked 19th in Northern California and 37th in the nation among 14-year-old boys. In the 16-year-olds bracket, he ranks 31st in Northern California.
He has yet to win a major USTA juniors tournament, having been forced to drop out of singles play in the NorCal 16s Sectional Championship last month due to an ankle injury.
But with a summer full of training and tournaments, in locations as far as Texas, he is set on improving his rank and skills so that when he graduates from high school he can play collegiate tennis at a top school.
The bliss of winning NCS in May may be fading, but the boost in confidence the title gave Gu has not yet disappeared.
“It changed me a lot,” he said. “I know that if I played like this in NCS, then I can accomplish so many things in my tennis career.”