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Tennis: Lambert girls sweep past Alpharetta, into state championship
Lambert's No. 2 doubles Riley Abellana, left, and Sydney Winters celebrate Thursday during the Longhorns' 3-0 win against Alpharetta in the Class 7A Final Four. - photo by David Roberts

There isn't much Nina Zhao doesn't know about her doubles partner, Katie Lewis.

She knows all about Lewis' superstitions on the tennis court, as well as how many tennis balls Lewis wants and when it's OK to offer a high-five.

For instance, after Lewis and Zhao won their No. 1 doubles match to send Lambert's girls tennis team past Alpharetta and into the Class 7A state championship match, that was the perfect time for a high-five.

"I've gotten so much closer to Nina," Lewis said. "It's been so great to be close to her on and off the court. I played doubles my two years, so playing with Nina this year was really fun and something new. I think we go good together."

The Longhorns' tandem of Lewis and Zhao, along with singles victories from Brooke Despriet and Emily Baek, helped deliver a 3-0 victory over the Raiders.

"They're still learning to play in these moments," Lambert coach Stephen Pate said. "We told them before the match, 'Go attack. Play hard, play the right way and we'll see what happens.' You could see their confidence grow as the match went on. It's the state semifinals — it's OK to be nervous in the state semifinals. So, as they got in the rhythm of the match, they really started taking control."

Lewis and Zhao's No. 1 doubles match challenged the pair initially after dropping the first set 3-6.

However, the two rallied to take the second set 6-3, and when Alpharetta's return off Zhao's serve carried across the baseline to give Lambert a 6-4 win in the third set, Lambert's players erupted in celebration.

"I think just not giving up," Zhao said of the pair's ability to keep their focus. "We really fought for the last set, especially after the first set. Just having the motivation to keep going."

Lewis' secret to retaining her composure?

"My secret was Nina, for sure," Lewis said. "I don't know, we really wanted to just fight and win for the team. We saw that when [Emily Baek] won, and then we won the second set, we said, 'OK, we have to win this third set.'"

Lambert dominated singles play thanks to Brooke Despriet's 6-2, 6-4 win in No. 1 singles and Emily Baek's 6-0, 6-1 victory in No. 2 singles.

Despriet, a senior, and Baek, a freshman, have been a formidable one-two punch for Lambert this season.

"It helps the girls and it helps everybody to know that when you go out there, you have a fighting chance at one and two singles," Pate said. "When you play at this level, you've got to have that. You've got to have those studs at the top. They both train together, they both work together, they're big fans of each other. They're cheering each other on, and you'll see them compete with each other when they're out on the court. The girls know they can count on them, which is a great feeling."

Riley Abellana and Sydney Winters were closing in on a victory in No. 2 doubles when Lewis and Zhao won their match. Abellana and Winters led the second set 5-2 after a 7-6 win in the first set.

Pate said Abellana and Winters began playing together in the middle of the season after one of Lambert's players had to quarantine.

"It just clicked, honestly, from the beginning," he said. "It just clicked and they've been a force at two doubles."

Lewis and Zhao, both seniors, were part of Lambert's state championship team in 2019, but had not played doubles together until the start of this season. 

Both agree the two of them go well together.

"I think so," Zhao said. "Definitely some adjusting for little things, but I think we're good."

Lambert will face the West Forsyth/Walton winner May 8 at the Rome Tennis Center at Berry College in the Class 7A state championship.

- photo by David Roberts