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Tennis: South boys lean on team play to reach state finals
South Forsyth's Sahil Balhara hits a forehand during a doubles match against Lambert on March 15, 2018 at Sharon Springs Park. - photo by Brian Paglia

The distinction between an individual and team sport can become heavily blurred in high school tennis. Each of a team's lines competes in its own individual match, but with all those matches going on at once, the energy from one, just a court or two over, can easily influence the other. 

That's exactly what the South Forsyth boys team wants. 

The War Eagles, who finished third in this year's Region 5-7A tournament, have now run all the way to the state finals, the first time the program has ever done that. They're set to play Walton on Saturday afternoon at the Rome Tennis Center at Berry College. 

South knows exactly what its strength is: Doubles. The War Eagles haven't had to finish five matches in any of their state tournament matchups so far, and their two doubles lines haven't lost yet. South faced Lambert, whom they had lost to twice before, in the state semifinals: The War Eagles were missing two doubles players in the first loss of the year, back on March 15, but with full lines last Friday, they topped the Longhorns 3-1. 

"It just feels like you don't have that much pressure on yourself during your match," South No. 1 singles player Will Fullett said of the team's doubles success. "Because even if you don't do too well, then you can just wipe the slate clean and cheer on everyone else."

Fullett, a sophomore, lost in the semifinals to the Longhorns' Jack Sorel, a Kennesaw State signee, but Fullett's brother, Jack, teamed with sophomore Kausik Murugan to win No. 1 doubles. In fact, both of the team's senior captains – Jack Fullett and Sahil Balhara – are teamed up with sophomores in doubles pairs. Balhara, alongside Vincent Wu, won 6-2, 6-1 in the third meeting with Lambert. 

"It's not as glamorous as a singles position, but they realize that that's where they can help the team the most," South head coach Jason Steele said of Fullett and Balhara, who have both played singles in the past. "They've adapted well. They kind of realized that by putting them down in the doubles, we can get two wins out of them."

The strategy of putting those two players in doubles has given South a boost, as has the surprise addition of freshman Rishil Kondapaneni at No. 2 singles. Kondapaneni won his line in the semifinal victory over Lambert, and he did the same in the War Eagles' regular season win over Milton, the region champion. 

Steele is looking at the state championship matchup with Walton as a "50-50" for the War Eagles. As usual, he has confidence in South's doubles lines, leaving it to one of the singles to get the War Eagles to three match wins. South also beat Lassiter, who topped the Raiders in the Region 4-7A finals, in the state quarterfinals.

And while South has its lines effectively set, Steele doesn't think the team has finished improving. He complimented even the players who don't occupy a line, emphasizing their role in practice of making sure that the others have to play hard. 

"Some of these other teams, they plateau," Steele said. "But we've gotten better every week."