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Q&A: Michael Zheng New York Open Hitting Partner

New Jersey’s nationally ranked junior and USTA 16s indoors champion Michael Zheng served as a New York Open hitting partner for several ATP players in February and shared memories and insights about his on court encounters during his week as part of the professional circuit…

Question: How did you get the chance to hit with pros at New York Open earlier this year?

Michael Zheng: One of my old coaches Jay Devashetty (USTA player development national coach) sent a text to my dad asking me that the New York Open was looking for a couple of top juniors to be a hitting partner at the New York Open. So that’s how I got the opportunity. (Michael trained at USTA player development feeder program, National Tennis Center East at Flushing Meadows, NY for two and a half years from age 10-12 1/2, taking public transportation three times a week).

Question: What do you remember about the first day at the tournament held at Nassau Coliseum on Long Island?

Michael Zheng: The first day was tough. I hit with a couple of players, a great doubles player Frederik Nielsen (2012 Wimbledon doubles champion with Jonathan Marray) which really caught my eye. His volleys were really, really solid. The guy didn’t miss a single volley. And that’s what really stood out for me. The guy was so intense. Really intense.

Question: Do you feel that you were able to adapt to that world class pro level? Because you also played Stefan Kozlov a few months earlier in the finals of the New York Open wildcard qualifier (lost 61 76)?

Michael Zheng: When I played Kozlov – I think he was good, he was really solid but his ball didn’t have that much pace. So he wasn’t hitting that hard. But when I was hitting at New York Open, they were hitting at another level than Kozlov. A little bit harder, maybe five to ten miles (an hour) harder than Kozlov. It was an eye opener.

Question: Were any of the players helpful to you? Or was it all business?

Michael Zheng: For the most part it was business. I was mainly just warming them up, a lot of cross courts, just a lot of hitting. Mainly they just warmed up and played a few points, all business [smiles].

Question: Who were some of the guys you hit with besides Nielsen?

Michael Zheng: I hit with (Guillermo) Garcia-Lopez, (John) Isner, (Ivo) Karlovic, Jason Jung and Danilo Petrovic.

Question: Which player of them all impressed you the most with his skills?

Michael Zheng: Skills… …I would say Nielsen. Frederik was not the best singles player but in terms of doubles, his volleys just stood out to me. And his return was so good.

Question: Did you ask him to give you any volley advice?

Michael Zheng: No. he didn’t. I regret that though. He’s just very, very solid. I think he’s just well-practiced. Just too solid. And Isner’s second serve was also unbelievable. I was just like, over my head, over my racquet when I tried to reach for it. Unbelievable.

Question: Which player from the baseline impressed you the most?

Michael Zheng: Baseliner…I want to say Karlovic actually impressed me the most. I was really surprised. When I watch him on TV, he’s not the type of guy to rally but I think I was losing from the baseline. His forehand was huge. And his backhand slice was dirty. He was so good, better than I thought.

Question: What would you say was the highlight of the overall experience of being a New York Open hitting partner?

Michael Zheng: It was Isner. Just a top 20 player, another level. Very professional. He was super nice. His coach (David MacPherson) was super nice. He gave some tips. We talked a little bit about going to college. I think that was the highlight.

Question: Isner gave you some tips?

Michael Zheng: He told me I was good. He didn’t want me to go to Harvard (Michael is considering Harvard, Stanford, among other university options in 2022) because, I don’t know, he’s not enemies with James Blake, just like, banter. He didn’t want me to go to Harvard. Blake went to Harvard. He wanted me to go to Georgia (Isner’s alma mater). He was talking about the coach. I don’t know if it was advice, persay. It was just fun talking like friendly chatter.

Question: Would you say the overall experience made you a better player? How did you play after it?

Michael Zheng: I struggled [smiles] the next two weeks because of that. I was in a slump. I had to raise my intensity to hit with them. I would try to be at the same intensity but it wasn’t the same. I was missing a lot more.

(Note: Kyle Edmund won the 2020 New York Open finals final 75, 61 vs. Andreas Seppi and Dominic Inglot and Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi won the doubles title against Steve Johnson and Reilly Opelka 76 (5), 76 (6).)

Guillermo Garcia-Lopez with Michael Zheng.

Ivo Karlovic.

(Photos by Joe Zheng.)

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  • Scoop Malinowski · May 11, 2020 at 6:40 pm

    Some notes about Michael’s dedication to tennis. 3 days per week from Montville NJ to Flushing 530-830. First year he carpooled with another kid in Ridgewood NJ (hired driver split cost). After one year the other kid quit the program. For a year and half Michael took the bus from Wayne NJ to Port Authority and then 7 train to Flushing and back at night.
    Summers were more difficult. The program was at Cunningham Park and it started at 8 or 830 am, so 4 days a week he had to wake up at 530 and switch subway and bus multiple times. Did that for two summers. This is extraordinary dedication, perseverance, focus, drive and love for playing and improving at tennis. I have never heard of another player dedicating so much time and effort to tennis though there surely are other examples. Jon King could probably elaborate on this.

  • Frank · May 12, 2020 at 9:01 am

    great stuff dawg

  • Jon King · May 12, 2020 at 10:07 am

    Love it Scoop, sounds like a great young man. I agree, his dedication to his tennis is hard to beat!

  • Scoop Malinowski · May 12, 2020 at 10:39 am

    Jon, Michael’s dedication and commitment to tennis is the best part of the whole feature though the intention was to focus on how the pros treated him and how they prepared with him. But the highlight of the feature is learning about this kid’s extraordinary desire, drive, dedication and focus to become a better player. He is an example and inspiration for anybody and everybody.

  • Jg · May 12, 2020 at 7:52 pm

    So he says Kozlov hits 5 to 10 mph slower than the guys he hit with at the tournament, I’ve seen the same thing when watching kozlov, wondering why he hasn’t amped it up a bit, I think he has another 5 mph in him.

  • Scoop Malinowski · May 12, 2020 at 8:58 pm

    Jg, I think when Kozlov does try to hit harder, he misses more, it’s just not in his comfort zone. Maybe doing boxing training and hitting mitts and heavy bag and chopping wood would give him more hitting power and make him stronger. Throwing punches at full intensity for as long as possible. We all have a limit to how hard we want to hit and feel we can hit consistently and when under pressure.

  • Matty · May 13, 2020 at 4:39 am

    Such a great feature. I can’t think of another publication that could cover this in so much depth. Vivid! Thanks.

  • Scoop Malinowski · May 13, 2020 at 7:10 am

    Thanks Matty. The Kid delivered the insights and details like a pro. Intelligent and articulate. Hitting partners of pros are a strong source of inside info. I will continue in future to tap into this source and share here.

  • Mei · May 13, 2020 at 4:34 pm

    Love it Scoop! Michael loves tennis all the time. He is so passionate and devoted on it. The two and a half years in national feeder program really transformed him. Hitting with the real pros really opened up his eyes and inspired him. We all like Isner. Love the young man Michael!

  • Scoop Malinowski · May 13, 2020 at 6:40 pm

    Mei, thank you. Greatness always rubs off in some way and no doubt Michael picked up some of it in this special experience. He looked like a pro with his friends on the practice to court this past weekend. Isner is a class act. Amazing career. I saw his first pro event as a WC in the Legg Mason, first time I ever saw him, and he won four matches in third set tiebreakers to reach the final, he lost to Roddick. That was the beginning. Welcome to the site Mei.



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