BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - Gov. Livingston senior Alec Palumbo's back to back victories in the semifinal and championship rounds were critical must win matches that helped secure the first ever Boys Tennis Sectional Title for the Highlanders.
Palumbo, with an individual season record of 15-4 at third singles, has proven to be a technically and mentally strong tennis player defeating competition from New Providence and Scotch Plains. He also prevailed in an intense match deciding two set victory over Fort Lee in the sectional semifinal and cruised to a two set victory over Somerville for the sectional championship.
For his focus and determination to win and his role in bringing home the first ever Boys Tennis Sectional Championship to Gov. Livingston, Alec Palumbo is named Delicious Heights Highlander Athlete of the Week.
Palumbo found himself in the same situation as last year in the sectional championship playoffs against Fort Lee. Last year, he fell short in the deciding match -- this year, he found redemption and prevailed. He was down a set point in the first set and came back to win a 7-4 tie break and then won 6-3 to take the match in two sets to advance his team to the sectional championships.
"It means so much to have the opportunity to redeem myself for last year's loss against the same team under similar circumstances," said Palumbo. "I was so relieved after I won because I was not going to let this match out of my grasp."
Even after playing what Alec believes was his best tennis in last year's championship, he still lost to a powerful opponent. "This year, I just focused on the technique and was successful this time around," he said.
"Last year's loss against Fort Lee hit him hard, so to see him bounce back was great to see," said Coach Mike Smookler. He said Palumbo really locked in and put forth a dominating performance in the finals.
Going into the championship match this year, the team had no idea they could be the first team to win the title. "It's a proud accomplishment to be part of the first GL Boys Tennis team to win state sectionals. Being the first team to do it can never be taken away from us," said Palumbo.
While it was rewarding for him to win the deciding match in the semis and a match in the finals, Palumbo credits his teammates for their contribution to the championship victory. Second singles player David Schwartzman played the best tennis Palumbo has seen him play against Somerville's Max Rothschild in the finals. And first doubles team Carl Heer and Ray Li were in such a groove, said Palumbo -- their match was done much quicker than expected and proved to be the deciding match. [Heer never lost a set in three years of State Sectionals matches.]
"Coach Smookler [in his second year as head coach] only needed two years to get us to the finals back-to-back and we won the second time around," said Palumbo.
Below are comments from Alec regarding his past, present and future:
TAPinto: Did you change your approach in these important matches?
Alec: Our mindset in the last two matches were just to remove the high stakes situation and just play it out point to point. We did not want to get caught up in the tension and pressure; we definitely played looser because of our point-to-point mentality.
TAPinto: What is the strongest part of your game?
Alec: The strongest part of my game has to be my serve and volley. It's a strategy not a lot of kids do but after a year of doubles with Carl Heer and losing too many points from the baseline, the net was where I needed to be. I would approach the net almost every point when I could not out rally certain opponents, even when returning. I could trust my overhead no matter what the score was which helped. My net-game definitely saved me in a few matches this year.
TAPinto: How has your game changed?
Alec: My game has changed from last year because I would tend to absorb the pace of the rally rather than trying to overpower from the baseline. My ground-strokes were not my weapon like they were junior year so I would try and volley once I found a deep shot to hit. I managed to make my serve a weapon as well instead of a burden like it was two years ago.
TAPinto: What was the most memorable match you have played at GL?
Alec: My most memorable match I played was definitely against Seton Hall last year. I split sets against a very strong player named Brandon and we were evenly matched. -- I still think it was the best tennis I have ever played. His experience definitely edged me out in that match. -- We really left it all on the court. Even though we lost 4-1, I felt that I learned a ton from that match and was a better player afterwards especially being down that late in the 3rd set. The fight was never over.
TAPinto: What is the best coaching advice you have received from Coach Smookler?
Alec: The best advice I have gotten from Coach Smookler was to to employ what became a big part of my game: I would hit a drop shot slice and then approach the net for a put-away volley. It worked on players that were much better than me stroke-wise. He really knows what players hate.
TAPinto: Who inspires you the most?
Alec: My biggest inspiration was Andy Roddick. His style of play got me into the sport of tennis and I had the privilege of playing with him and meeting him. A very humble and gifted athlete (US Open champion). Also my dad has spent more hours than I could count practicing with me, sometimes twice a day. He really pushed me to work hard.
TAPinto: Did you train all year long for tennis? How do you train in the off season?
Alec: Usually the seniors and I (Carl Heer, Harrison Joseph) and alumni Alex Woo and Ethan Fong would hit around or some other teammates and I would play sets in the summer and early fall. Off the court we would hang out sometimes too, we have a lot of fun.
TAPinto: What is your favorite thing about GL?
Alec: My favorite thing about GL is that we are a gritty team. The match or game is never over until the final score is decided. I have seen some insanely driven comebacks not just from tennis at our school.
TAPinto: How do you enjoy your time while not at school or playing tennis?
Alec: I am a filmmaker so I make short films with my friends and sometimes other local actors. I have been able to work with some extremely generous and talented people in the film industry and it's a ton of fun making short action films (5 Dice Productions). My friends and I also spend a lot of time hanging out too, we are a very close group.
TAPinto: Where are you going to college and what are you studying?
Alec: I am going to Montclair State University and I am studying Directing to further my directing career. I am super excited to meet new friends and seize any opportunities that come my way. And hopefully there's a few tennis courts nearby...
Delicious Heights Highlander Athlete of the Week is sponsored by Delicious Heights, a family restaurant with three locations; Berkeley Heights, Bedminster and Basking Ridge, where it is part of the Basking Ridge County Club operating a public restaurant with outdoor dining, and acting as the banquet caterer, boasting a facility with panoramic views of the sprawling golf course. Visit our website, www.deliciousheights.com for weekly specials including Happy Hour specials from 3-6pm and daily featured dinner and lunch specials. Delicious Heights....where our only limitations are yours!