One by one, Howard County champions were crowned on a brisk Saturday morning at Wilde Lake Tennis Club.
First was Centennial's Ram Kotnana, then Howard duo Alyssa Boryachinskiy and Kailey Caroland, and minutes later Centennial's Peter Ho and Olivia Tsai and Mt. Hebron's Michael Kimack and Alex Nazaire left their respective courts donning smiles. None of the first four winners faced much adversity and captured titles with relatively quick straight-set victories.
But as each champion was awarded their trophy and the place-winners were announced over the microphone in the pavilion, all the scattered eyes of the spectators and players turned to court 7 to watch Marriotts Ridge's Veronica Cuellar and Long Reach's Snigdha Puram continue their three-set battle for the girls singles title. Kotnana and his boys singles adversary, Marriotts Ridge's Stephen Alam, grabbed chairs and centered themselves on the lawn next to one another to watch. Tsai and Ho did the same.
The hectic finals session suddenly turned into a quiet single-match spectacle surrounded by quiet whispers from the crowd, which was loudened only by the sudden bursts of applause and cheers for the two players or the occasional bus rolling down Cross Fox Lane. They were the center of attention, and the tension grew as the cool morning turned into a hot afternoon.
The only thing that slowed the pace was a pesky bee buzzing around Cuellar early in the third set. Neither Puram nor Cuellar, however, went away as quickly. Puram won the first set, Cuellar the second, and everyone watched as they split the first eight games of the third set. The championship would be decided by a late charge.
Puram broke Cuellar's serve to tie the set at four, and then she held to make it 5-4. She placed several perfect high-arcing shots over Cuellar's head and just inside the baseline down the stretch, but none were better or more important than the last one that gave her match point. She broke Cuellar one last time on the next serve and won the match, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4.
"It means so much. I've been trying for three years now and senior year I guess is my year," said Puram. "I finally got it."
Despite having three finalists fall short of winning titles, Marriotts Ridge reclaimed the County Cup by half a point over defending champions Centennial, 32 to 31.5. The Mustangs last won it in 2016.
But it was Puram's breakthrough that caught everyone's attention. The No. 2 seed finished third in the county and region as a freshman and second in each of the last two seasons. Walking off the court, someone hugged her and said, "finally!"
"I was thinking the same thing: finally," said Puram, who dropped just four games in her first three matches leading up to the final. "I've been trying for three years. That's all I could think of, finally."
While Cuellar, the No. 1 seed who won a state championship last year in girls doubles, was vocal and consistently talking to herself after points, Puram showed little to no emotion on the court. She explained afterward that her quietness was only a front for how she really felt.
"I was not calm on the inside. I can put up a calm, but I wasn't calm at all," she said. "I just think to myself that you got this, and I mouth it, but I don't voice anything."
The runner-up Eagles boys team finished undefeated during the regular season thanks in large part to Kotnana, the defending boys singles county champion. He made quick work of his first three opponents, losing just two games, and that dominance continued in the final against the hard-hitting Alam. The No. 1 seed rolled to a 6-0, 6-2 victory.
"It means a lot to me," said Kotnana, who was also last year's Howard County Times boys tennis Player of the Year. "It shows that I'm playing consistently at a top level and it shows how my hard work is paying off."
Kotnana battled in a three-set victory in last year's final against River Hill's Prateek Swamykumar. He said winning in straight sets has built his confidence while also staying fresh.
"It helps because I don't have as much fatigue going forward," he said. "It will help me a lot going forward at regionals and states and help me go further."
In girls doubles, Boryachinskiy and Caroland also ran through their bracket as the No. 1 seed, and their third straight trip to the finals culminated with their second championship. They won the title two years ago, and on Saturday they defeated Marriotts Ridge's Savana Owens and Avani Bedugu, 6-2, 6-2.
"We became really good friends on the team and we're kind of best friends, so that really helps on the court," Boryachinskiy said. "It makes us have a better time together."
"We definitely have a good dynamic on the court," Caroland said.
The top-seeded boys doubles team also won the championship. Kimack and Nazaire had a few close matches but never dropped a set and beat River Hill's Zayd Khan and Kevin Liang, 7-5, 6-3, in the final.
Kimack teamed up with Tess Weber in mixed doubles and finished second at the county tournament before making a run to the state final. Nazaire also played mixed doubles last spring and placed third at the county tournament playing with Angela Wang.
Nazaire said playing with a state finalist gives him confidence, and he said it's made easier because of how well Kimack communicates.
"You've just got to be smart. It's not about power, it's about finesse and aiming and being smart and working well with your partner and communicating, which I feel like Michael does tremendously," Nazaire said.
Kimack said their greatest strength as a team is playing at the net.
"We have to make sure that we are able to transition from going from the baseline to the net, and I think if we can do that we can easily win," he said.
Ho and Tsai were the top-seeded mixed doubles pair and proved why in the final. They were both All-County performers last spring with Ho placing second at the county and regional tournaments in boys doubles each of the last two years and Tsai winning the mixed doubles county title alongside Andy Tseng.
And while mixed doubles isn't one of the five events played during the regular season, Ho and Tsai didn't miss a beat in their first competition together and won the title, 6-2, 6-3, over River Hill's Anna Artazova and Kartik Gupta.
"It was different at first but we've played a lot of practice matches together, so we didn't find it too difficult to transition into counties and playing matches," Ho said. "[The practice time together] is really important, figuring out each other's habits and what they like and what kind of shots they like so you can work together."
"It means a lot. It's a lot of hard work throughout the season, and to build it up to this moment is a really nice moment," Tsai said.
The District V regional tournament is scheduled for May 15 and 16 at Wilde Lake Tennis Club, and the state tournament is also in Columbia on May 25 and 26.