Momentum is a fickle, mysterious, unseen force that, without warning, can steer a tennis match one way or the other. In one instance, momentum can be a player’s best friend. Then, on a whim, it suddenly change sides and becomes that player’s enemy.
Like the wind, which there was plenty of Friday at Shoreham-Wading River High School for the Suffolk County girls tennis individual championships, momentum made a difference. That impact was seen in the quarterfinal match between Natalie Kopala of Southold/Greenport and Maria Perez of Middle Country.
The early momentum fell in Kopala’s favor as the junior won five of the first six games. But Perez turned the tables in a big way, taking 12 of the next 13 games — including 10 straight — to help send the freshman onto a three-set victory, 3-6, 6-0, 6-4.
Kopala looked as if she had managed to break out of her funk by winning four of five games during the third set. She had pulled to within 4-3 and 5-3 of Perez, but was unable to overtake her.
“I just had good momentum and I really felt like I was going to pull through,” Kopala (13-5) said. “In the third set, I was just trying, fighting to get back in. I felt like it wasn’t enough.”
So, how big is this momentum thing?
“Really big,” Kopala said after the 1-hour, 24-minute drama played out. “You need it to win the match.”
Kopala surely looked to have made a friend of momentum the day before, when she won her first two tournament matches in impressive fashion. She dispatched Chelsea Carino of Walt Whitman, 6-2, 6-0, and fifth-seeded Mary Madigan of Sayville, 6-4, 6-2.
“She wasn’t missing shots yesterday,” her coach, Mike Carver, said. “She only had one or two unforced errors all of yesterday, and today, unfortunately, I don’t want to count.”
If he did count Kopala’s unforced errors from Friday’s match, he would have reached 25, which were 14 more than Perez committed. The left-handed Perez was also quite a retriever, returning ball after ball and patiently waiting Kopala out on long rallies.
“I just had to secure the win by staying confident,” said Perez, who had upset No. 4 Andriana Zaphiris of Hauppauge the day before and was 16-1 after her defeat of Kopala. “I think I felt relieved almost, but I felt like I learned something here, too — to stay confident, basically. That’s like the lesson I learned.”
Perez’ comeback actually began in the first set. Although she lost the set, she had won two of the last three games of that set.
“She never gives up on a point, and she’s very smart,” Middle Country coach Michael Steinberg said. “She knows where to put the ball on the court. So, she may not be the most powerful person, but she’s tactical. She puts it where she wants.”
Kopala, outscored by 40-11 during that 10-game stretch while she searched for a solution, said her major issue “was definitely having a lot of unforced errors, and she just kept hitting consistently, and I just started going for it, and it wasn’t working out.”
Referring to that 10-game swing, Carver said “that’s a lot of games to make up, but she hung in there. I’m proud of her.”
Kopala has plenty to be proud about. As Section XI sports coordinator Mark Mensch announced to all of the quarterfinalists, “This round is a big deal.”
For the third straight year, Kopala earned all-county status. She fell one win short of all-state. Carver said he couldn’t recall the last time a Southold girl had reached the county quarterfinals.
Asked what makes Kopala a good player, Carver said: “She’s a hard worker and she keeps her cool and her demeanor and she’s just very consistent. She has a very strong, overpowering forehand and I’m glad it’s only a couple of months away before we start another season again. Natalie’s going to be ready to go.”
Carver said, “Today it just wasn’t in the cards.” Then he looked at Kopala and said, “Either way you look at it, Nat, you’re one of the top eight players in the county.”
Not even a momentum swing could take that away from her.