One by one the courts at Smithtown East High School emptied out. The doubles championship and consolation matches. The singles consolation match. Even a practice by the Smithtown tennis team started and finished.
All that remained were two players on the northwest court slugging it out for the Section XI singles title Monday afternoon.
Fittingly, the match between the top two players in Suffolk County went an exhausting three sets. Shoreham-Wading River junior Aimee Manfredo already had punched her ticket to the state tournament and had her eyes set on a county title when she rolled to a 6-1 victory in the first set against Half Hollow Hills West senior Zenat Rashidzada.
But after taking 3-2 lead in the second set, Rashidzada never looked back to come from behind and defeat a tiring Manfredo, 6-3, 6-2 and claim her first singles title. Rashidzada was a finalist in the county tournament last year.
Manfredo played brilliantly in the first set, using her speed to send Rashidzada scrambling across the court. She placed her serve where she needed and rarely made unforced errors.
By the second and third sets, Manfredo said she was having trouble getting to balls she had been in the first set.
“And I felt like I wasn’t making my shots like I was in the first set,” she said.
It was the first loss for Manfredo this season after 17 straight victories landed her a spot in the county finals. It was also the first match Manfredo played this season that extended to three sets.
“Every match is a learning experience,” said Shoreham coach Debbie Lutjen. “She was on fire that first set. So you have to learn, how do I maintain that focus and stay in that zone that she was in.”
Manfredo became the first Shoreham tennis player to earn a trip to the state tournament since Jennifer LoRusso in 2000 (LoRusso is also the last Shoreham county champion after winning as a junior in 1999). She did so by defeating Eastport-South Manor seventh-grader Jackie Bukzin in the semifinals, 6-4, 6-2. It was a rematch of the Division IV final from last week, which Manfredo also won in two sets.
Manfredo said the wind was much less of a factor in the semifinals compared to when she faced Bukzin in the division finals.
“The first set was tight like I thought it was going to be,” she said. “But then I kind of pulled ahead in the second set and I felt really good.”
While the first two rounds were supposed to be completed Saturday, Manfredo was forced to play the second set of her quarterfinal match Monday as well. Her match against Sara Dionisio of Longwood couldn’t be completed Saturday due to darkness, so the two resumed the action Monday before the semifinals.
In the end, Manfredo played six sets of tennis, all of which were competitive.
Manfredo did her best to prepare for the long day by eating PowerBars and drinking plenty of water.
Manfredo and Rashidzada got a break after the second set. Manfredo said her focus was on staying positive and making her shots. “Not try to make it too easy for her to win, even though I was really tired,” she said.
Manfredo started the third set with the serve, which had been to her advantage most of the match. The two went back-and-forth in what was one of the hardest earned points of the match. Rashidzada finally got the point to take the pivotal early lead in the decisive set.
Manfredo bounced back to win the next point and tie the match. But Rashidzada responded with two quick points to gain the momentum back.
“Aimee has the game,” Lutjen said. “She has the strokes. She’s a great player. She just has to learn to stay positive and stay focused.”
It’s been a steady progression each season for Manfredo, who began her varsity career as a seventh grader. As a freshman she lost in the quarterfinals of the division tournament. Last season she won her first division title before losing in the quarterfinals of the county tournament.
Now, she’s headed to states.
“Aimee met her goals,” Lutjen said. “She wanted to go to the state tournament and she did accomplish that.”
Manfredo’s loss in the quarterfinals last year was also against Rashidzada. In that match Rashidzada won 6-3, 7-5.
Manfredo will have a bit of a break before the state tournament. The team playoffs begin Tuesday and runs through Oct. 30, which is the Long Island championship.
The individual state tournament begins Nov. 4. at the Tri-City Tennis Center in Latham.
“I want to have fun and I also want to win a match,” Manfredo said. “I’ve never been to states before so I don’t really know what it’s like.”
She’ll find out soon enough.