COLLEGE PARK – Football was Evan Zhu’s first obsession. Born in Ann Arbor, Mich., he watched every University of Michigan game on TV with his father, a graduate of the school.
At just three-years-old, Evan was able to throw a perfect spiral, emulating the Big Blue quarterbacks he admired on the field.
But his parents – Yongdong Zhu and Xiaohui “Julie” You – feared the contact sport would be too dangerous for their son. They introduced him to tennis at age 8, which their daughter, Amy, had just started playing.
The decision has paid dividends, as Evan, who resides in Greenbelt, is now ranked No. 1 in the nation for players 14-and-under and No. 2 in the Mid-Atlantic for players 16-and-under.
It did not take long for Evan, 14, a naturally gifted athlete who excelled at sports like baseball and basketball at a young age, to embrace tennis.
“When I started playing, I knew I wanted to be a competitive tennis player,” he said. “I liked it right away. I just had fun doing it.”
The desire stemmed from sharing the passion with his sister, four years his senior and now a nationally-ranked player on the University of Michigan tennis team.
But the age difference has never been a factor on the court, as Evan often got the upper hand against his elder sibling.
“She gets mad when we play,” he said, laughing. “She stops playing when I start winning.”
It became evident to Evan’s father Yongdong Zhu, who emigrated from China in 1993 to earn his doctorate in analytical chemistry from the University of Michigan, that his children had talent for the game.
“Our original coach said [Evan] would be very good. He was already doing pretty well, but maybe he [could] do something more,” he said. “The coaches thought [both Amy and Evan] could be really good.”
After taking lessons and training at DuPont Country Club in Newark, Del., for a few years, Evan’s parents felt their children needed to play matches against better competition.
In 2010, they enrolled both Amy and Evan in the Junior Tennis Champions Center at the Tennis Center at College Park, a prestigious tennis and education program for elite junior players.
“The cool thing about Evan is that when he came to us he was top 10 in his section; within two years time he has become a national champion and No. 1 in the country,” his coach Kyle Bailey said. “He is probably the most improved player in our program.”
The move, however, has not come without sacrifices.
In order to defray the program’s cost, which can run as high $40,000 annually, his mother quit her job and moved to Greenbelt to volunteer as a study hall monitor at the center.
Evan’s father, a director at a pharmaceutical company, has remained in Newark and travels once a week to visit his family.
You said the separation has been difficult for her.
“My husband visits every Wednesday and occasionally on weekends, but before Amy went to college we had to travel all the time. We didn’t have time to celebrate Christmas or Thanksgiving,” You said. “But it’s worth it for us.”
The family’s devotion to his tennis career has not been lost on Evan.
“My parents supported me a lot. They back me up in everything I do,” he said.
Moving to Greenbelt also meant leaving Newark, where he had lived since he was 1.
“I moved from Delaware to Greenbelt, Md., because I wanted to train here and become a better tennis player,” he said.
Tennis has given Evan, an introvert, an outlet to express himself. The soft-spoken 14-year-old has an unassuming presence both on and off the tennis court.
“He’s always been pretty shy,” Amy said. “But with tennis he’s made new friends and it’s really helped him a lot socially.”
Evan, a thin and lanky 5-foot-9-inches, doesn’t command the presence of a top ranked player in the nation. But his work ethic and determination has made him a national champion.
He won the National Clay Court Championship in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., last July, a win that propelled his ranking to No. 1. He followed up the breakthrough victory with a finals appearance at the renowned Eddie Herr International Junior Championships in Bradenton, Fla., in November and a Mid-Atlantic Boys 16 and Under title earlier this year.
“What separates Evan is his mentality—the fact that he’s taken no shortcuts,” said Bailey, a former University of Maryland men’s tennis assistant coach. “Everyday he is consistent…he always responds well to the pressure. He never makes any excuses of why he wasn’t able to do anything.”
Evan, who idolizes 17-time Grand Slam winner Roger Federer, wants to eventually be a top professional player.
“He is really smooth on the court and it seems like he can do anything,” Evan said of the Swiss legend.
Neither of his parents played competitive tennis. His father played table tennis, basketball and soccer in his native China.
“I want him to be a professional tennis player,” Yongdong Zhu said when asked what he wants Evan to get out of his tennis training.
Evan’s mother, however, is more cautious about her son’s future career.
“My first choice is for him to go to college and play,” she said. “But if he has that passion and potential and if he really wants to turn pro, I will support him. Right now, I still want him to go to college.”
Visit the tennis center between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. and you will likely find a group of junior players practicing on the courts or lifting weights in the fitness room.
Despite the grueling schedule, which includes class time and study breaks, Evan certainly appears ready for the grinding lifestyle of a professional athlete.
After finishing a group practice that included several coaches from the center monitoring the players’ every move, Evan showed few signs of frustration or fatigue, frequently flashing his youthful smile – one that reveals braces – while listening intently to the coaches’ advice.
Bailey predicted a bright future for his star student.
“He’s got all the tools. If he believes in [becoming a professional player] and keeps working hard, I think he can do it.”