Kevin Li

The lost 2020 season robbed Urbana’s Kevin Li, shown last year, a chance to try for a rare feat — winning four Frederick County No. 1 singles titles.

Urbana junior Kevin Li relished the chance to win a Frederick County boys singles title for the third straight year.

And his senior teammate, senior Anish Babu, looked forward to being a team captain and showcasing improvements he made as a doubles player during his stellar career with the Hawks.

Neither got to do those things when the spring sports season got canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, and both mentioned yet another lost opportunity.

They hoped to help the Hawks bounce back from their first loss in years, coming to North Hagerstown in the final match of the 2019 regular-season, a setback that snapped Urbana’s 83-match win streak.

“I felt like we had such a good team,” Li said. “As our team did lose our final game last year, I was hoping that we could back even stronger this year. But unfortunately, that got taken away from us.”

At least Li will have a chance to help the Hawks go for a belated bounce-back win next year. Babu has no such option.

“So we’re technically on a one-game losing streak,” he said. “We were hoping to come back this year and win some more matches, but it happens.”

It’s impossible to say how the Hawks would’ve fared this season, but Li and Babu are two of the reasons the team’s done so well over the previous couple seasons.

When Babu arrived at Urbana as a freshman, he said the tennis team took him in. As usual, the Hawks were coming off an undefeated season, but they had lost key players. Playing most of the season at No. 3 doubles, Babu helped the Hawks put up another perfect season.

“I tried my hardest,” he said. “I don’t know, by luck or skill, I made it onto the lineup my freshman year, and I kept improving.”

Urbana coach Jon Walton said Babu’s improvement over the years could not have been more steady, starting from his first career match.

“No drop, no periods of dip,” Walton said. “If you think of every season as having three parts, each part being an act, so he had nine in the three seasons, in each of the nine acts he was a better player than the act before. So from one to nine, he took nine steps forward.”

Babu excelled at No. 2 doubles during what turned out be his final two seasons. And all three years, he switched to mixed doubles for the postseason, reaching the state tournament his final two seasons.

As a sophomore, he and Jessica Wu fell in the first round of the states to a team from Walter Johnson that went on to win the title. And last season, he and Aaliya Husain reached the state semifinals, which turned out to be Babu’s final high school match.

“My returns didn’t feel the best, and I thought that was what lost us that match,” Babu said. “So I worked really hard this summer to improve it. And now we’ll never know what could’ve happened.”

This year, he was slated to play No. 1 doubles and planned to take his duties as a team captain seriously. The health crisis quashed all of those plans, but Babu was philosophical about the situation.

“I had a lot of fun over the past three years, so I think that definitely helped with it,” he said. “It would’ve been fun to have a senior season, definitely, but I’m glad to look back on the memories of such a great team and great coach.”

Babu plans to attend the University of Maryland, where he’ll study computer science and play club tennis.

As for Li, he should get to play one more season for the Hawks. Still, the lost 2020 season robbed him a chance to try for a rare feat — winning four Frederick County No. 1 singles titles.

The last player to accomplish that feat was Thomas Johnson’s Luke Grimshaw (who occasionally hits with Urbana players) in 1997.

“I think Kevin had a legitimate shot to win four county titles,” Walton said. “And so he won’t have that opportunity by fate as opposed to performance, which is kind of sad.”

Walton figured Li has grown about five or six inches since winning his first county crown. And Aside from a larger physical presence, Li can always lean on a mentality that allows him to seamlessly make mid-match adjustments.

“Most guys, what they’ll do is try to ruthlessly try to attack someone’s weakness,” Walton said. “Then if that doesn’t work or the guy’s able to hang in with the weakness, they kind of don’t know what to do.

“And the cool thing about Kevin is that he can put like two or three gameplans together, and he can adjust to whatever it is that match the guy is not doing well,” he said.

Before this season, Li had been honing his game with a personal coach. But since the pandemic lockdown, he’s hit with his father, Steve, to keep sharp.

He hoped to work at the TennisPlex in Germantown this summer, coaching kids at the place where he learned to play, and figured he’d compete in Frederick tournaments put on by Grimshaw.

He still hopes to do those things. And while Li, Babu and the rest of the Hawks didn’t get a chance to start another winning streak, Walton figured they could take away something from this lost season.

“Once you get past the disappointment, the hardships and the personal take, it’s like what are you going to do down the road, what have you learned from the fact that this was taken from you, and what is that going to lead to in terms of how you live your life and how you approach things?” he said.

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