As his team closed in on a trip to the FCIAC championship, Staples' Jake Hirschberg was deep into the second set of an emotionally charged top singles match.
Relentlessly chasing down returns from sideline to sideline as the temperature soared into the 80s Tuesday, Hirschberg followed most of his points with a fist pump, while occasionally uttering words of encouragement to himself.
Shortly after the match -- suspended after two sets, 6-4, 4-6, once Staples clinched its 4-1 win over Ridgefield -- Hirschberg emerged from a team huddle, noticeably exhausted yet relieved.
"This was probably the biggest match that I've played in at Staples," the senior remarked. "It meant everything to me, just to get back to another FCIAC final."
Hirschberg's resume shows that he's no stranger to big matches. Thursday's contest against rival Greenwich will mark Staples' fourth straight appearance in the conference final, the first three of which ended in defeat.
Yet for Hirschberg, his grind-it-out semifinal match with Ridgefield's Bryson Mosley meant a bit more in a year that's been rewarding but challenging.
After reaching the LL state quarterfinals in singles last year as the No. 3 seed, Hirschberg has battled a back injury this year. He was the Wreckers' surefire No. 1 entering the year, but the injury limited him to just six singles matches during the regular season, going 3-3.
"It's definitely been frustrating," he said last week. "I had probably my best season last year, and I wanted to come out and have a similar season this year."
The injury has limited his conditioning -- he's practiced on average once a week throughout the season -- and has hampered his serve. In most matches, Hirschberg has been forced to serve either sidearm or underhand, rather than the conventional overhand style. That's often left him at a disadvantage, especially against the FCIAC's more skilled singles players.
"It just makes everything a lot tougher and the points longer," Hirschberg said. "I have to try to grind through every point. I don't get the free points someone would get after hitting a big serve."
Hirschberg's first sign of trouble arrived two months ago when he felt tightness in both his back and hamstring after running. His back pain was originally believed to be caused by a hamstring strain. But after his leg improved and his back didn't, he saw two doctors and got conflicting diagnoses.
"One doctor who looked at it said I did have a stress fracture. Another doctor who looked at it said I didn't," Hirschberg said. "It wasn't really conclusive on whether I had it or not until I went to this third doctor, who said I didn't."
A stress fracture was finally ruled out two weeks ago, Hirschberg said, during a visit to the New York Hospital for Special Surgery. Hirschberg was given a more concrete diagnosis that essentially said his back joints near his spine were getting worn down because of the way he was arching his back while serving.
"The doctor said what we were doing was exactly what he could do," Staples coach Kris Hrisovulos said. "He could play once a week -- couldn't play consecutive days -- and he basically was put on anti-inflammatory pills. He goes through (physical therapy) twice a week."
After sitting out the first match of the season on April 3, Hirschberg opened at No. 1 doubles in a 7-0 win over New Canaan the next day. Teamed with Sterling Price, he won 6-3, 6-3. Hirschberg played in his first singles match on April 11 at Fairfield Ludlowe, losing 6-1, 6-1 in the Wreckers' 4-3 victory.
As the season's progressed, Hirschberg's continued to cope with the injury.
In Tuesday's conference semifinal, the senior bear down and served overhand, believing it would give him a better chance to win. Regardless of what style serve Hirschberg uses, Hrisovulos believes that the senior is skilled enough to beat opponents in different ways.
"His strength is he's a very creative player on the court, and very athletic," Hrisovulous said. "He can still frustrate kids by scrambling and by playing a different style than some kids are used to. He plays more of a slice forehand than a topspin forehand, so kids are not used to seeing that. It's hard for them to handle it. He's got a remarkable backhand."
His brother Daniel, a two-time state singles champion at Staples (2010, 2011) who's currently playing at Brown University, identified the backhand as Jake's biggest strength.
"It's been his best stroke his whole life," Daniel said.
Hirschberg believes he's getting stronger physically, pointing to wins in two of his last three singles matches in the regular season. But he stressed that he's still heading into matches rusty because of his toned-down practice schedule.
"It takes a little while to get myself together when everyone else is practicing, playing a match every single day," he said.
Even when the injury's grounded Hirschberg's ability to play, he's demonstrated his courage and leadership, Hrisovulos said. He called Hirschberg the "battery of our team."
"It would be easy for a senior who's on the court and has an ailing injury to maybe mail it in for the season or kind of go through the motions. It's probably the complete opposite," Hrisovulos said of Hirschberg, who plans to play at Colgate University next year. "He'll do everything for his teammates. ... He shows up to practice every day, even when he couldn't play."
After the early injury concerns, Hrisovulos is thankful to have his star on the court.
"It was kind of nervewracking because we all knew he was injured, and seriously injured," Hrisovulos said. "We didn't know if we would even have him at all this year. He made us very comfortable knowing that he would play if he had to."
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