Girls tennis: Grayslake Central's Bhalla battles to sectional singles crown

By Bobby Narang
Daily Herald Correspondent
Updated 10/16/2021 6:09 PM

Karishma Bhalla endured many battles on Saturday afternoon.

The Grayslake Central senior was battling the conditions -- cold and very windy -- to go with the stiff competition to win the singles title at the Class 1A Antioch sectional.


Then to add more pressure, Bhalla dealt with an injury to both of her legs during the title match against Richmond-Burton's Savannah Webb.

After winning the first set, Bhalla nearly had to forfeit the match due to cramps in both legs. She sat in agony for nearly 30 minutes due to a trainer not on site at that moment, plus had the customary 10-minute injury timeout.

But when play resumed, Bhalla's usual steady game was missing.

She double-faulted on three of her first five serve attempts. But Bhalla relied on her experience, focusing on her mental game to overcome her ailments.

"It was definitely not the best situation for me," Bhalla said. "I knew I had to just play smart because I knew with my serve I wasn't able to use my legs well, so I decided to just use my brains instead of using my legs."

In the end, Bhalla overcame an uneven performance in the second set to pull out a thrilling three-set win over Webb. Bhalla, a three-time state qualifier, showed a lot of resolve to capture her first career sectional title.

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Bhalla overcame some tough moments throughout the final two sets, capping off a long afternoon by winning the singles title when Webb knocked a ball into the net.

"It worked out well," Bhalla said. "It was definitely more mental. A lot of times, I lost my cool, but I was able to collect my composure in the end and that really helped me. Savannah played a really tough match."

As the only player in Richmond-Burton's program, Webb (6-1) had a late start to the season due to only competing in the conference tournament and the postseason. But Webb, a junior, displayed a strong game and showed tremendous sportsmanship allowing Bhalla to rest and take several breaks to tend to her injury.

"I felt I could've played better overall, but it wasn't my day today," Webb said. "(Karishma) played great, considering her injuries. It was a good match. I feel confident going into state."


Despite not having a player seeded in the sectional, Prairie Ridge captured the team title. Prairie Ridge coach Gina Jasovic called it a true total team effort.

"This is the first time in my three years winning sectional here," Jasovic said. "We didn't give up no matter what. I'm so proud of all the girls. This is huge for us because none of my players were seeded. Our doubles played great. This is tremendous success."

At doubles, Wauconda's senior duo of Megan Hackman and Sophia Esquivel defeated Grayslake Central's Grace Caldwell and Aviva Krill 6-1, 6-3 for the sectional title. Hackman and Esquivel won their second straight sectional title after placing second at sectionals in their sophomore season.

"They were supposed to be singles players, but I put them together as doubles in their sophomore year and they've been unstoppable since," Wauconda coach Dana Differding said.

Esquivel credited her chemistry with Hackman for their success at sectionals.

"We have our certain strategies that we liked to do, and they worked pretty well at sectionals," Esquivel said. "We're super excited about state, since last year we didn't get an opportunity after we had a good year. I'm hoping we can use this momentum and do well at state."

Hackman admitted she's shocked at her stunning run in doubles, mainly because she was aspiring for a similar success in singles early in her career. Hackman and Esquivel placed 12th at state in their sophomore season.

"I had a back injury going into my sophomore year, so I played doubles," Hackman said. "I was fine with the move. I never thought we would do this well (in doubles). We're best friends off the court, and we work well together on the court. We played well today and the wind didn't bother us. We thought we were going to do well at state last year, so we're super excited to be going to state."

Caldwell and Krill both admitted they plan on using their consistent play at sectionals as a springboard to state.

"I was really happy with how we played today," Caldwell said. "Wauconda has always been our toughest competition. Today, we played them the best we've played against them. We played at the top of our game this weekend. We have been working toward this all year, so this was a big payoff."

Krill agreed: "We played smart and hard and did really good. We did our best today. It showed with our second place."

Johnsburg senior Grace Cittadino (23-2) earned third place in singles with a win over Antioch's Natalie Labicki 6-0, 6-2 to punch her ticket to state.

"She was a great player and hit the ball 10 times harder than me, and I just tried hard," Cittadino said. "I'm happy how I did."

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