Meilen Tu's reputation as a deadly baseline player spread far and wide this year when she won a couple of international junior tournaments.
She unleashed a new weapon Saturday in the singles final of the United States Tennis Assn. Girls' 18 national championships:
After Tu lost the opening set to Lilia Osterloh of Winchester, Ohio, the Northridge resident was heard mumbling between points in the second set.
"This point." . . . "Come on.". . . "It's OK." . . . "Hang in," Tu kept muttering. The self-talk sparked top-seeded Tu, who disarmed seventh-seeded Osterloh, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, at Almaden Valley Athletic Club in San Jose.
"I think everybody could hear me," Tu said. "I was nervous, and talking to myself helped me relax and play better. I wanted the title. This is a pretty big win for me."
This, Tu's first USTA national title, is probably as important as her grass-court championship in England and her clay-court title in South America earlier this year.
Two years ago, at 14, she won the USTA national clay court championship in the 16-and-under division to boost her national ranking to No. 2. But the hard-court tournament is what the USTA considers the national championship.
Tu was seeded second in 18s in that tournament in 1992, but defaulted in the round of 16 with a hamstring injury. Last year she was seeded fifth and was bothered by back and ankle miseries when she lost to eventual champion Janet Lee in the quarterfinals.
And it looked like Osterloh, who lost in the final of the national girls' 16s tournament in 1993, would provide more disappointment for Tu. Osterloh led, 4-0, in the first set. Not only was Tu struggling with her serve, she was giving Osterloh too many opportunities for passing shots.
"I was a bit slow and she was painting the lines," Tu said. "We were both banging away. I kept banging away the whole tournament."
None of Tu's previous opponents could handle her powerful ground strokes. One by one, they wilted: Meredith Laughlin (6-0, 6-2) in the first round, Kelly Baskin (6-0, 6-0), Justyna Gudzowska (6-0, 6-3), Adrien Alder (6-0, 6-1), Tara Snyder (6-1, 6-4) and rival Ania Bleszynski of Thousand Oaks (6-1, 6-2) in the semifinals.
But with Osterloh hitting passing shots, Tu had to change her strategy. She changed angles and speeds from point to point.
Tu broke Osterloh's serve to win it. And on match point--when she hit a backhand return for a winner--Tu was still coaching herself.
"I wasn't sure I wanted to do that, but I decided to go for it," she said. "And I ripped it. I was so relieved when it went in."