Neal Baskin has been coaching for more than 40 years, and he knows talent.
So when Howie Arons, boys’ tennis coach for Benjamin Cardozo High School, told him there could be a prodigy coming to join the girl’s team last year, Basking said he would have to see her for himself.
“I respected Howie’s judgment, but until I see a player I can’t make my judgment,” Baskin said.
Baskin was convinced that the Lady Judges had found a special player after he met Sabrina Xiong and watched her try out for the team.
“I’m always looking for a ‘blue chip’ athlete to come in and that’s what she is,” Baskin said of his star player.
Xiong, 14, slipped into the lead singles role at Cardozo and took PSAL Division A girls’ tennis by storm, going undefeated in the regular season, 7-0, leading Cardozo to finish second in the league. She even breezed past upperclassmen to win the Girls’ Singles Individuals Tournament.
“Winning anything feels great,” Xiong said. “But it was good, especially since I was a freshman, and it was the first time I played on a school team. It was really nice having people support me.”
Baskin admitted the scary thing about the young girl from Fresh Meadows is the that fact that she is a freshman.
No PSAL player has won the singles title four years in row, but Xiong has set herself up to become the first.
“I’ll try my hardest,” Xiong said.
As Arons once pointed out, Xiong had long been big news on the city’s tennis radar before she entered Cardozo.
After her mom signed her up to take tennis lessons at the Billy Jean National Tennis Center when she was eight years old, Xiong just took off.
“At that time I thought maybe she needed to play some kind of sport,” said Jennifer Wang, Xiong’s mother. “But the coaches over there just kept putting her in the next level, and next level and next level.”
In 2010, when U.S. tennis legend John McEnroe opened up his tennis academy on Randall’s Island to foster young talented players, Xiong had developed a burning passion for the sport and went to try out for the program.
Approximately 175 aspiring players were judged on everything from swings, volleys and serves, to physical speed, strength and technical skills.
The field was shortened to about 25, and then six, who were personally evaluated by McEnroe himself.
Xiong aced the evaluation after playing with McEnroe, and earned a full scholarship.
Since then she has trained at the academy, practicing for nearly seven hours a day in the summer. During the school year she travels to the facility on Randall’s Island from 6 to 8 p.m., after completing homework.
“It’s a really good experience,” Xiong said. “It’s really intense and it keeps me motivated. Very few people get the chance to go to the academy and meet John [McEnroe]. And I get to hit with him sometimes.”
On some weekends she competes in United States Tennis Association (USTA) tournaments for her age group.
With the current No. 3 ranking in the USTA Eastern 14 and under division, she will compete in a Super National tournament in Florida this weekend.
Her success in a sport in which stars usually make their pro debut at an early age leaves many to wonder whether Xiong will be aiming to enter the professional field early.
However, right now she’s not thinking about it at all.
“I’ll wait a little a bit longer,” Xiong said. “I have to train more for that. I think education is my first priority. Getting into a really good college and playing there would be great, because I just want the experience of playing on a [college] team.”