On Sports • Lincoln High grad is a 'wunderkind' on the tennis court
by: COURTESY OF NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY Belinda Niu, former state champion for Lincoln High, is starring for the 13th-ranked team in the nation as a freshman at Northwestern University.

It may be that there is a younger undergrad at Northwestern than Belinda Niu.

'I feel like there is probably someone else (younger) out there,' Niu says. 'There has to be.'

Or maybe not.

Niu, who by age typically would be a senior in high school, won't turn 18 until October. She was 16 when she enrolled for classes at Northwestern last summer.

To call the Portland native a prodigy is not doing her justice.

The estimable Bud Collins would call Niu a 'wunderkind.'

That's true on and off the tennis court.

On the court, the former Lincoln High standout is 8-3 in both singles and doubles, playing from between No. 2 and No. 4 singles for the 13th-ranked Wildcats.

Off the court, she has her customary straight-A regimen going down in the classroom. From the time she was a freshman at Lincoln to her two years at Boca Prep in Boca Raton, Fla. - while she attended the Evert Tennis Academy - to her first semester at Northwestern, Niu has never gotten a B grade.

'Belinda is so diligent in everything she does,' says Jackie Holden, Northwestern's associate head coach. 'She is so professional and so keen to be as good as she can be, both on the court and in the classroom.

'In the beginning, she was finding the balance a little difficult, to get used to the demands at Northwestern. She seems to be coming through that period. We couldn't be more proud of her.'

Niu turned down Princeton and Yale to accept a full scholarship at Northwestern.

'When I visited,' she says, 'I felt like I could see myself going here. I fit in well with the team, and liked both the tennis and academic aspects of the school, my top two priorities.'

Niu showed the promise of being one of the greats in Oregon history when she won the Class 6A singles championship as a freshman at Lincoln in 2008. Then she was gone, headed for Florida and two years training with some of the nation's best juniors under some of the nation's best coaches.

'It was challenging being away from home, but the tennis environment was very competitive,' Niu says. 'I enjoyed that a lot. I really enjoyed training there.'

As would be expected, Niu missed being with her parents, Baohua Niu and Ying Bai, and her 13-year-old sister, Vicki.

'Vicki and I are very close,' Belinda says. 'It was hard being away from home. But it forced me to grow up faster, to be more independent, which I needed to learn before coming to college, anyway.'

Niu had a choice of getting her high school degree online or attending one of several schools in the Boca Raton area. She chose Boca Prep, a small private school that was 'very different' from Lincoln, she says. Her graduating class had 12 students.

She made the most of her time there, serving as president of both the student council and the National Honor Society. She also made her mark at the academy, winning the 2009 Chris Evert Award for excellence in academics and athletics and the 2010 John Evert Athletic Award for on-court performance.

Do you get the impression this is an exceptional young lady?

Niu found her niche immediately with the Northwestern tennis team, as both one of the top players and as a good teammate.

'She's just a delight,' Holden says. 'She brings a sort of freshness with her enthusiasm. She is such a popular member of the team. She will do anything for anybody.

'Belinda is so mature for her years, yet she brings that energy to the team. Our older statesmen need that. It helps our juniors and seniors stay motivated.'

Major-college tennis, Niu says, 'has been really challenging. It's very different mentally. Every opponent is invested in the match, not only playing for themselves but for their team and their school. It makes matches more intense and competitive.

'Our team is very close,' she says. 'We really want to perform well, not just for ourselves but for each other. I feel that pressure on the court. It's very motivating.'

Niu has always enjoyed the team aspect of tennis. I remember the sheer joy in her face as she celebrated Lincoln's state team title three years ago.

'It really is a different feeling than just winning an open tournament for yourself,' she says. 'I remember feeling really happy that we were able to add another championship to Lincoln's list, because it had been so long since we'd won one.'

Niu's college experience has been a good one so far. She lives in an on-campus dorm. 'I love the people on my floor, and everything is in walking distance,' she says. Next year, she will move into an off-campus apartment with two close friends.

Her major is undeclared, but she is thinking about economics.

Niu isn't sure if professional tennis is in her future.

'If I have a chance, I think I'll try it, but I'm not planning on it,' she says, choosing her words carefully. 'I don't know if I'll make it that far.

'I enjoy being a part of a college team and playing college tennis. At the same time, I want to be able to use the education I'm getting here. That is taking priority over tennis in terms of my future.'

I would say she has her priorities straight.

'Right now, I hope I can be a part of a team that wins an NCAA championship,' she says. 'That would be huge for me. Otherwise, I'd just to like to finish college with a successful tennis career and a very high GPA. That would make me happy.'

By that time, at least, she won't be the youngest student on campus.

'Sometimes, eyebrows get raised if someone asks me my age,' she says, allowing herself a soft laugh. 'But it's not really a big deal.'

No. But Belinda Niu is.

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