Dusk had long since settled over Shirako Tennis Complex east of Tokyo. But Lili Kobayashi found herself in a darker spot. An all-too familiar one that she felt she could never escape.
Off the court the American School In Japan junior walked, vanquished in three sets by rival Matilde Piras of Seisen International after winning the first set, and she dissolved in the arms of her coach Jen Brown.
“I’m always second. I don’t deserve to be first. I’m too weak under pressure,” Kobayashi thought to herself. It was the third time she’d lost in the finals of a major tournament, twice in the Kanto finals – including this one – and the 2013 Far East title match.
Nonsense, teammates told her when she confessed those thoughts. One, Erin Blank, reminded her that though she lost on this day, Oct. 28, she had beaten Piras twice during the regular season.
“Two of them were your days, but the third time, it was just Matilde’s day,” Blank recalls telling Kobayashi. “And everyone has those days when they don’t win. And that’s OK. But you have Far East, where you can go and show that the title belongs to you, and it always has.”
Blank’s prescience proved perfect days later when Kobayashi outlasted Seoul American’s Grace Cho 7-5, 6-4 for her first Far East title. She later teamed with Nana Yoshimura to win the doubles as well.
Kobayashi has been named Stars and Stripes Pacific girls tennis Athlete of the Year.
“I really can’t describe how proud I was of her when she (came in) first at Far East; she broke the wall that was in her way for a long time,” Yoshimura said.
But that triumph didn’t come without much self-reflection in the wake of the Kanto finals defeat.
“At first, I was really depressed” about losing to Piras and feared the same thing would happen at Far East, Kobayashi said. But after conversing with Brown and teammates, “I realized I had nothing to lose. And with their support, I went out there even more motivated and wanted to do the best I could.”
She admits she detests losing. It “just means that I need to work harder and it sets a goal for me for the next time,” she said.
While she fashioned a 15-1 combined singles and doubles season record, it was her team-building work off the court that led Blank to refer to Kobayashi as the team’s “Mama Bear.”
Though she lost heart, however briefly, in the wake of the Kanto defeat, teammates describe Kobayashi’s personality as effervescent.
“She brings morale and (unity) to the team, and her optimistic personality pushes us to higher standards and induces us to try harder,” Yoshimura said.
“She made sure no one ever felt neglected or alone on the team,” doubles player Anna Wade said.
Clearing the final hurdle will benefit Kobayashi and the team going forward, Brown said. “It’s finally starting to click for her. She has the mindset, ‘I can do this. The team and the coach are behind me.’ These wins at Far East will motivate her as a senior.”