Barrington’s Eric Zhang And James Bogdanovic’s Friendship Trumps Their Tennis Rivalry

The top two singles players, two-time All-Staters, teammates, co-captains and friends faced each other in the Rhode Island Boys State Singles Tennis Championship.

Eric Zhang and James Bogdanovic
(L-R) Eric Zhang and James Bogdanovic

Heavy rains soaked the Slater Park Tennis Courts in Pawtucket on a recent Saturday morning. The RI Interscholastic League State Singles Championship, originally scheduled for 9 a.m. on that June morning, would be postponed.

By 11 a.m. Barrington High School senior co-captains Eric Zhang and James Bogdanovic headed to Tennis RI East Bay where they would spend the next couple hours working on their games in preparation for the biggest match of their high school careers- against each other.

Just over one week later, Barrington’s top two singles players, two-time All-Staters, teammates, co-captains, weekly hitting partners and above all, friends – would become opponents – competing against each other in the final match of their high school careers. The winner would be crowned the RI State Singles Championship.

“We were both up early, about 7:30, to get ready for the match that Saturday. I was anxious and am sure Eric was, too,” said Bogdanovic. “When the match (state championship) was cancelled that day we were both ready to go and both wanted to hit. It wasn’t awkward to hit with each other. We hit all the time,” said Bogdanovic

“We hit every week,” said Zhang. “He’s beaten me and I’ve beaten him. I’d say we are pretty even.”

 

 

“Not often do you see two guys with the same passion and respect for their sport within such a small location. Both James and Eric love tennis, but their friendship, respect for each other and desire to see each other improve is even more impressive than their accomplishments on the court.  I haven’t seen that in my 15 years in RI,” said Nestor Bernabe, who runs Providence Tennis Academy and is Bogdanovic’s longtime coach.

Zhang, the No. 1 seed, would end his high school career as the state singles champion, defeating his good friend Bogdanovic, 6-2, 6-4 in front of a large crowd pressed up against the fence at Slater Park. For the second time in his high school career, Bogdanovic would finish as the runner up.

Zhang insisted the straight set victory was far from easy and wasn’t indicative of the match. After taking the first set 6-2, Zhang went up 5-2 in the second. His teammate wouldn’t go away that easy. Bogdanonvic battled back, winning two straight games and fending off match point more than once before Zhang’s powerful serve went unreturned for match point.

 

 

“The win feels great. It was a hard match,” said Zhang. “I lost focus for a while when I was up 5-2. I was nervous and got distracted. I am sure James was nervous, too. I had to forget about the score. I knew I was on serve and had to focus one point at a time. It was a great match. James is a great player.”

Mario Llano, who trains Zhang out of Center Court, said his pupil’s ability to overcome adversity in a match sets him apart.

“He is a very special kid,” said Llano. “He can think clearly through rough patches during a match, solve the problem quickly and minimize the damage. He is also a very versatile player with a huge amount of options at his disposal and he is able to pick very well when to use all of them, keeping his opponents off balance.”

He certainly kept Bogdanovic off balance – especially in the first set.

“I played a lot of defense in the first set and knew I needed to play more offensive and started to play more aggressively in the second set, but it was too late. His last serve had to be 120 miles an hour straight down the T.”

“It didn’t go my way, but I couldn’t be happier for Eric,” said Bogdanovic. “He is an amazing player, great teammate and a great friend. “

Zhang and Bogdonavic met on the USTA tennis circuit when they were both 12, a year or so after Zhang moved to the United States from China and landed in Rhode Island.

Eric Zhang and James Bogdanovic
(L-R) Eric Zhang and James Bogdanovic

By the time both entered Barrington High, Zhang and Bogdonavic were two of the top players in the state. Bogdanovic owned the No. 1 singles spot for the Eagles as a freshman. A two-time all-stater who reached the state singles finals as a sophomore, his only loss was to Max Schidmauser, the former two time state champion who was unbeaten throughout his career at Classical. That year, Bogdonavic was the 2019 RI Player of the Year Nominee.

Zhang was equally impressive. He has never lost a regular season match in his high school career. In fact, as a freshman playing No. 3, he upset Bogdanovic in the state tournament in a three set battle. The next year, the two-time All-Stater went unbeaten during the regular season, his only loss coming to Schmidhauser in the state tournament.

 

 

That same year, as sophomores, Zhang and Bogdanovic helped lead Barrington through an unbeaten season and the state team championship.

Covid hit the following year and their junior season was cancelled.

This year was their last shot at a state title.

Zhang, who ranks in the Top 10 in New England in his age group, moved past his friend and teammate this year, taking the number one spot by beating Bogdanovic in a ladder match in straight sets early in the season.

“James had the (Covid) vaccine the day before,” said Zhang. “I think that made a difference.”

Bogdanovic refused to make excuses.

“Eric has gotten much better and played great this year,” said Bogdanovic. “He was a great co-captain to have with me and mentor our young team.”

Off the court, the teammates spent a lot of time discussing their futures. Both will continue their academic and athletic careers at Division III schools. Zhang will head to Kenyon College while Bogdonavic will attend Colby College.

“We both value our academics and talked a lot about our college decisions,” said Bogdonavic. “We both want to have a balance of academics and tennis. We both have the same vision.”