CHULA VISTA

To say Niki Shahbazi is driven would be putting it mildly.

The Eastlake High junior feels she should have won the section singles tennis crown a year ago, and that motivated her to work that much harder as the current season unfolds.

“That was the best match I’ve ever played,” said the 16-year-old Shahbazi of a 6-1, 7-6 (7-2) quarterfinal tie-breaker loss to Canyon Crest’s Katie Codd, who went on to win the title.

“The first set I was good. The second set I was really good. There were a lot of 40-all scores. To tell you the truth, the only reason I’m playing this year is because I want to win the section championship. I’m pretty sure if I’d won last year, I wouldn’t see a need to play this year.”

Since she battles year-round on the USTA circuit, she says that’s where the competition is. She understands why some of the better young tennis players pass on playing in high school.

“I really want to go to college and plan to keep playing,” she said, noting that USD is her dream school and with a 3.5 GPA, it’s the clear front-runner. “Winning a championship might help me with college. Plus, high school is fun.”

Nothing if not honest, Shahbazi admits she hasn’t been nearly as sharp as she was at the end of last season but at the same time says she’s ahead of where she was a year ago.

Her high school coach, Antonio Ramos, noted that she started the season with a pair of 6-0 victories against La Jolla Country Day, and really has the complete package.

“Her strength is her forehand,” said Ramos, “and she’s very comfortable with her backhand. She has the ability to put the ball right where she wants it and her serve has shown the greatest improvement.”

So what does Shahbazi need to do to win it all?

“She needs to keep her calm,” said Ramos. “She’s a junior now and she is maturing. I noticed it against La Jolla Country Day in the tough moments.”

Shahbazi admits while she’s somewhat shy in the classroom, she can be fiery on the court.

“I’ve broken 12 to 15 rackets, but not in the last three years,” she said. “I had some anger issues when I was 10 and 11. I talk to myself to regain focus. When I see others lose it, it’s embarrassing. I don’t want to look like that, so I’ll just focus on my fingernails or something like that to calm down.”

Shahbazi, who was born in Iran, moved to the United States as an infant, moved to Dubai where she lived for seven years and then returned to the United States. She speaks fluent Farsi and since almost all her relatives live in Iran, she visits occasionally.

Her father, Ali, played tennis. At age 4 she would go with him and try hitting the ball. When she turned 6, she got even more serious.

“She chased the ball around,” recalled Ali. “She had her own little racket, but she wasn’t strong enough to do anything. By the time she was 6, she could play and by 12 or 13, she beat me. It was fine, that was expected. She worked hard.”

Ali notes that while Shahbazi is ranked in the top 50 in her age group, because Eastlake is a year-round school, she had to miss the summer tour, costing her ranking points.

If she continues to improve and is in line to play internationally, should she qualify for the Olympics, having dual citizenship which country would she represent?

“Oh, U.S.A.,” she said, but realizing making the American Olympic team would be far more difficult, she added, “but I wouldn’t mind playing for Iran, either.”

But first she wants that section singles title.

Steve Brand is a freelance writer.