It was perhaps the best kept secret on the local sports scene. Within the confines of Lyndhurst High School is one of the state’s top youth tennis players — Liliana Malinowski. But because the Golden Bears do not have a girls’ tennis team, few knew about her prowess on the court.
Last week when Malinowski signed her National Letter of Intent to play tennis at Division I Fairfield University, her skills were no longer a secret to others.
Malinowski, who liked Fairfield’s proximity to home as well as its business school, is rated as a 3-star prospect by Tennis Recruiting Network. The same website has her ranked as the No. 22 player in New Jersey for the Class of 2023 and No. 341 in the country.
“I came out with this commitment and a lot of people were shocked and made me feel good about myself. I’ve been receiving compliments from people I don’t know,” said Malinowski, who verbally committed to play at Fairfield in late July. “I feel like more people would be much more aware of my level of tennis if there was a tennis team. A bunch of my friends from different towns, everyone knows how good they are because they go far in the state (tournaments) because of them. Now that I’m coming with this news, it’s kinda been a shock to a lot of people.”
Malinowski, who first started playing at the age of 5, has competed in national tournaments across the country, traveling to Arizona, Florida, Las Vegas, North Carolina and South Carolina. But due to Lyndhurst’s lack of a team, Malinowski couldn’t compete in the Bergen County Tournament or NJSIAA individual tournaments. Nor was she obviously able to play for team titles.
So while most of her peers were competing for their schools this far, Malinowski continued to work on her game at Mountainside Racquet Club in Union County.
“I play year-round there with a private coach and I play against some other kids at my level,” Malinowski said. So I never really have a season, it’s more an all year thing.
“It’s very upsetting because I knew I would succeed in them or have fun at least. Playing in a team sport is such a beautiful thing and while tennis isn’t really a team sport, I feel like being on a high school team makes it a little bit different than what I’m used to so it’s very upsetting to know that no one in my town really plays at all.”
To help fill that void, Malinowski played volleyball her junior year and also elected to run track in the spring.
“I think it was very important. The main reason I did those things was because I couldn’t play tennis,” said Malinowski, citing the ability to compete in a more relaxed environment with friends and the value of being a part of a team as the benefits. I was able to play volleyball because there wasn’t a tennis team and I wanted to make sure I had that experience before I went to college.”
While Malinowski chose not to play volleyball her senior season, she fully intends to return to track in the spring after a fine debut last year. Competing in track for the first time, she qualified for the NJSIAA Group 2 championships in both the 1,600 and 3,200 meter runs.
“I loved doing track and I’m going to do track again this year,” Malinowski said. “I honestly think that it did help me with tennis since my endurance has gotten a lot better. It all kinda works together. There’s good parts to not having that tennis team and bad parts, but I knew I had to try (a high school team sport) at least once.”
While Malinowski never got to play her best sport at Lyndhurst High, she hopes her story can be motivation for other athletes who may face a similar challenge at their respective school.
“There’s so many places you can play at. You can even ask a friend (to play),” Malinowski said. “There are so many clubs out there, it all just comes with research and talking to people. You don’t have to rely on your school to play a sport.”
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Jason Bernstein | Observer Sports Writer
Jason Bernstein joined The Observer as its sports writer in March 2022, following the retirement of Jim Hague. He has a wealth of sports-writing experience, including for NJ Advance Media (nj.com, The Jersey Journal, The Star-Ledger.)