Eastern MXD teams soar at the 2023 USTA League National Championships
Consistent until the very end. Two more New Jersey-based teams—the 40 & Over 6.0 and 7.0 Mixed squads—finished as finalists in their respective divisions during the final two weeks of competition at the 2023 USTA League National Championships, held November 3-5 and November 10-12 in Surprise, Arizona and San Diego, California. The results cap off a superb run of form for USTA Eastern contingents at the seven-week event, with a staggering 12 teams from the section ultimately earning Top 4 finishes, and one team capturing the title.
“It’s a bittersweet feeling,” admitted Eastern’s 7.0 Mixed captain Marijus Kuzavas of capturing the runner-up trophy. “Sweet, because ending up second place out of 1300 teams nationwide in the division is an incredible accomplishment, and I am extremely proud of us for achieving it. But the bitter part comes from getting your dream ended so close to the finish line. And from knowing that it will be extremely hard to build such a special team again.”
Special is definitely the right word for Kuzavas and his players. During competition in Surprise, they repeatedly showed just how special they were, soundly defeating competitive groups from USTA Intermountain, USTA Northern and USTA Texas to advance to the semifinals. The only two courts they dropped in the early rounds—out of the 12 played—occurred in a close loss to USTA Middle States, where, Kuzavas noted, everyone enjoyed a bit of an unexpected advantage.
“Middle States was another team from New Jersey, composed of friends that our group often plays with!” he explained. “So that match was a derby. We knew each other very well and it was pretty much a coin flip. We just came out on the unlucky side.”
However close the Middle States encounter was, it ended up being nothing compared to the semifinal battle against USTA Florida. The teams contested three courts, all three of which were decided in third-set match tiebreakers.
“It was probably more dramatic than the scoreline indicates,” Kuzavas said. “The pairs were so well-matched that there was no telling who would win until the last point. My partner Swati [Rao-Engel] and I were down for most of our [court], losing the first set pretty badly 1-6. Then we were again down in the second. Somehow we battled back to level the score, but then we went down in the super tiebreaker 4-8. Again, somehow we managed to claim the next six points in a row to win it.”
The nailbiting wasn’t limited to just Kuzavas and Rao-Engel either. Saori Shiokawa and Dongsung Lim also had to dig deep, coming through their own court 13-11 in the tiebreaker.
The players would again leave it all out there in the final, with Kuzavas and Rao-Engel battling for over three hours and erasing four match points to capture their court. Unfortunately, USTA Northern California would claim the other two—one, once again, in a grueling third-set tiebreaker.
Kuzavas acknowledged the extremely tight finish has resulted in a lot of “what ifs” running through his head since he returned from Arizona. But he’s still filled with an immense amount of pride for everything his “special team” did accomplish throughout the entire season—from barely squeaking past their opponents in the Metro Region at USTA Eastern Sectionals to everything their repeated heroics in Surprise. He noted that due to a few injuries and scheduling issues, Shiokawa and Solomon Ji ended up having to play every single match over the course of the weekend, with several different partners.
“[Our team name was] Team Vuvuzela,” Kuzavas said. “It’s a small South African device that spectators used in soccer matches during the World Cup [in 2010] to make a lot of noise, and it was so loud that FIFA banned it. Our team was a small team that was meant to make a lot of noise in the competition—and we did.”
Another Eastern contingent making a fair amount of noise was the section’s 6.0 Mixed squad, who sailed into the semifinals at their event in San Diego with a perfect 4-0 match record against competitors from USTA Southern, USTA Texas, USTA Midwest and USTA Northern. Incredibly, prior to the 2023 season, captain Andrea Chu had never before helmed a team; several of her players had never even contested a USTA match. Chu said practice (and maybe a little singing) ultimately made perfect.
“We invested a lot of time practicing and figuring out which partnerships worked best, which helped us go undefeated in round robin play,” she explained. “And then also, [over the course of the season], we spent time getting to know each other. Sharing great food, singing karaoke, exploring local sights…it allowed us to bond away from the game. That proved beneficial to the positive chemistry of the team.”
The group became so close and committed to the team’s success, in fact, that a total of 18 players traveled across the country to compete at Nationals. Chu worked closely with teammates Jerry Zhang and Hong Wang to ensure that everybody in attendance would have their chance to shine under the San Diego sun—what she called the “biggest challenge” of the experience. But it was definitely more than worth it.
“One part that was most enjoyable was seeing the unity and excitement in our team over the weekend,” Chu said. “It was very special to have every team member travel and play and cheer each other on during the matches. And everybody played amazingly!”
So amazingly, in fact, that, after a 2-1 defeat of USTA Caribbean, they found themselves in the final against USTA Northern California. Chu herself hadn’t necessarily expected to make the last match of the event, noting that the goal all along had been to reach the semifinals.
“Playing for the title was unlike anything we’ve experienced before,” she said. “We went into the finals with much excitement and preparation knowing the challenge to come. [But] being able to play for the title was a reward in itself. We learned how tough our opponents were, which ultimately made our experience all the more exhilarating.”
Even though Chu and her players didn’t get to hoist the championship hardware, they were more than thrilled with the outcome—and their level of play. Chu herself singled out Qiongrong Nie, who went undefeated throughout the entire tournament until the final. And Chu also specifically noted her pride in watching a selection of rookie USTA players flourish.
“Seeing the growth of our new team players, seeing their confidence build, was truly incredible,” she said.
Of course, as a first-time captain, she set out to emphasize team bonding and fun more than any individual result. Beyond the spot on the podium, Chu left San Diego satisfied that all 18 of her fellow New Jerseyans strengthened their friendships—with group dinners and, of course, karaoke. And, she added, they even made some new ones along the way.
“Playing USTA Caribbean in the semis, there was immediate excitement and respect between the two teams, despite the language barrier,” she said. “They even taught us how to cheer for our teammates in Spanish! Seeing all the other amazing players from across the country not only added to the fun but also made the experience even better.”