Eastern teams score big in Week 3 of the 2023 USTA League National Championships
Garden State greats. Two USTA Eastern teams from New Jersey rocked the third week of competition at the 2023 USTA League National Championships, held October 13-15 in Tucson, Ariz. and Surprise, Ariz. A squad based out of the Westfield Indoor Tennis Club in Westfield, N.J. finished as finalists in the 18 & Over 3.0 Men’s division, while a group from Centercourt in Chatham, N.J. placed third in the 40 & Over 4.5 Men’s event.
“After the final it took a little time to appreciate what we had accomplished,” admitted Leo Rinaldi, who co-captained the team from Westfield. “But once we were able to take a moment and reflect on what we went through to get to the championship match, we were very proud of how far we had come.”
Indeed, upon arriving in Surprise, Rinaldi and his teammates struggled in their first early-round match, digesting a tough 4-1 defeat to USTA Texas. (18 & Over 3.0 Men’s matches at the championships consisted of two courts in singles and three in doubles.) But the quick loss ultimately helped the players to regroup and get back to basics, Rinaldi said.
“After losing to Texas, we really just took the approach of controlling what we could, going out and playing our best tennis,” he explained. “Everyone bought into just trying to win each point and not worrying about the outcome of other courts. I think that focus really helped us compete.”
That focus didn’t just help them compete—it helped them to dominate. They’d go on to capture their next three matches in a row without dropping a single court, overcoming contingents from USTA Northern, USTA Pacific Northwest and USTA Intermountain by a scoreline of 5-0 to advance to the semifinals. Even in the semis, they gave up just one court in their battle against home favorites USTA Southwest to comfortably reach the final.
“Every member played well and won at least one court throughout the weekend,” Rinaldi said. “A number of our players either came from behind to win or won in a third-set tiebreak. It really demonstrated the strength and depth of our team.”
And their adaptability. Rinaldi also noted that the biggest hurdle the team faced was not necessarily an opponent, but the elements, with temperatures climbing well into the upper 80s over the course of the weekend.
“It was a challenge adapting to the conditions from the start,” he said. “We predominantly play indoors and [then] obviously losing the first match, it forced us to dig deep and mentally tough it out.”
In the final, the team would unfortunately again take a tough loss to their early-round foes from the Lone Star state. And even though the outcome was not the one they envisioned given their form, Rinaldi and the other players looked back on the whole experience fondly.
“There was some disappointment in not coming out on top, but Texas was a very strong and deserving champion,” Rinaldi said. “Obviously it is a competition, but it’s more important everyone is a great sport and has a great time playing a game we love. The dinners and camaraderie among our team definitely helped keep our spirits up!”
Similar to their Westfield counterparts, the Chatham-based Eastern squad also stormed through early-round competition, overcoming opponents from USTA Southern California, USTA Hawaii, USTA Middle States and USTA Pacific Northwest to finish at the top of the leaderboard and easily book a spot in the semifinals. Through all four of those matches—which, for the division, consisted of one singles court and three in doubles—the Eastern team relinquished just two courts.
“Years of playing competitive matches best prepares you for playing competitive matches…our regular season league is incredibly tough!” Captain Doug Coyle explained of the strong round robin results. “But it was also such a relief to make it to Nationals. I actually think we were more nervous at Eastern Sectionals, because everyone knew we had a real chance to make it to Nationals for the first time. Competing [in Tucson] almost felt like playing with house money. We all played pretty freely.”
So freely, in fact, that team member Fabrizio Rotati channeled his inner Roger Federer during the contest against Hawaii.
“On match point, the opposing team hit a lob,” Coyle recalled. “Fabrizio ran back and rocketed a tweener [across the net], then Fabrizio’s partner easily put away the next shot from their dumbfounded opponents. It was quite a memorable match point—and it happened at Nationals!”
Unfortunately, the free-flowing form couldn’t last forever, as the team ultimately fell to USTA Florida in the semifinals. Coyle said the disappointment still lingered as they prepared to face USTA Southern for the third-place trophy.
“After we lost the semifinal match, my co-captain David Mira and I looked at each other and thought, ‘Ummm…now what do we do?’” he explained. “A couple players said they didn’t want to play. But some of the other guys pushed back, saying ‘Hey, we didn’t come to Nationals and make the final four just to give up for our last match! Who knows if we’ll ever make it back, so let’s go play and win.’”
The duel turned out to be one of the most competitive of the weekend, with both Eastern and Southern capturing two courts as players from both groups cheered loudly on the sidelines. Eastern would ultimately prevail over Southern in a tiebreak that came down to sets won, “which made [Eastern player] Gary Gulino feel great about winning a set in the singles court he lost,” Coyle said.
Ultimately, the effort to compete to the very end proved to be more than worth it.
“We won our last match at Nationals, which left a really good taste in our mouths,” Coyle said. “And I think everyone on the team felt a real sense of pride and of satisfaction to finish third in the country. For most of us, this was our first trip to Nationals. We’ve all played over ten years in USTA leagues and had never been. To not only go, but finish in the final four, qualify for the final day and then end up on the podium…it’s just a real sense of accomplishment.”
But even more than the competition, it was also a great bonding experience among longtime friends. Some of the players rented an Airbnb and would return from the courts each day to play pool and ping pong together.
“At one point my wife called, heard the ping pong in the background, and exclaimed, 'Don’t you people ever get tired of racquet sports?!’” Coyle said with a laugh. “[But] really what made the whole weekend even more special is that we’re all friends on the team, and we’ve all played together for so many years. It’s not like we went out and recruited strangers. It was just us. We’re all very grateful to play tennis, and in this case have notable team success, with such a great group of guys.”