Eastern earns more big wins in Week 4 at the 2023 USTA League National Championships
Another week, another pair of Top 3 finishes. USTA Eastern’s 18 & Over 4.0 Men’s team—based out of New York City—and its 55 & Over 6.0 Men’s team—from Setauket, N.Y.—both placed third in their respective divisions on the fourth weekend of competition at the 2023 USTA League National Championships, held October 20-22 in Surprise, Arizona and Orlando, Florida. The results marked the second weekend in a row two Eastern teams concurrently lifted the bronze hardware, as a pair of New Jersey squads from the section scored the same outcome during Week 3 of the event.
Finishing the third-best team in the country ultimately exceeded 18 & Over 4.0 captain Simon Chong’s wildest expectations, he said. The players—many of whom didn’t even know each other before the 2023 season began—had only recently started competing together after separately getting recruited by a mutual friend.
“I remember there was one [early-season] match where I took the subway out to Queens and then got picked up in a white van to go to the courts,” Chong recalls with a laugh. “We were all a bunch of strangers with tennis gear sitting in a white van. I was thinking ‘What is going on here?’ [But] from then to now, we really went a long way together.”
Indeed, they did. Upon arriving in Surprise, Chong and his fellow players immediately realized that they were considered heavy underdogs, with chatter around the grounds centering on formidable teams from USTA Southern, USTA Florida, USTA Northern California and USTA Southern California as the major favorites. The Eastern contingent would ideally need to beat two of those teams—Northern California and Southern—in round robin competition to have any chance of reaching the semifinals. They ultimately lost 2-3 [the division plays two singles and three doubles courts] to Southern in a heartbreaker of a match that came down to one third-set tiebreaker. The result somewhat dashed their hopes of making the final four; they’d have to claim decisive victories over their remaining opponents Northern California and USTA Mid-Atlantic and also rely on other teams’ scores to advance.
“We didn’t really know how to process it because we were so close [to the upset],” Chong said. “But then we had a team meeting where we were like ‘What’s our direction now?’ We were set to play NorCal the next day. I said, ‘Hey, let’s make a statement. Let’s be disruptors. Let's show them that we can knock out one of these top teams!’”
The matchup the following morning proved to be a contrast in styles before anybody even hit the court.
“[The NorCal team] was all wearing matching T-shirts, eating protein bars,” Chong said with a laugh. “They were doing drills before the match, training like competitive athletes. And then on my team, some of our guys were eating donuts! When we were called over by the referees, some of our players were gone because they were in the bathroom and I had to apologize. Maybe it was because of the loss to Southern that we were just a little more chill.”
Regardless of outward appearances, Team Eastern would go on to deliver the upset they envisioned and perhaps the upset of the tournament, capturing all five of their courts against the group from California. The favorites certainly made Chong and his players earn the W: Eastern’s No. 1 singles player Srini Laliwala claimed his hard-fought, protracted battle 11-9 in a match tiebreaker after he and his competitor split 7-5 sets.
“We didn’t expect [the win],” Chong said. “We went from barely losing to Southern in our second match to sweeping NorCal in our third. That was very exciting for us.”
The NorCal victory—along with a nail biting 3-2 result over Mid-Atlantic in their final round robin contest—ultimately helped propel the Eastern team into the semifinals. There, they’d end up taking another tough loss—this time to USTA Middle States—in a duel that again came down to a close tiebreaker. While the players were upset they wouldn’t make the final, they resolved to give it their all in the third-place match against USTA Florida, another early favorite. Despite soaring temperatures and conditions to which their opponents were no doubt more accustomed, the underdogs would eventually come out on top 4-1.
“A lot of ups and downs, but mostly ups,” Chong said of the weekend. “We had some really good moments. But the most fun thing was bonding with my teammates. We rented two Airbnb’s, and we’d eat together, play games. We’d just have fun talking about tennis and stuff outside tennis. And of course we had so much fun cheering everyone on match by match. In a sense, it was kind of like camp, and you just don't get to do things like that as much as an adult.”
The experience has motivated the Eastern group to get out on court even more, Chong said.
“It’s got everyone fired up!” he noted. “We’re even entering singles tournaments together now. Yeah, there’s a lot of good energy on our team.”
While the 4.0 squad came into the event as disruptors, the 55 & Over 6.0 crew—captained by Robert Kronenberg—proved to be one of the most fearsome teams on the court throughout the weekend in Orlando. They went undefeated during round robin competition, overcoming contingents from USTA Texas, USTA Middle States, USTA Florida and USTA Mid-Atlantic to finish at the top of the leaderboard and earn the No. 1 seed heading into the semifinals. En route to that semis berth, they lost just 76 games—and dropped only three of the 12 courts they played. Multiple players amassed a perfect record; Kronenberg and doubles partner Robert Kelly captured one court by a scoreline of 6-0, 6-0.
“In my opinion, everyone on this team was an MVP,” Kronenberg said. “All 11 players won at least one court. Rob Kelly went 5-0, playing three times with Heath Berger and twice with me. I went 4-0 playing with three different players. My first court with Dmitri Kharzeev we ended up winning in a super tiebreak 10-5 after three hours of play. Our individual and collective attitude was to fight for every point.”
That mentality didn’t dissipate after taking an unexpected semifinal loss to USTA Midwest. The team quickly regrouped to take on USTA Northern California for third place, ultimately sweeping their west coast opponents 3-0. (The division plays three doubles courts.)
“We looked at it as another opportunity to win,” Kronenberg explained. “To us, it did not matter whether we were playing for first or playing to stay out of last. The goal was always clear.”
The faceoff was closer than the scoreline indicates, however, as the Eastern squad won two of the three courts in third-set tiebreakers, and even the sole straight-set victory included a 7-6 set.
“Sometimes a score [like 3-0] does not tell the story of the match, and the match against NorCal was no different,” Kronenberg said. “[But] my players have a lot of tie break experience. And the attitude in a tiebreak is the same, just fight for every point and minimize the unnecessarily risky shot. Of course, it’s also a mental challenge, and our players were very mentally tough.”
It was ultimately that mental toughness, said Kronenberg, that earned the team the exemplary third place finish. That, he noted, and a strong bond among teammates that has developed after a decade of knowing one another through the game.
“This group is more than a bunch of random tennis players thrown together,” he said. “We are all friends, and some of us have been friends for ten years. We socialize off the court, and that spirit of camaraderie and friendship permeates what we do on the court. There are no selfish players on this team. Everyone supports everyone else.”