Eastern at the 2023 NTRP National Championships
In the zone. Team Eastern lifted a staggering four championship trophies at the 2023 NTRP Championships, held March 31-April 2 (singles) and April 14-16 (doubles) in multiple locations across the country: the USTA National Campus in Orlando, Florida, the Pelham Racquet Club in Pelham, Alabama, the Barnes Tennis Center in San Diego, California, and the Surprise Tennis and Racquet Complex in Surprise, Arizona.
Over the course of the two weekends, Larchmont, N.Y.’s Greg Naso captured the singles title in the 40 & Over 3.0 Men’s division, defeating USTA Pacific Northwest’s Evan Lerer, 3-4, 4-2, 4-3; incredibly, Naso’s wife Jennifer teamed up with partner Annie Berger, of Mamaroneck, N.Y., to claim victory in the 40 & Over 3.0 Women’s doubles event, overcoming Tiffany Chambers and Leslie Cabellos of USTA Texas, 4-2, 4-2; Christopher Chan, of Closter, N.J., and Casey Schnabel, of Rockville Centre, N.Y., eased past USTA Northern California’s Justin Zertuche and Justin Yarbrough to triumph in doubles in the 18 & Over 4.5 Men’s division, 4-2, 4-2; and the new pairing of Anton Keller, of Clarksville, N.Y., and Quentin Phung, of Latham, N.Y., also took home the hardware in doubles in the 40 & Over 3.0 Men’s division, taking out USTA Southern’s Wade Anderson and Jason Cooper in the final, 4-2, 4-3. It’s the best-ever showing for an Eastern contingent at the five-year-old event, which is contested in a first-to-four-games format.
“My first reaction was a sense of relief, since the win came in a third-set tiebreak, and I had been up 3-0 in that final set,” Greg said of his singles victory, which he earned in 90-degree heat at the Orlando location. “After this initial feeling I was happy, especially because a number of my family and friends were watching and rooting for me. It’s always rewarding when you get an outcome that you work hard towards.”
Indeed, the hard work certainly paid off, as Greg successfully executed an aggressive gameplan to sail into the semifinals. He claimed all three of his round robin matches without dropping a set—even capturing one by a scoreline of 4-0, 4-0—and then lost just two games in the semis, against Devin Reilly of USTA Pacific Northwest. The only set he surrendered throughout the entire tournament came in the dramatic final with Lerer—and even that was decided in a tiebreak.
“We had a great championship match,” Greg said of the back-and-forth battle. “My opponent had been in the final the year before, so I knew I’d have my hands full. I felt that his style of play was similar to my own so it was somewhat familiar. Throughout the match, he got to everything and didn’t make many mistakes, so I had to stay focused and work for every point. [But] he had a great attitude, and I really enjoyed battling it out with him.”
Interestingly, Greg nearly battled it out with another Eastern player in the division championship, as Lerer squeaked by Mount Kisco, N.Y.’s Mario Valadez Trevino in two tiebreak sets to reach the final. Valadez Trevino also reached the elimination rounds of the event without dropping a single set in his flight matches; after the close semifinal loss, he’d go on to square off against Reilly and ultimately record a third-place finish.
“[Playing for third place], I was really prepared to go to the final, so not playing it felt a bit like I had no more pressure,” Valadez Trevino said. “Also, it was tough to play in the heat, so we spent some extra minutes chatting on the bench, and it kept me relaxed.”
“It was so exciting watching Greg play, and I was so proud of him,” Jennifer said. “I was certainly motivated after his win. We couldn’t let him have all the glory!”
Pairing up for the first time, the Westchester County-based duo also put on a dominant display, capturing 11 of 12 sets en route to their victory. Berger said the debut partnership proved particularly fruitful due to their similar competitive mindsets; both played college lacrosse and grew up competing in a variety of different sports before discovering tennis in the last few years.
“We were able to find a way to get over our nerves and just play our game,” Berger noted. “I think our strong presence at the net and our willingness to fight for every single point helped us to clinch the win.”
Their third round robin match—against competitors from USTA Florida—also gave them a good gut check. Knowing that winning this contest would mean they’d advance to the elimination rounds, the Eastern pair won the first set 4-1, then lost an up-and-down second set in a tiebreaker on a deciding point. Improbably, history repeated itself in the third, with a sudden death point determining the outcome.
“Annie was rallying really well in the back, when our opponent then switched and hit to me,” Jennifer said. “I totally mishit the volley, and the ball barely got over the net, then died! I almost had a heart attack. But we won the point! That match really rattled us though. We participate in a clinic together and we were saying to each other that we play so differently in the clinic than what we showed in that match. From that point forward our mindset was to play like it was the clinic and just have fun.”
The team pep talk worked, as they advanced through the elimination rounds to ultimately add another trophy to the Naso mantle. Of course, fun was why both players started competing in NTRP tournaments in the first place.
“I first started playing NTRPs in 2021 when Jenn told me about a local singles tournament and how fun they were,” Berger said. “I ended up going and she beat me in the finals! [But] I love any opportunity to compete. I always learn a lot from being exposed to new opponents and different styles of play, so I really value getting to play in these events.”
Like their female 40 & Over 3.0 counterparts, Keller and Phung were also competing for the first time as a team, after Phung’s regular partner couldn’t make the event. The two knew each other fairly well but usually played on opposite sides of the net.
“We met during a regular USTA Leagues [doubles] match, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, he’s darn tough!’” Keller said of Phung. “Recently, Quentin asked if I had interest in [playing] this tournament, and of course I said ‘Heck yes!’ He’d finished second at a previous national NTRP event, so I was honored he would ask me.”
The pairing, said Phung, made for quite an interesting visual—and tactical—contrast on court.
“Anton towers over me,” he explained. “I asked him how tall he was and he said 6 feet 5-and-a-half inches, which is oddly specific, and I stand at 5 feet 8 inches on a good day. So we obviously have different approaches to the game. He has a huge presence at the net and is comfortable using his size and great hands up there. I don’t mind the net but prefer to be at the baseline…I like to hit deep and heavy with a lot of topspin. We're the classic odd couple pairing I guess. But it seemed to work for us.”
It worked so well, in fact, they might consider playing together on the same team in future events. The pair won two of their round robin duels dropping just one game, and ultimately claimed the championship match in straight sets. Their biggest challenge over the course of the weekend happened to come from a crafty USTA Southern team, who they ended up facing twice—once in a round robin contest, and then again in the semis. In the former, Keller and Phung had to battle back from a set down and claim the match in a third-set tiebreak; in the latter, they advanced only after two tight tiebreak sets.
“First off, they were great to play against—very, nice, friendly and gracious,” Phung said. “Their style was the opposite of how we play, really unlike any doubles team I’d played before. They were all about angles, spins and lobs. In New York, we play indoors on fast hard courts about ten months of the year and that tends to favor an aggressive hard-hitting style. We definitely weren't used to high lobs that would have hit the roof indoors! We got shellacked the first set [that we played against them] and were lucky to even win one game. After that we regrouped and told each other we needed to be more patient and conservative in our rallies. Luckily we pulled it out, but only barely.”
While gritty wins like these were a definite highlight of the weekend, one of the best parts of the experience overall for Keller and Phung was the opportunity to make friends with other players in attendance.
“I thoroughly enjoyed not just competing, but also meeting other tennis fanatics across the country,” said Keller, who was playing at the championships for the very first time. “What makes this game amazing is the sportsmanship that permeates throughout. Making new friends and then encouraging and cheering each other on, that’s what makes this sport great. I love my tennis family!”
At the 2022 NTRP Championships, Chan and Schnabel reached the semifinals, ultimately finishing in fourth place.
“Last year we felt the event was winnable, but we were both nervous and couldn’t play our games in the playoffs,” Schnabel said. “This year we went in not wanting to be passive and have the same thing happen again. We wanted to go after it and play to win, which paid off.”
Starting with that mindset, Chan and Schnabel committed to maintaining a high energy level throughout. Each day before the event began, they hit with each other at a high-intensity practice to get the blood flowing.
“We knew that the no-ad, first-to-four scoring doesn't allow for slow starts and gives you fewer opportunities to close out matches,” Chan said. “So we were very intentional with ramping up our practice intensity in the mornings and bringing a lot of energy right into the pre-match warm up. The goal was to come out firing and executing well right out of the gate, which we ended up doing, winning the first set [of each match] without going to a tiebreaker.”
But they didn’t just win the first set; the pair ultimately went a perfect 10-for-10 in sets played overall, including in the semis and in the finals. Against the USTA Northern California team in the championship—whom both Chan and Schnabel dub “the Justins”—the Eastern duo were thrilled that they were able to develop and execute a winning strategy to ultimately lift the trophy.
“The Justins were so tough,” Schnabel said. “They’re so good at not giving you the ball in your strike zone. They would hit these flat lobs and then come charging to the net, where they kept every ball low. But we rose to the occasion. We had watched them play their first match in the playoffs so we already knew what to expect. We were always ready for the lob.”
It also helped that both Chan and Schnabel were on top of their own games. Down 0-30 on Schnabel’s serve at 3-2 in the first set, Chan came up with a series of excellent poaches—as well as a few key low volley pickups—to put the team back in a winning position. And Schnabel produced several big serves throughout to ultimately keep the pair on the front foot—and out in front.
“Casey and I balance each other out well,” Chan said. “He has a big, flat serve and groundstrokes that can push opponents off the baseline. When I'm at the net and he's at the baseline, I'm confident because I know that in most cases our baseline opponent will blink first and miss or give me a ball to put away.”
Overall, getting to come back again to compete against some of the best teams in the country—and emerging victorious this time—is an experience neither will forget any time soon.
“It’s an amazing feeling to just say you’re able to play at Nationals to begin with,” Schnabel said. “You never take that for granted. But I’ve always wanted to be one of those people on the final day holding the trophy. Getting to say I’m a national champion is unreal. Not only did we make it here, but each match we played, we played so well. We wanted to get this for each other, not just ourselves. You never actually think you can win a National, so to actually be able to accomplish it is crazy. We’re ecstatic.”
Interested in competing at the 2024 NTRP National Championships? Register for one of our NTRP qualifier tournaments, to be held this summer at Hofstra University. Champions in each division will advance to the National event, to be held in spring 2024.
*The NTRP National Standings List will determine who qualifies for 18 & Over singles and non-mixed doubles
July 8-9: 40 & Over 3.0, 3.5, 4.0, 4.5 Women (Singles + Doubles) REGISTER HERE
July 22-23: 40 & Over 3.0, 3.5, 4.0, 4.5 Men (Singles + Doubles) REGISTER HERE
July 29-30: 55 & Over 3.0, 3.5, 4.0, 4.5 Women (Singles + Doubles) REGISTER HERE
August 6: 18 & Over 6.0, 7.0, 8.0, 9.0 Mixed REGISTER HERE
August 26-27: 55 & Over 3.0, 3.5, 4.0, 4.5 Men REGISTER HERE