Eastern at the 2023 USTA National Winter Championships
Starting the year off strong. Team Eastern welcomed 2023 by posting top results at the USTA National Winter Championships, held December 28 through January 3 at the National Campus in Orlando, Fla. and the Reffkin Tennis Center in Tucson, Ariz.
Parsippany, N.J.’s James Lian overcame Waleed Qadir of USTA Southern, 7-5, 0-6, 6-3, to claim the title in the boys’ 18s division, while Leena Friedman, of Brooklyn, N.Y., defeated fellow Eastern junior Sophia Holod, 6-1, 6-4, to lift the championship hardware in the girls’ 16s division. Both athletes contested their matches at the Orlando venue, while juniors in the 12s and 14s competed in Arizona.
“It feels great to win my first singles super National title, and to do so at the tail end of my junior career makes it feel extra special,” Lian said after his victory. “It’s a testament to all of the hard work I’ve put in, both on the tennis court and in the gym.”
All that hard work definitely showed over the course of the event, as Lian, the No. 10 seed, sailed through the draw to the final without dropping a single set. He felt that he did a good job maintaining a positive attitude and controlling his nerves throughout, which allowed him to effectively execute his game plan against his various opponents and swing freely on important points. The biggest obstacle, he noted, was getting used to the mercurial central Florida climate.
“I [had] been practicing indoors since September, so the main challenge at the beginning was just getting used to the outdoor conditions,” Lian said. “I especially struggled in my first round match, but as the tournament went on I was able to find my timing.”
Another challenge was the final itself. Lian won a tightly-contested first set, but Qadir stormed back, capturing the next six games in a row to level the score.
“[In the second] my opponent stayed disciplined while I didn't, and that was the difference,” Lian explained of the momentum-swinging battle. “I missed a lot of first balls after the serve and return and wasn't really giving myself a chance to build the point. In the decider I just tried to give up as few free points as possible. I played high-percentage tennis while also being aggressive in the right moments, and that is what helped me ultimately claim the match.”
Lian, who is committed to playing tennis at Brown University in the fall, hopes the victory is a springboard for a successful 2023.
“The next major events on my calendar this year are the Easter Bowl and [USTA National Hard Courts at] Kalamazoo, so I will continue to improve my game and hopefully perform well in those tournaments,” he said.
Friedman, too, only dropped one set (against USTA Southern California’s Kenzie Nguyen in their quarterfinal matchup) en route to capturing the girls' 16s title. The key to her success over the course of the event? Avoiding fixating too much on any potential outcome, she said.
“As much as winning the tournament felt amazing, I find the most joy in the process of continuous improvement,” Friedman explained. “It’s really nice to see the work I’ve put in pay off, but it doesn’t always happen that way. My focus is mainly on improving my game, and the matches will come.”
That mindset helped Friedman in her championship battle against Holod, of East Setauket, N.Y. After claiming the first set, Friedman noticed that Holod began to lift her level and worked quickly to adapt to the situation.
“In the second set, my opponent began taking control of some of the balls I left shorter, so to adjust, I made sure to run down everything and make her play one more ball every time,” she said. “I felt locked in throughout the first set, but [in the second] I had to make sure to continue to stay focused on every point, not the end result.”
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges of the tournament for Friedman came one match earlier, when she faced her friend, fellow Eastern athlete and frequent doubles partner Summer Chandler in the semifinals. The pair recently won the girls’ 16s doubles title at the National Indoor Championships in November and finished as runners-up at the USTA Billie Jean King Girls' 16 & 18 National Championships in August.
“Summer and I have been friends since we were very young, and it is always hard to play your friends,” Friedman said. “It was definitely tough mentally, but our friendship and partnership was strong enough to hug at the net afterwards.”
And just an hour after their battle against each other, Chandler and Friedman were on the same side of the court again to claim third place in the doubles draw. That wouldn’t be the last of Friedman’s trophy haul in Orlando, either. In addition to claiming the singles championship and a Top 3 finish in doubles, the New York City native also received a sportsmanship award for her conduct throughout the event.
“This tournament was an amazing experience,” she said. “I want to give a shout-out to the referees and tournament director who ran a great week of matches.”
Notable Eastern results:
Michelle Lee (Bronze Ball, Girls’ 12s Singles)
Isabelle DeLuccia (Silver Ball, Girls’ 14s Doubles)
Carrie-Anne Hoo (Silver Ball, Girls’ 14s Singles)
Ireland O’Brien (Semifinals, Girls’ 14s Singles)
Leena Friedman (Champion, Girls’ 16s Singles and Bronze Ball, Girls’ 16s Doubles)
Sophia Holod (Silver Ball, Girls’ 16s Singles)
Summer Chandler (Semifinals, Girls’ 16s Singles and Bronze Ball, Girls’ 16s Doubles)
James Lian (Champion, Boys’ 18s Singles)
Kaitlyn Carnicella and Stephanie Yakoff (Semifinals, Girls’ 18s Doubles)
Complete USTA National Winter Championship Results: