Eastern finishes strong at 2022 USTA League National Championships
A finish with a flourish. On the final weekend of competition at the 2022 USTA League National Championships, three USTA Eastern teams scored top results, with the section’s 40 & Over Mixed 6.0 team—based out of Albany, N.Y.—lifting the championship trophy in their division, and the Mixed 7.0 and 9.0 squads in the same age group—hailing from New York City and Rye, N.Y. respectively—both reaching the finals of their respective tournaments.
“It was a thrill to make it to Nationals,” said Marc Jennings, the captain of the 9.0 group. “We had done well throughout the regular season and at sectionals, and we took a very experienced team to Orlando [where the event was held]. We figured that if things came together on the courts, we might have a shot at making it to the semis or even the finals.”
Things did in fact come together on the courts—quite nicely. Jennings and Co. proved to be a force through the early round robin competition, amassing a 4-0 match record against contingents from USTA Texas, USTA Pacific Northwest, USTA Middle States and surrendering just two courts overall. The victory over USTA Texas, Jennings noted, was particularly sweet for the team; they had previously lost to the same group from the Lone Star State in the semifinals in their first trip to Nationals back in 2012.
“[Back then] we lost a very close match that still stings,” Jennings said. “But the silver lining to that is we had extra motivation to get a great result this time. And one of our most memorable moments [during the competition] was when our Texas opponents were nice enough to come up and congratulate us on our strong run and win over them.”
Another memorable moment: the deciding court in the final against USTA Florida, which ultimately came down to a dramatic 10-point match tiebreaker. The pair from the Sunshine State “went on a hot streak” and raced out to a 9-5 lead, holding four championship points. But Eastern’s Chiara Ciabatti and Tobias Glitterstam refused to let their team’s 2022 campaign end, saving all four of the points to level the score at 9-9.
“In a lifetime of playing and watching tennis, the next point was unforgettably good,” Jennings said. “The rally must have gone for 20 points. Powerful, accurate cross-court groundstrokes to keep the ball away from the net player, volleys exchanged and defended, a defensive lob that pushed the opponents to the back court, and then more groundstrokes ripped crosscourt. It seemed as if every player was in the zone and it was remarkable to watch. The level was as high, if not higher, than any 9.0 match I’ve ever seen.”
Sadly, Eastern ultimately ended up losing that point—and the next—to finish as runners-up. But the team held their head up high, celebrated their successes—and began looking ahead to 2023.
“Of course, we would rather have won, but as the captain I reminded the players of all the wins we did have, and it just strengthened our resolve to win it all next time,” Jennings said. “This 9.0 team has a third place finish and a second place finish at Nationals. Next time it is ours!”
Jennings noted that “the core of the team” has competed together since that 2012 season and that many of the players, interestingly, originally hailed from a wide assortment of countries all over the globe before settling in New York. Among the nations represented on the squad included Canada, India, Italy, South Africa, Sweden and Zimbabwe. Getting to form such close bonds with so many different people—and working toward a common goal—are some of the major draws of USTA League tennis, Jennings said.
“To come within two points of winning the championship is inevitably something that makes you wonder, ‘What if?’” he explained. “But in the end it was not about those two points, it was about a season of camaraderie, competing our best, and a feeling that we made it right to the very top of our level. The stars did not quite align, just by a fraction, but we are fiercely proud of this gutsy, remarkable team of athletes and people.”
Similarly to their 9.0 counterparts, Eastern’s 7.0 Mixed squad also remained undefeated through the early rounds of competition, sailing past opponents from USTA Southwest, USTA Midwest, USTA New England and USTA Missouri Valley. They dropped just one court (and lost just three sets) to head into the semifinals as the top-ranked team. Impressively, they scored the results with a shallow bench, as they arrived to the competition in Surprize, Ariz. with a smaller number of players than normal.
“Since we were a slim team, we just dug deep,” said captain Esther Hong. “We wanted to represent Eastern and our teammates who could not join in the best way possible. With each match, we banded together and fought with all that we had.”
Due to the size of the group, some players had to compete in every match, which ultimately made for an exhausting weekend overall. In the end, they were more than elated to lift the finalist trophy.
“It feels a bit like a dream,” Hong said. “I’m still amazed by what our team accomplished in Arizona. We had hopes of doing well and prepared as best we could. I never imagined we would finish the round robin matches in first place. Then making it to finals was just icing on the cake.”
Of course, the greatest part of the experience for Hong was—like Jennings—getting the opportunity to bond with her teammates, as well as meet new people. She said one of the most fun matches she’s ever played was in her battle against a New England team, a contest she and her doubles partner ultimately ended up losing.
“Our opponents were a great pair,” she said. “We both nominated each other for ‘Best Sportsmanship’ awards, and they even stuck around to cheer us on during the semis and then finals. It’s great that the USTA League program offers so many opportunities to meet and play with different people.”