Eastern League Team Wins National Championship
The Full Metal Racquets caused quite a racket. Eastern's 40 & Over 3.0 Men's team—dubbed the Full Metal Racquets—stormed through the draw to take home the top trophy at the 2021 USTA League National Championships, held October 22-24 in Surprise, Arizona. It's the first title of the event for an Eastern squad.
"Nationals is a long tournament—there are always ups and downs," Captain Josh Faust said. "We stayed together through it all and persevered. We used a lot of comic relief, Advil. Everybody supported each other the entire time."
The team—based out of Chestnut Ridge Racquet Club in Mount Kisco, N.Y.—started out on more of an "up", claiming all of their four courts (one singles and three doubles) in straight sets against USTA New England. They'd go on to lose just three courts and seven sets total against teams from USTA Missouri Valley, USTA Southern and USTA Southern California, attaining the second-best record overall and easily reaching the late stages of the tournament. In the semis and finals, they continued their winning ways, comfortably coming out on top against USTA Mid-Atlantic and USTA Florida respectively to capture the title.
"This team succeeded because of our depth," Faust said. "Everyone who was able to make the trip played and got us a victory."
Among those team members: Jeff Dallesandro and David Becker, who produced "the best tennis of their lives on the biggest stage" to go 6-0 in all their doubles matches throughout the event; Ben Morton, who flew to Surprise to compete in and win one "grueling" singles match before he had to turn around and head back to New York the very same day; and Christian Stover, who stepped up to play singles at the last minute in the final.
"Christian's been working so hard on his game the past six months, but I'd only really watched him play doubles," Faust said. "We had no intention of playing him at singles, but right before the final our top singles player said he wasn't 100%. Christian stepped up to the plate and played out of his mind against a great opponent [from USTA Florida]. And his straight sets victory was the win we needed to clinch our championship."
Amazingly, Faust noted that the group only started players together in 2019, with Faust himself only picking up a racquet for the first time a year prior, so that he could spend time with his wife, already an avid fan of the sport. Still, he said the team had accrued "hundreds of hours" together on and off the court in that time.
"We had a lot of tough losses to bond over in those early years, a lot of injuries to get through," he said. "We're good friends from a very small geography. We all play at the same local club, and the entire club has been rooting for us over the past few months. We feel honored to represent them. They've seen our progress as players firsthand."
He specifically credited Brad Breakstone, the Director of Tennis at Chestnut Ridge, for helping with that progress.
"We have the best coach in the country in Brad Breakstone," he said. "He's taught most of us how to play over the past few years—we've all taken lessons from him. He couldn't make it to Nationals, so he texted each of us very lengthy texts ahead of matches with words of wisdom. He's a huge MVP."
Reflecting on his 2021 USTA League experience overall, Faust said the best part for him was "strengthening relationships with an incredible group of human beings." He never imagined at the beginning of the year that they would be the last team standing at Nationals, let alone get to Nationals at all.
"Our goal [at the start of the season] was to make [USTA Eastern] Sectionals and play there," Faust said. "Making it to Nationals was not on our radar. At Nationals we just wanted to play competitive tennis. We had no idea we would have any shot at winning it. We went 1-0 and thought we had a chance. At 2-0, we started to dream. Once we earned a semis berth we started to believe and figured, 'Why not us?' Winning Nationals was never a dream for any of us, which makes the victory that much sweeter."
The Racquets' Eastern couterparts on the women's side also made their mark in Surprise, finishing as finalists in their division.
"This is the first time I've ever captained a team, and I aimed to win a National Championship from the beginning," Captain Jaeeun Lee said. "When I recruited people from various groups all over Long Island, I promised them that they would be at Nationals. I'm happy to keep my promise to my teammates."
The Roslyn-based team had a remarkable run of form during local play, losing just one court and winning 203 out of 207 points. At Nationals they continued that trend, defeating contingents from USTA Carribean, USTA Missouri Valley, USTA New England and USTA Northern California to finish in the Top 4 and reach the semifinals. In the semis they faced a tough task: USTA Florida, who had amassed the best record overall in the early stages of the event, ceding just one of their sixteen courts and dropping just four sets. Impressively, the Sunshine State group lost only 88 games, becoming one of two teams to lose less than 100 games en route to their semifinal berth. The other? USTA Eastern, who had dropped 94.
Predictably, then, the semifinal turned into quite the all-East Coast battle. Each of the four matches played headed to a third-set super tiebreak—with Eastern emerging victorious in all four to advance. Lee said the matchup was by the far the biggest challenge of the weekend, but it was also the most fun, due to some unexpected spectators.
"[After] we swept the Missouri Valley team in the third match of the round robin, their captain recognized the [Eastern doubles] pair she competed against with a Sportmanship Award. [Then] her team and the Texas team came to our semifinal and final to watch and cheer for us, even cheering my name while I was playing singles."
Eastern would ultimately finish runner-up to USTA Pacific Northwest, but Lee loved the Nationals experience and the opportunity to bond with her fellow teammates. She noted that they all hoped to make one particular fan proud: The mother of one of the team's players, who passed away just ten days before the tournament started.
"She was a big supporter of [her daughter's] run to Nationals." Lee said. "She was in the hospital the last couple months, but was so insistent her daughter didn't cancel [tennis matches]. The whole team felt she was cheering us on throughout the event."
Congratulations to both USTA Eastern's 40 & Over 3.0 teams (pictured together, below) on their excellent results!