Eastern's 2.5 Women's team claims national title at 2023 USTA League Championships
Kicking off Nationals with a trophy! USTA Eastern’s 18 & Over 2.5 Women’s team—based out of Garden City, N.Y.—captured the title in their division on the first weekend of competition at the 2023 USTA National League Championships, held September 29-October 1 in Tucson, Arizona.
“It’s a Cinderella story,” Captain Laura Crain said of the victory. “I couldn't have written a script better than how this all went, I’m telling you. We’ve still got our mouths open in shock.”
Prior to the extraordinary result, the women—most of whom only picked up tennis after the COVID-19 pandemic—primarily competed against each other on three separate teams in an interclub league in Garden City. But they were all good friends, and Crain thought it might be fun for everybody to come together as “one supergroup, like the Traveling Wilburys,” she said with a laugh.
Of course, at the beginning of the 2023 season, they didn't necessarily possess the clout of that 1980s supergroup. New to the USTA league format, the squad even headed into their Long Island regional playoff as heavy underdogs, but they ultimately dug deep and developed a winning strategy to emerge victorious. At Eastern’s sectional championship, they showed up as “this team of misfits” with most of their children in tow. (“We have 50 kids between the six of us,” Crain joked.) Crain herself actually left a family vacation in Hershey Park, Pennsylvania to play three courts at the event, then turned around and drove straight back to the Keystone State the following day. Still, they fought hard and found a way to win.
They faced long odds again in Tucson as they prepared to go up against more experienced opponents.
“We were like The Bad News Bears,” Crain said. “We’re 40-year-old moms.”
They were also competing with a numbers disadvantage. With only six players, five players needed to compete in each match (consisting of one singles court and two doubles courts). Most of the other teams, said Crain, brought around ten competitors and a coaching pro to help out. Still, they maximized their capabilities, and emerged with a 4-0 record in round robin play, overcoming contingents from USTA Hawaii, USTA Southern California, USTA Intermountain and USTA Texas to punch their ticket to the semifinals.
“I think managing our [energy levels] with how tired we were [was key],” Crain said. “Everyone stepped up. If one person wasn't feeling well, we tried to pair her with a stronger player who wasn’t necessarily her usual partner. And we would switch up at singles, doubles…as many combinations as we could to keep us as fresh as possible.”
Crain noted the battle against Texas was the most dramatic. The teams split courts—Eastern won in singles while Texas claimed the first doubles contest. Crain and partner Caitlin Sorohan needed to win their second doubles battle to ensure a place in the semifinals. But the Eastern duo ended up splitting sets with their opponents, meaning their improbable championship campaign hinged on the outcome of a ten-point tiebreaker.
The pair did not exactly get off to the start they envisioned. After a couple nervy mistakes, Crain and Sorohan found themselves down 5-9 and just one point away from elimination. With Texas’s deep bench cheering loudly for their teammates, the Eastern duo gave each other a pep talk. They resolved to become backboards and just not miss. Texas would need to earn it.
“We had to be perfect for another five minutes or our season was done, and we knew that,” Crain said. “So we looked at each other and we said, ‘Let's just get one more point.’ And then it was 6-9, then 7-9, then 8-9, 9-9, 10-9. And [on the next point], they hit [the ball] at Caitlin’s feet. She deflected it and lobbed it over their heads. Everybody was screaming ‘It’s gonna drop in!’ One of the Texas players swung and missed, and it hit the ground, and it was just like an eruption, like a moment frozen in time. I don’t think it’d even sunk in [that we’d won] until people around us started cheering. Scoring six points in a row to make the semis…I’ll never forget that as long as I live.”
Their victories in the semis—against USTA Northern California—and in the final—against USTA Carribbean—displayed no less scrap and grit. Although the scoreline appeared to be routine, Elise Chamberlain battled her opponent—and the 100-degree Tucson heat—for two hours and 20 minutes to score a critical 6-4, 6-3 semifinal singles victory; the last game of the contest turned into a back-and-forth duel that spanned eight deuce points. And in the final, Sivan Chapman and Marie Romeo-Gough overcame a 1-5 deficit in the second set of their doubles bout to claim the court, 6-1, 7-6, and ultimately ensure that Garden City’s tennis version of the Traveling Wilburys would hoist the championship hardware.
For Crain, the experience was “such a blur,” she said. “We joked that we needed a vacation from this vacation. It was such a whirlwind, but it was so much fun strategizing and being together and dissecting the matches and eating the dinners together. We really came together—it made us a stronger core group.”
She also made a bunch of new friends.
“I’m so thankful to the Intermountain team,” she explained. “I lost to a woman named Lori in the singles court [of that round robin match], but she became such a support. She rallied her entire team, and they came and cheered us on through the semifinals and finals. They almost became our teammates. If that’s not the spirit of this, I don’t know what is.”
Of course, coming back home to Garden City with the title made the weekend feel even more spirited.
“I get to say I’m a national champion,” Crain said. “[It’s so great] to have a 2.5 championship, because people who aren’t Serena Williams get to have moments like this. I started playing tennis at 36. I'm never going to be at Wimbledon, but we got to go and play Hawaii and Intermountain and Southern California and Northern California and Texas in a national event and win a national title and that's incredible. I’m just so grateful.”