Road to Nationals: Adult 18&O 4.5 Women's Team from Chicago District
Surprise, Arizona has hosted three out of six national championship-winning Midwest teams at the USTA League National Championships.
In Arizona — where tennis balls “fly” rather than bounce — Ayano Nakamura co-captained her Adult 18 & Over 4.5 Women’s team to victory. Fra Angelica Farinas also co-captained.
The women’s team from Arlington Heights, Illinois in the Chicago Area, represented the USTA Midwest Section and was crowned National Champions this year at the Surprise Tennis and Racquet Complex — where they fought hard enough to win all six of their matches.
Teammates among the two captains included Jessica Wagner, Megan Nguyen, Susan Byrne, Jennifer Langtry, Huan Chang, Marialin Lomongo, Marianne Sharping, Mary Therese Lee, Randi Wind, Jennifer Zientarski, Jasmine Madrid, Nicole Kitsuse, Lala Walla, Kaitlin Ulbert, Katharine Cole, Shana Cal and Karen Majerczak. The women all play at River Trails Tennis Center in Mount Prospect, Illinois close to Busse Woods.
Most of them met just a few years ago.
“Tennis brought us together,” says Co-Captain, Ayano Nakamura. “Three years ago we met for the first time! Actually our first time together as a team, we made it to Nationals. That time we came in fifth place, and because we made it, we had to split up.”
Ayano’s referring to the USTA rule that disperses teams after making it to the national championships for one year. The team decided to take that single year off, rather than breaking apart and forming new teams, and this year they banded back together.
“So we’ve been together for three years, but officially we’ve only competed two… As we travel and room together, we just became really close,” says Ayano. “Often after matches, we’ll all go to eat and hang out together. We go out to the bars! We’re all really close.”
Before Nationals, on their home courts at River Trails, they weren't scheduling official practices.
“Because we’re all really good friends, and we like hitting and playing against each other, we get together like once a week and hit... Kind of like open tennis. We’ll see who’s available and if we can get a court or two going of doubles, but we’re pretty lenient. I know some clubs have weekly practices that you have to attend, but we just kind of hit for fun when we can.”
Ayano calls it, “a good rhythm,” for the Adult 18 & Over 4.5 Women’s team.
Most of the ladies are around the same age. Ayano guesses her team averages around 30 or 32 years old, and a lot of them have been playing tennis since they were kids; Ayano included.
“My mom actually plays tennis and plays USTA as well. So she kind of taught me when I was younger — just going outside and hitting balls for fun. I got a little more serious when I was in seventh or eighth grade.”
Ayano started taking lessons and went on to play for her high school team in Novi, Michigan then played college tennis at Kalamazoo College, a D3 school.
But tennis in the Midwest has an extremely different feeling than in the desert.
“[The Surprise Tennis and Racquet Complex] is a beautiful complex! This was our second time there. So we knew what to expect,” Ayano explains about Nationals. “It’s very different from playing indoors in the Midwest than going to Arizona and playing outdoors. The balls fly there! It’s a completely different pace.”
Outside the competition, the women stayed at one big Airbnb together. “We laid out by the pool and whatnot,” Ayano laughs.
The trip, however, was spent mostly running — chasing one tennis ball after the next.
Chicago’s first match in Arizona was against Southern — a team from Tennessee. Chicago won 4-1. In their second match, they played Florida and came out ahead 3-2. Match three was against NorCal with Chicago winning 4-1 and in their fourth match they took on Missouri Valley winning all five sets.
“We were in first place after those matches. So we were the number one seed going into the semi-finals.”
The semi-finals were against a team from the Intermountain Section from Las Vegas, Nevada — more accustomed to the dry desert air, but it was Chicago that came out on top without giving up a single set. Ayano’s team won 5-0.
The women’s final match was against a Minnesota team from the Northern District. The competition was nerve-wracking and fierce — giving all who watched an exhilarating, final showdown.
“It was just mixed emotions,” recalls Ayano. “I mean we were all so nervous… It was 2-2 and our last court was still playing. It was a third-set tie-breaker… It felt like no one was breathing. There was so much tension in the air.”
Then, after one last point, the tension released… The Chicago team won 3-2 in the Championship match.
“Everyone just exploded with joy! We were all screaming,” Ayano remembers. “We rushed the court… It was just one big group hug and it was very emotional. A lot of the players were crying tears of joy because we knew we worked hard to get to Nationals. We always said, we have the skills to do it and we have the team to do it. So we were really excited that we were able to execute and actually win!”
When asked about her team's special skill-sets, she was sure to include every member.
“Our whole lineup was strong. We, fortunately, had two players who were very good at playing singles. Then we had doubles teams that have played years together and who know each others’ game.”
During her interview, Ayano takes the time to also appreciate members of her Chicago tennis community who are not on her team.
“It’s a pretty small group in our 4.5 Women’s section… You get to know your opponents and your team. Then it becomes more like social play, and it’s a lot of fun… It’s a really nice group of ladies out of Chicago that we play with.”
After Chicago’s team win at Nationals, the inevitable news that follows is: the team must disperse once again.
Ayano and her teammates already know how they’ll approach the situation after previously being in this predicament three years ago.
“We’re friends and we don’t really want to play against each other. We’ve decided to probably just take a year off until we can get back together as a team.”
With new ratings coming out at the end of the year, some of the players may even get bumped up from their current 4.5 rating to a 5.0, which could open up possibilities for the team to compete next year after all. “We’ll just sit tight and see what happens,” says Ayano.
In the meantime, Chicago’s team celebrates what a fun road trip it was to Nationals and the success they found there in the end.
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