USTA St. Louis Team Preps for Arizona
Michael O’Neill and a group of local players decided at the end of winter to form a powerhouse USTA St. Louis District 4.0 men’s team to make a run at winning Sectionals and earning qualification to the USTA League National Championships.
An eye-popping 21 consecutive wins later, O’Neill — the squad’s co-captain alongside Stefan Nosic — and his undefeated 18 & Over team accomplished their goal. They will represent St. Louis at the National Championships in Surprise, Arizona on October 15-17.
“We’re through the moon,” O’Neill said. “We had a thrilling win against Oklahoma to win it. It was really fun. We’re just eager to go on that trip in October. We’ve got houses and rental cars, a nice place to go, swim and also compete that weekend. We’re super excited.”
To get to Nationals and keep their unblemished record intact, O’Neill’s team had to battle through a pair of well-contested matches in the semifinals and finals of the USTA Missouri Valley League Section Championships at Dwight Davis Tennis Center. After finishing atop Pool A with a 3-0 mark, the group claimed a 3-2 victory over a USTA Iowa team in the semis.
That set up a showdown with an Oklahoma City-based team the St. Louis squad had scouted and prepped for in the title match. Despite O’Neill having to miss the contest due to a sprained wrist and standout doubles player Will Hamilton likewise having to skip due to health reasons, the USTA St. Louis team gutted out a compelling 3-2 win to capture the Sectional title and move to 21-0.
“It was a huge sense of relief for everybody to get through that team to go to Arizona,” O’Neill said. “It was really fun to have all of our fans. Their fans were there. Seeing other players from teams in St. Louis rooting us on. It was at our home court. That made it really nice to be able to pull it out. You don’t want somebody winning on your home court.”
The Sectional championship match see-sawed before USTA Oklahoma grabbed at least a one-break edge on the three courts that would determine the match’s outcome. That’s when the USTA St. Louis team dug deep. Needing to win two of those three contests, O’Neill’s team split two to put the spotlight on the No. 1 singles match. Joe Hawkes came up clutch in a thriller to punch his team’s ticket to Surprise.
“It was just a fight. That match was really entertaining and fun,” O’Neill said. “It was extremely hot that day with very windy conditions. It was tough to keep the ball in play. The hard thing is St. Louis has not won the title and gone to Nationals since I think 2013 or something. It’s been quite a while. We wanted to do that.”
While some of the team’s players have been to and nearly won a USTA League National Championship previously, it will be O’Neill’s first appearance. He called it “a dream to be able to go” and has been hard at work rehabilitating his wrist to try to get healthy for Arizona.
O’Neill’s teammates have been training to get ready for the high caliber of play they’ll see in Surprise. O’Neill noted the group has an “analytics team” of three or four guys who look at their opponent’s wins, rankings and ratings to develop a game plan to match up with them.
But perhaps the team’s biggest advantage is Nosic. The 4.5 player — who was selected as the 2021 USTA St. Louis District Adult Player of the Year — can’t play on the team because of his rating. But he manages the squad, attends some practices and sets the lineup. As an impartial onlooker, that alleviates any captain doubling as a player from having to make difficult playing-time decisions on a roster loaded with talent.
“We’ve got 10 to 12 players who are all a very similar level and are used to being alpha dogs on their team,” O’Neill said. “When you put them together, there’s a strong possibility for conflict. That helps a lot because we just go, do our best on the court and have fun afterward. You don’t have to be stressed out by the minutiae of what if this is the wrong decision. We just play. It’s out of our hands.”
In addition to their on-court ability, the USTA St. Louis 4.0 team does good work in the community. Players volunteered to pull weeds, trim bushes and help tidy Dwight Davis during a clean-up day. The group also wore purple during a spring match to support popular player Dolly Bischoff, who had recently died from pancreatic cancer.
“We do a good job representing the community, bringing people into tennis and trying to promote USTA and tennis in general,” O’Neill said. “Many of us play in World TeamTennis leagues as well as a variety of different USTA 4.0- and 4.5-level matches. A lot of us are playing on a tri-level team. We just enjoy playing with each other and playing on the same team.”
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