A Tennis Journey to Kalamazoo …

Coach Gerry Ashley with the “C” Monsters during the USTA Boys and Girls 14 North Zone Team Championships, held at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Mich., July 28-Aug. 1
Photo credit: Zolton Cohen
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The following is taken from the blog of Gerard Ashley of Sportime at Roslyn, tennis director and USTA tournament director, documenting his coaching trip to the USTA Boys and Girls 14 North Zone Team Championships, held at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Mich., July 28-Aug. 1.

Tuesday, July 27
The alarm goes off at 3:00 a.m. Normally, I might hit the snooze button, but I cannot today because my 4:15 a.m. shuttle is taking me straight to LaGuardia to catch a 6:30 a.m. flight to Chicago, where I will catch a connection to Kalamazoo, Mich.
I am scheduled to arrive in Kalamazoo close to 10:30 a.m., pick up my rental car and make my way to the hotel. I need to meet up with the other eastern coaches and then get to a noon meeting where we will be introduced to not only the tournament directors and USTA officials, but all of the coaches from the other sections that will be participating in this event. At this meeting, we will go over all of the rules and regulations, and most importantly, the format:

►Two flights of six teams

►Boys and girls scores will count together

►Each team match will consist of 12 singles matches and six doubles matches

►Each team match will be 18 possible points

During this meeting, I find out the kids who I will be in charge of.

At 2:00 p.m., we do a meet and greet with my players and their parents. This can be a little bit overwhelming, and maybe the first year I coached at one of these events, I was a tad nervous, but not this year! I know many of the kids already simply because I have run so many USTA tournaments over the years that I have met them in one way or another.

I feel relaxed and am ready to have a good time with my team. We have to line up for pictures, and then figure out what our team name will be. This is a very important moment for a team. We were considered the third eastern team out of four playing in the event. So in essence we were “Eastern C,” and after much deliberation, we came up with The "C" Monsters. With 12 players and myself, that was the best we could come up with! After pictures, it was about 5:30 p.m., and I was able to have a brief practice. This is where I can really begin to open up the lines of communication and get to know the kids on a personal level and also see their styles. We finish up the night with a team social that goes until roughly 8:00 p.m. Time to get back to hotel and get some rest for our first match the next day!

The "C" Monsters Roster
Boys
#1 Singles Artem Khrapko Corning, N.Y.
#2 Singles Alex Lebedev Island Park, N.Y.
#3 Singles Winn Smith Brooklyn, N.Y.
#4 Singles Julian Rozenstein Morganville, N.J.
#5 Singles Jack Turchetta Pound Ridge, N.Y.
#6 Singles Edan Sossen Oakland Gardens, N.Y.

Girls
#1 Singles Arielle Shuren Montebello, N.Y.
#2 Singles Paulina Tafler Oceanside, N.Y.
#3 Singles Maddie Sterns Short Hills, N.J.
#4 Singles Isabella Turchetta Pound Ridge, N.Y.
#5 Singles Jacqueline Urbinati Harrison, N.Y.
#6 Singles Casey Marx Mendham, N.J.

Wednesday, July 28
Our match time is scheduled for 1:00 p.m. against a team from the New England area (Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island). Before each match, I schedule a short 45 min. practice, and then head to our match of the day.

We split our doubles and it's a rocky start to the day for the "C" Monsters when our top girl, Arielle Shuren, bangs her knee into a fence while chasing down a ball during her doubles match. Her knee is so bad that she has to retire in doubles, as well as singles. At this point, I don't know if we will have her for the rest of the week which would be a huge blow to our team. Not exactly the start we were looking for, but the show must go on!
The boys also spilt their singles matches, and thanks to Jack Turchetta, who wins rather easily 6-4, 6-1, and Artem Khrapko and Winn Smith both win three-setters. Winn's match took more than three hours and it was simply an awesome display of determination and stamina.

Now the girls had a much easier time, winning four out of six matches, highlighted by Maddie Sterns winning her own three-set match, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3. All in all, a good day for the “C” Monsters, and with Arielle's injury, we were still able to squeak by with a 10-8 victory. Many kids would have packed it up and quit for the week, but I give Arielle a lot of credit. She showed a lot of fight and decided to continue to play the rest of the week, even though she wasn’t at 100 percent.

Thursday, July 29
On Thursday, things got a bit tougher. Our first match was set for 8:00 a.m., and we played against a team from the Midwest (Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin) which means the coach and players are up at 5:45 a.m. for breakfast and off to the practice courts by 6:45 a.m., talking strategy and going over the doubles teams that will be paired up later that morning.

This match was pretty straightforward, as we grabbed an early lead in doubles, four matches to two. Then, our girls go out, starting with Casey Marx playing number six, who won 6-3, 6-2 and was simply a rock at her position all week as she fought hard in every single match she played in!

Then, Paulina Tafler, our number two player, plays what was the toughest match of the day. She wins a battle 7-5, 4-6, 7-6(5). Way to go Paulina!

As far as our boys, they did quite well, winning five out of six matches, highlighted by Edan Sossen winning a very impressive 6-0, 6-0 (not an easy feat at this level) and Julian Rozenstein, who played number four all week, winning, 6-4, 6-1.

Friday, July 30
Friday wound up being a tough one. The "C" Monsters were playing well, leading up to this match. We were 2-0, and feeling good about our chances, and then we ran into a buzzsaw of a team in yet another Midwestern squad that wound up making it all the way to the finals. This team came out of the gates running on all cylinders. They jumped out to a 5-1 lead in doubles and never looked back. Our boys played tough and wound up splitting their six matches, highlighted by Artem Khrapko, who must have ice in his veins because all he did was win this week, playing one tough match after another. In addition to his strong play, and more importantly, he wound up winning the only Sportsmanship Award that was given out to an Eastern Boys team member who showed great class and dignity throughout the week. Congratulations Artem … you deserved it!

The girls had a tougher time of it. The one ladies match that stood out to me was our number four, Isabella Turchetta who won, 6-3, 6-0. She played great, was always cheering on her teammates and was definitely a key factor in keeping the team together. Thank you, Isabella!

Saturday, July 31
At 8:00 a.m., we were scheduled to play against one of the northern teams from Minnesota. We wound up losing this match by a very close margin; however, there were two distinct memories of this day.
The first one deals with my number three, Winn Smith. This young man is simply a warrior. It seemed like he was playing in one long continuous match all week. However, on this particular day, Winn had to battle through a bloody nose that would not stop. He had the trainer trying to help him on changeovers … he needed to play while having gauze in his nose … it's not hard enough to breath when you are out on the court for three hours … try playing when you can only breath out of one nostril. Winn wound up losing in the third set, but I give him credit for staying out on the court and fighting until the end. I would be happy to have a team full of Winns any day of the week!

The second highlight of the day deals with my number two, Alex Lebedev. I had the pleasure of working with Alex last year at the 12s Zonals at Penn State. This young man has all the talent in the world, and will continue to be a solid tennis player, but one thing as a coach that I cannot deal with is when someone starts to give up and stops believing in themselves. That’s where I, as a coach, come into play. Alex was not doing well in the first set and basically gave away the end of the set by hitting every forehand as hard as he could and as far out as he could. This is where, as a coach, you hope that you can push the right buttons with your players, and with that thought in mind, I gave Alex a minor tongue lashing at the end of the set. This is really not my style as a coach, but I knew Alex could handle it. I did my best Bobby Knight or Lou Piniella impersonations, as I left the court talking to myself loud enough for Alex to hear, and crossed my fingers as I was out of his sight that he would not further implode. To his credit, he stormed back and won the second set with ease, 6-1. The third set was close, but in the end, Alex was the one left standing, winning a very hard-fought third set, 7-5. It's moments like these that I will remember and cherish. I only hope that Alex learns from this experience, and hopefully, that moment makes a little difference in not only his level of tennis, but also translates into a life lesson in never quitting!

Sunday, August 1
Wow … I cannot believe that the week has flown by so quickly! We had morning matches and early afternoon matches that ran right up until my return flight to New York. I changed in the car on the way to the airport, not an easy task and probably not legal either, but that’s beside the point.

The one glowing image that sticks out to me for from Sunday’s play would be the match with our number five Jackie Urbinati. Jackie was, by far, the best number five that I saw, and quite honestly, she could have easily played up a couple of spots. She did not lose a singles match all week, but was tested on more than one occasion this day. She won her first set rather easily, 6-2; however, started getting some very questionable calls against her to the point where this girl got into the head of Jackie and wound up coming back and winning the second set to tie up the match. It is in the heat of these moments that you find out about the character and heart of a player. Jackie was visibly shaken and mentally drained with all of the bad calls. She was complaining of not feeling well, and I thought for a very quick moment¸ that maybe it would be best for her to retire from the match all together. I had the trainer speak with her, as well as her mother. It wasn't looking good, but I didn't want Jackie to walk away from the match with any regrets and let someone who made bad calls on purpose get the better of her.
After talking to her for a few minutes, she said those four wonderful words to me: "I want to play." As she went back onto the court, I was saying to myself, “Gerry, I hope you didn't misread this one.” I would have felt awful if Jackie made it halfway through the set, and then needed to retire because of how she was feeling.

It became apparent to me that Jackie had the heart of a lion and was not going down without a fight. She started the third set with something to prove, and took it out on her opponent right up to the finish by winning 6-3. I was very proud of her, and felt like I had helped her accomplish something bigger than a tennis match.

In closing
As I flew home, I had time to think about the events that had transpired over the past week. I would like to thank not only the USTA Eastern Section, but in particular, Julie Bliss for affording me the opportunity to go to Kalamazoo, Mich. and represent the Section in what I hope was a professional manner.

I would also like to acknowledge the head coach of the Eastern Section, Mark Savage, whose team wound up winning the entire Zonals competition … way to go Eastern "A.” Every time I spend some time with Mark at these Zonal events, I just try and pick up a few important things that will not only make me a better coach, but a better person as well.

I want to thank all of the parents of the team who were able to join us on this amazing trip, and last but not least, I want to thank my team and all of its players. You guys and gals were great, and you made my experience a memorable one. Reading all of the little notes that you wrote for me was special, and I wish all of you nothing but the best of luck!

There's only one thing left to say ... Go "C" Monsters!