Long Island’s high school girls had a great year. The Island was very well-represented at the 2014 New York State Public High School Athletic Association (NYSPHSAA) Championships in Latham, N.Y., and the competition was fierce across the Island over the entire fall season.
Long Island Tennis Magazine had the chance to sit down with three players recently, Half Hollow Hills East’s Ester Chikvashvili, winner of the NYSPHSAA Singles Championship; and the Oyster Bay duo of Courtney Kowalsky & Celeste Matute, winners of the NYSPHSAA Doubles Championship.
Half Hollow Hills East’s Ester Chikvashvili Captures State Title
Last year, Half Hollow Hills East sophomore Ester Chikvashvili was one of the final eight players left in the 2013 New York State Public High School Athletic Association (NYSPHSAA) Championships before falling in the quarterfinals.
Now a junior, Chikvashvili used the experience she earned in her sophomore campaign to get back to the state tournament in Latham, N.Y. This time around, she would not be denied, capturing the first state championship in tennis for Hills East in 30 years.
“At first I was in shock,” said Chikvashvili. “I couldn’t believe I just did something I never thought I would be able to do.”
Chikvashvili knocked off Tomo Iwasaki of Edgemont 6-2, 3-6, 6-4 in the title match, illustrating the mental toughness and experience she gained to win the final set after dropping the second.
“Mentally, I was just extremely tough,” said Chikvashvili of being able to stay focused. “I played really smart and depended on my brains to get me out of those tight matches.”
That was no more evident than in the tournament’s quarterfinals when she trailed Locust Valley’s Alex Koniaev 6-1, 4-0, two games away from being eliminated from the quarters for a second straight year.
Instead of folding, the junior stormed back and rattled off the next six games to take the second frame. She would go on to win the third set in a tie-breaker on her way to the semifinals.
In the semis, she disposed of Mary Louis Academy’s Yuka Lin 6-0, 6-1 before taking on Iwasaki in the final.
A major reason for her success in Latham was due to her conditioning. Chikvashvili said that 2014 saw her play less tennis than she had in past years, therefore keeping her fresh late in the tournament while others were tiring.
Chikvashvili spent a lot of time in the past year training with the help of her family, something that she says allowed her to relax during practice sessions without feeling any pressure. Her younger sister Stephanie, 15, won the Suffolk County Doubles title as a sophomore, while her younger brother, Daniel, 13, is an eighth-grader.
“When I’m playing with them, I’m also making sure that they are improving and we could train without having any outside problems so there was no pressure at all,” said Chikvashvili. “I couldn’t have won this tournament without the support of my two siblings, Stephanie and Daniel, and my entire family.”
Chikvashvili became the first girls tennis player from Suffolk County to win a state title since Hauppauge’s Jennifer Kellner in 2008.
More importantly, for her, she was able to bring her Hills East team a state championship.
“It was my high school coach’s first state championship, so I thought that was pretty cool,” said Chikvashvili. “It was nice to be able to win, not just for myself, but also for my high school team and my teammates.”
Chikvashvili led Hills East to an unbeaten regular season, going 20-2 overall in her singles matches.
“Ester provided us with an all but certain win at first singles,” said Hills East Head Coach Tom DePelteau. “This enabled me to divert considerable strength to the doubles part of the lineup. I am extremely proud of what Ester accomplished this year, both in-season and at the state tournament. She displayed true tenacity and a gritty sense of poise in some pretty tense moments.”
One of those losses happened to come in the individual county championship to Hills West sophomore Courtney Provan, just two weeks prior to the state tournament.
“I basically told myself I have to accept my losses,” said Chikvashvili of her mindset after losses. “Nobody can ever win all the time. Just take every loss as an experience, learn from it and only improve. And I think that’s exactly what I did. I definitely did not get down on myself for losing that match. I accepted that she played amazingly and she just beat me that day.”
Despite only being in her third year of high school, Chikvashvili won’t have a chance to defend her state title in the fall next season. The junior is graduating from Hills East in the spring after just three years.
“Ever since I was a young kid, I valued academics over my tennis. But it was very difficult,” Chikvashvili said of balancing tennis and school work. “I think it is going to prepare me for college. I’ll admit, it was hard. I had to make a lot of sacrifices, but I am proud of myself.”
Chikvashvili will continue her tennis career on Long Island, as she has verbally committed to play at Stony Brook University.
Kowalsky & Matute Win First State Title in Oyster Bay History
Credit photos to Keith Kowalsky
The Oyster Bay High School Tennis program had gone its entire history without having a state champion in girls’ tennis.
Now it has two.
Courtney Kowalsky and Celeste Matute became the first girls tennis players from Oyster Bay, N.Y. to win a state championship in early November, defeating the top-seeded Suffern High School pair Sydney Kaplan & Courtney Ollis 6-4, 6-4 in the state finals in Latham, N.Y.
“It was the most amazing feeling,” said Matute, a junior. “I felt so proud of myself and Courtney and it was just such a big accomplishment.”
Despite both being underclassmen, the Oyster Bay duo dominated at each level of both the county and state tournaments. The duo was able to shake off the nerves of playing in a huge competition by relaxing each other and just enjoying the moment.
“We were definitely nervous going into counties and then heading to states,” said Kowalsky, who is just a sophomore. “But we tried to calm each other down by laughing on the court and just having fun. We knew whatever happens happens, but it was unbelievable that we came away with the title.”
In the state final, naturally, Kowalsky & Matute faced their toughest test against the top-seeded duo from Suffern. Each set was even at 4-4 before the Oyster Bay girls hung tough and won the final two games of each frame to clinch the championship.
“At 4-4 in the first set it was stressful, and Courtney and I were nervous, but we just had to refocus,” said Matute. “Our mental toughness had to increase and we needed to just work together to win it.”
Kowalsky added, “We just told each other to calm down and we did really good with that. All we focused on was getting that next ball onto the court.”
The ability to refocus and stay poised throughout the match comes from the off the court friendship the two have. Despite both being excellent singles players, the two bring out the best in each other when they take the court as a doubles tandem.
“Courtney and I have been playing doubles together since we were little but this is the first time we have ever done something this big together,” said Matute. “I think the reason we work so well on the court is because we have such a close relationship off the court.”
Their friendship keeps them relaxed during matches, but it is their skill sets that allow them to control the action.
“I have the power serve and she has the power volley, so both of them together create a dream team basically,” said Kowalsky. “We’re so lucky that we both have decent volleys because that’s what we really need and most teams don’t have.”
The fact that the two complement each other so well allows them to be aggressive and go for shots that some teams don’t normally go for. That confidence is a unique trait in such young players and is something that has developed the more the pair plays together.
While the girls high school tennis season is over, it is hardly an offseason for Kowalsky and Matute. The two are training together in order to get ready to defend their titles and attempt to lead Oyster Bay to a Nassau County Championship.
“Celeste and I are practicing and we’re playing doubles tournaments now outside of school because we now know we can go far with this,” said Kowalsky.
Matute added, “I expect nothing less than a second win. Courtney and I will be practicing hard through this year. It will take determination, but we can do it.”