For the first time, the best girls’ tennis teams in New York gathered in one place to compete for a state championship. It was the inaugural New York State Team Championship, and the level of play did not disappoint.
With tennis primarily being an individual sport, team tennis presents a unique challenge. Winning a team match requires more than just having good players up and down your roster, but also that those players come together to play for something bigger than themselves.
That is exactly what the team from Scarsdale High School represented, and part of the reason why Scarsdale won the first-ever New York State Girls’ Tennis Team Championship, edging Syosset 4-3 in a thrilling title match.
“I knew Syosset was going to be tough,” said Scarsdale head coach Jen Roane. “Our girls have been challenged throughout the season, but not like this. “I think the win meant a little more because it was so close. We had different people on the team who stepped up. My first doubles and second doubles teams, those are the first matches they've lost all season. I’m so proud of the way my third singles player came back. And our fourth doubles team stayed strong.”
That success was not an overnight product, but instead months and months of work by the team leading up to the state tournament at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
Laura Mendes was a co-captain alongside junior Natalie Hu, and together helped create the standard for the team.
“In the beginning of the season, we did not know what to expect. There were eight open spots for new players and only five of us were returning players coming into the year,” said Mendes, who played first doubles this past season. “As the season went on, however, we began to have higher expectations as our team dynamic grew and we began to become closer. Coach Roane was always supportive of us and helpful, giving us articles to read and pep talks before games. We knew that the road to States was not going to be easy, but we always had hope that everything would go our way.”
Hu echoed that sentiment:
“Laura and I already knew each other very well from years of training at the John McEnroe Tennis Academy (JMTA), so being co-captains together was fun and easy. We worked together on everything, from designing uniforms to organizing team bonding, while making sure everyone on the team could contribute to the team decisions,” said Hu, who won her match at first singles during the state championship. “Overall, what brought the team together was having everyone contribute to the team and spending a lot of time outside of the court to create a fun team environment.”
Scarsdale co-captain Natalie Hu won her match at first singles during the New York State Team Championship.
The chemistry and closeness of the team was something that developed, not only during this season but also, for some of them, from years and years of training and playing tennis together.
Many of the Scarsdale players have known each other going back to when they were kids, and have been playing together at Sportime Lake Isle in Eastchester, the Westchester home of the JMTA.
Mendes and Hu, along with Kay Cottrell, Giana Marks and Yelena Sahakyan, do their private training and practices at Lake Isle.
"They train together around three times a week, if not more, and they have been doing so for a few years,” said Josep Baro, the Assistant Academy Director for the John McEnroe Tennis Academy program at Sportime Lake Isle. “For high school and tournament players, we use up to eight courts at the facility every afternoon where we have all the players come and train together. Most of these girls have been with us since the very beginning when they were six or seven-years-old, which has helped them create that bond among themselves.”
That bond only grew stronger as the 2021 season went on, and really helped bridge the gap between the returning players to the Scarsdale team and its new members this season. The team made sure to hang out even when they were away from practices or matches to develop relationships that would turn them from a group of individual players, to a team.
“Most of the girls on the team were new, but with team bonding exercises and team dinners, we grew closer,” added Mendes. “We began to trust each other more both on and off the court. The girls and I that play at JMTA have always been close, even when none of us were on the team [at Scarsdale]. Throughout the years, we’ve watched each other grow and prosper both as individuals and players.”
For Marks, that closeness helped her as she adjusted to playing her first season of high school tennis this past fall. A freshman, Marks was welcomed onto the team and had an immediate impact on its success as she won several key matches in the second singles position throughout the year.
“Chemistry was very important to our team this year, and a lot of it came from the team-bonding activities where we all really got to know each other,” said Marks. “It was a little reassuring that I already knew some people on the team. A couple of years ago, I was in the same clinic with Natalie, Laura and Yelena. Already knowing them as people and how they played helped create a little bit of that chemistry even before the whole team was complete.”
Marks would deliver a huge victory during the state championship as she won her second singles match in straight sets to give Scarsdale its first point of the finals.
Giana Marks gets ready to hit a backhand during her second singles victory that helped Scarsdale secure the state title.
“This was my first year being on the team, but being able to compete in the state tournament with my teammates and win was an incredible experience that I will never forget,” said Marks. “I was able to be aggressive and stay positive the entire time during my match, and I never gave my opponent a chance to come back. It really meant a lot to get a win for our team and contribute to the end result of winning states. Since I was the first one done, I knew it was important to cheer on and support my other teammates. We all knew that the stakes were high, but when we supported each other it felt easier to win.”
That support was felt as the state championship was tied at three-all, with only the fourth doubles court remaining to decide the champion. After winning the first set in a tiebreaker, Cottrell & Natasha Pereira held on to win 6-3 in the second set to clinch the title. It was a nervous moment for the pairing as they were undecided on if they even wanted to know what was happening with the other matches.
“We were the last court playing, and we didn’t know we were tied 3-3 with Syosset because we were playing on a court where we couldn’t see the other six matches,” recalls Cottrell. “On our court, we were up 4-3 when we realized that a crowd had gathered to watch our match and figured that something was up. Coach Roane asked Natasha and me if we wanted to know what was happening. Natasha said yes, and I said no. But by then we both had figured out the situation.”
With everyone gathering atop the overlook watching section at the National Tennis Center, Cottrell & Pereira knew it was coming down to them. Specifically, it was coming down to Cottrell’s serve as she walked to the service line to try to close out the state championship.
“I was serving for what turned out to be the last game, we were up 5-3, and I was really, really overwhelmed,” she says. “But, I just focused on my serve, and getting the returns back. Then it was over! Everyone ran onto the court to celebrate. It was an amazing experience to share that win with Natasha and the rest of the team.”
The Scarsdale season was a truly historic one, and will reverberate for many years to come as the girls can always look back and call themselves the first New York State Girls’ Team Tennis Champions. It was the product of years of hard work of all the girls individually, and then the ability to come together as a team in pursuit of a common goal.
“This year, our team had so many opportunities to bond, which let us have incredible connections with each other,” added Sahakyan. “It was so important for us have good chemistry. Whether it was cheering on our teammates or our connections with our doubles partners, it all made the season much better.”
The standard has been set for what is expected from the players who put that Scarsdale jersey on, and much of it was cultivated years ago in training sessions and clinics at Sportime Lake Isle. Scarsdale will have a target on its back heading into next season, and it will be up to players like Cottrell, Hu, Marks and Sahakyan to continue the culture of excellence put in place by the 2021 team.
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org