In April 2021, Ari Byer, a contractor from Beverly Hills, Michigan, sent a crucial email. It wasn’t for work. It wasn’t to please cancel his subscription. It was to his tennis team. At Franklin Athletic Club in Michigan. To remind them, he says, “Of our ultimate – no, our only – goal for the year: to make it to nationals.”
More than 300,000 players competed in USTA Leagues this year. Throughout October and November, the winningest among them, from 17 sections, across 34 divisions, came together to play for the USTA National League Championships, one of the premiere tennis events in the country.
Byer and his team of 3.5 (rating level) men, in the over 40 division, arrived at Oklahoma City Tennis Center – a multi-million-dollar facility with 36 stadium lit courts – with a chance to become the first team out of the Midwest to win USTA League Nationals in over 40 years. They’d have to navigate a field of 15 other sectional champs. Teams who were more experienced, talented, and color coded, but “We’re all winners, man,” Byer says, laughing. “This was always the plan.”
Where’d they come from
Five years ago, Ari Byer’s daughter finished her lesson early. He picked up a racket. It grew from there. “I was like holy $h*t, this is great.” But it didn’t really take off until he discovered the USTA leagues. “I found out there were other levels – more competitive – I found out how structured it was …”
He reached out to his club and found a team. To do this, you’d contact the tennis director at your local club. Most have a team. If not, the USTA website for your section will show teams and clubs in your area and will have a league coordinator to contact as well.
Byer started with mixed and 3.5 leagues, before snatching some people he met and starting his own team. He ended up with a mix of former athletes, most fairly new to tennis and just looking for a sport - guys that “just wanted to play.”
In 2018 they made it to the district finals. It was their first year. And in the 18+ division. Right then they knew they were hooked. “I became a racket junkie. I’m telling you, that’s all I do now is play tennis.”
After a year off in 2020 for…off-season training, they came back in 2021 with the same core group and some new ammo, on the back of Byer’s email, feeling like this was their year.
“You want to play for something, that’s what’s cool about it...once they started practicing – realizing we had an opportunity to really do this, it was all in. Everybody committed, it was crazy.”
In Byer’s experience, fun and competitive are not mutually exclusive. “You want to play for something, that’s what’s cool about it.” A few maybe raised an eyebrow, but “once they started practicing – realizing we had an opportunity to really do this, it was all in. Everybody committed, it was crazy. We had high-high profile doctors…one of my buddies is a doctor who travels the country…we were still getting 90 percent attendance at multiple practices per week.”
The road to Nationals
The road to Nationals starts, for every team, at the local level, known as districts.
For Byer and Co., that was the Southeast Michigan Tennis Association (SEMTA). Teams compete in matches once a week against other teams in the area. They consist of one singles match and three doubles matches (each division is slightly different). A slightly controversial setup because of the possibility of a 2-2 tie, decided by total sets and games won. Byer, a former soccer player, says “no sport should be like that. A win is a win.”
At the district level – Byer’s Franklin Athletic Club team won their flight with an 8-0 record, and advanced to the district finals. A tournament of the 4 flight winners (there were 32 teams in this SEMTA league). Winning that brought them to the state championship with the team from Northern Michigan, which they also won handily and advanced to sectionals.
State winners from 17 sections around the country – including Hawaii and the Caribbean – battle it out to see who will go to Nationals. For Byer, in the Midwest, that meant winners from Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, and of course, Michigan, competed in a round robin.
Though competition got tougher at this level, SEMTA had their sights set higher. “We blew them all out,” Byer says, matter of fact. “Only lost 3 courts out of the 4 matches. That’s not to be…facts are just facts.” They’d achieved their pre-season, email dictated goal. With all this momentum, however, it was far from over.
Top notch facilities – like the USTA National Campus in Orlando, the Surprise Tennis and Racquet Complex in Arizona, or the Oklahoma Tennis Center in Oklahoma City – with dozens, hundreds (in the case of Orlando) courts. Refs and trainers. Food and events. Team colors. Spectators. More than 500 teams. USTA Nationals create an immersive atmosphere unlike any other adult athletic league in the country.
“For some people, they grew up playing tennis, they’ve played at these amazing facilities. For us, it was like, holy $h*t, the Oklahoma facility was top notch. It was run brilliantly. Organized. I really commend the USTA.”
“For some people, they grew up playing tennis, they’ve played at these amazing facilities. For us, it was like, holy $h*t…” Byer adds, “The Oklahoma facility was top notch. It was run brilliantly. Organized. I really commend the USTA.”
But not everything went SEMTA’s way. The USTA designated each team a color. SEMTA’s was Lavender. “Gotta be honest, It’s a difficult color. Difficult color. But hey, we made it work.”
Each team is assigned four competitors at random from the pool of 15-plus for round robin play. SEMTA got some tough luck again. Two of their matches came down to 2-2 ties, determined by that pesky tiebreaker. They lost the second one and finished the round-robin with a 3-1 record. A 4-way tie for the last spot in a four-team playoff.
“One of our guys’ sons was a Purdue engineering student…he’s running court to court, calculating, okay how many games, how many sets, we’re all checking the other courts. It was awesome.” Thanks to Purdue Engineering, SEMTA knew - before the USTA App was updated - they’d secured enough total sets and games to punch their spot in the playoff.
A semi-final match against San Francisco also came down to a 2-2 tie. Which SEMTA won. “Telling you man, if I was on the other side of that coin, I woulda been going crazy.”
Up 2-1 in the finals against Austin, Texas, losing on the final court, SEMTA were staring in the face of a third straight 2-2. This one, as the math turned out, they would lose (unclear if math credit here goes to Purdue).
That is unless Storm Kirschenbaum – a scholarship baseball and OHL hockey player who picked up a racket in the last few years – could come from behind in his singles match. After winning the first set 6-1, Kirschenbaum’s 3-6 second set loss gave Austin the tiebreaker advantage.
Third sets in USTA Leagues are decided by a tiebreaker. So it was first player to 10. Win by two. National Championship on the line. Kirschenbaum got down 5-8. “Everyone crowded around. And we weren’t just there to cheer.”
He used a couple long rallies to claw his way back to 7-8, before hitting what Byer describes as, “Maybe the luckiest tennis shot in history.” On defense, nearly out of the point, his opponent at the net, Kirschenbaum hit a ball off the frame that wobbled, bounced, and spun backwards away from his opponent. Not pretty but at least effective.
“After that, we knew.” Sure enough, two points later, a powerful backhand gave SEMTA the 10-8 win. They rushed the court. And yes… “guys were crying. Keep in mind -- 40 and over -- crying like babies.”
Byer got hundreds of congratulatory texts. Even other competitors got in on the fun. “My group at [Another Club] they made fun of me all year. ‘Ari, when are you gonna give it up?’ I kept saying, guys, there’s something big happening here. Then, as we got deeper, they were all jumping on board. Asking me – texting me – What’s going on? What’s going on? It was really cool.”
Byer and his team are being honored by Franklin Racket Club in Michigan this month with a banquet and banner. The first winner for the club in 20 years. The second in the Midwest for 3.5 40+ in 40 years.
Unfortunately, there will be no repeat. Byer and his squad have been bumped to 4.0. “I’ll be back there at 4.0, I promise you. It may not be next year … My wife may not hear the words USTA ever again … but I’ll be back there.”
Make Next Year Your Year
USTA League tennis is one of the most accessible ways to get started, involved, or back into tennis. From ex-college to first-time players, more people than ever are playing for the chance to compete. Like Byer says, “It really is some of the most fun I’ve had – It was all about that ride. To get there at our age…I loved every minute of it.”
For results and more info on the USTA Leagues and Nationals, visit the USTA National League home. Pictures from the USTA.