Editor’s Note: In May, we reported that a team of Los Angeles Tennis Club ladies won the right to compete at a national USTA tournament. We are delighted to share the account of the team’s victory at the national tournament by team member and Windsor Square resident Joanna Morley.
I am in Scottsdale, Arizona, riding in the back seat of a white minivan, dancing frenetically and singing Madonna at the top of my lungs, as are the other six women packed into the van. One year ago, I didn’t know a single person in this car. Now, I am subjecting them all to my extremely limited vocal range with abandon, something I generally reserve only for family and close friends. I now count this car full of women, my teammates, in the former category. It’s been a long road. Let me start at the beginning.
It’s November 2018 and my husband decides to take up tennis and join the Los Angeles Tennis Club (LATC). I never go. I played competitive sports from the age of five through college and I am not interested in dabbling in tennis. I am not a dabbler! Then COVID happens. All of a sudden, I have a little time on my hands. Maybe, I’ll give this tennis thing a try.
I thought my life was full with work, family and friends. But at LATC, I discover a world of like-minded compulsive competitors who also do not dabble. Others, who think it is normal to take a lesson at 7 a.m., play a match at 8 a.m. and then come back for an evening clinic. Others, whose Instagram feeds have transitioned from photos of kids, friends, dogs and interior design to reels of slow-motion kick serves and Raphael Nadal’s backhand.
At LATC, I realize how much I missed the challenge and comradery of competition. This tennis community provides a joy and fulfillment I did not think was available over the age of forty outside of family and work. I cannot get enough. Within three months, I am competing for four different teams. “You play tennis EVERY day?” becomes a question I field regularly. The answer is “No. I usually play twice a day.”
I am not alone. I meet other twice-daily players Kate Angelo, Jamie Bracco, Vicki Carrington, Megan Colligan, Denise Gocke, Kelly Hatosy, Milinda McNeely, Mylene Moreno, Stacy Sarner and Mary Woodard and feel an instant kinship, not only because they are avid tennis players but also because they are intelligent, hilarious and dynamic. They love tennis AND have amazing personalities? It’s too good to be true. I join their Women’s 3.5 USTA team. I have found my people and without knowing it, we take our first step on the road to a National Championship.
It’s October 2021, led by our brilliant and devoted team captain Milinda McNeely, we have won our local league and are headed to Sectionals in San Diego. It turns out making it to Sectionals is a big deal. The USTA Women’s 40 and over 3.5 division is comprised of 3,502 teams across 17 sections, that’s more than 42,000 women across the country! In the 102-year history of the Los Angeles Tennis Club, only two teams have made it to Sectionals. Only one has won.
Going into the competition, we don’t know what to expect, so we decide to have fun, play hard and to generally bring it. “Bring it” becomes our rallying cry, text thread title and unofficial team name. We meet for dinner at the hotel the first night in San Diego and our teammate, Megan Colligan, has made sweatshirts for everyone with the “Bring It” logo emblazoned on the front. It hits me, I am on a team again. I almost die from happiness. Then we start winning.
Team “Bring It” comes home from Sectionals with a victory and a newfound determination. We are going to Nationals! We are the number one team in Southern California! Our team is legitimate! Since I am such a serious tennis player now, I have the LATC club membership transferred from my husband’s name to mine, it wouldn’t do for a champion to be listed as a spouse. He is a very good sport about this.
Our team trains like we are paid professionals and the entire community comes out to support us in the most magical fashion. Other clubs offer to scrimmage us for practice, as does the 4.0 team at LATC. Club members Mark Roybal, Jack Angelo, Mike Sarner, Shawn Hatosy, Nicki Jaeger, Ali Baird, Olivia Burtis and my husband, Brent Morley, make plans to fly to Scottsdale to cheer us on. LATC head pro Jerome Peri offers to accompany us to the tournament. Everyone is invested in our success and the feeling is heady.
On the morning of the first day of the USTA National Championship, we sweep all four lines of our match against team Southern and are riding high. We start to believe we can really win this thing. The afternoon match against team Eastern is more challenging. Their singles player only hits tricky slices. I play doubles with Kate Angelo and after a first set of what we decide is the most beautiful tennis ever played, we fall apart in the second and just barely pull off the match winning in a third set tiebreaker. After falling behind in the first set, Denise and Megan stage an epic comeback and win their match in a third set tie breaker as well. But we lose two lines and when the games are counted, it’s not enough. Eastern gets the win and we worry we have just blown the whole tournament. We still have a chance to make it to the final but only if we are perfect in all of our day two matches AND one of the top teams makes a mistake. But it’s tennis so anything can happen! Commence dinner and Madonna sing-along.
The second day, legendary swimmer, motivational speaker, neighbor and fellow LATC member Diana Nyad surprises us by flying in to watch our matches. Again, we are awestruck by the passion of this community that has rallied around us. We don’t want to let anyone down. Most of all, we don’t want to let ourselves down. We know we have one shot and we don’t want to have any regrets. And we don’t.
Our captain Milinda stays up all night strategizing and implements the perfect plan to defeat teams Midwest and Pacific Northwest. In the morning, we take the round winning three lines in decisive victories: I take my singles match 6-1, 6-1 and Gayle and Kelly and Vicki and Denise both win their matches 6-1, 6-2. In the afternoon, we sweep all four lines winning each match in two sets. But is it enough to displace one of the top four teams? We anxiously await final scores, hitting refresh to update the online tournament standings every 30 seconds. At 6 p.m., it’s official. Eastern has defeated Florida and we move up to fourth place. We are going into the semifinal!
It’s 6 a.m. Sunday, the last day of competition. My phone buzzes with messages from the “Bring It” team thread and I see I am not the first one awake. Starbucks has been ordered, helpful passages from Brad Gilbert’s “Winning Ugly” are being circulated. My phone buzzes again, this time with messages from the “Nationals Supporter” thread wishing us words of luck and encouragement. A year ago, I hadn’t met the women on team “Bring It” or the many community members embedded with us on this journey and now I can’t imagine life without them. I make a promise to myself that win or lose, I will savor every minute of this final day with my teammates who are now my family. I grab my tennis bag and race out the door to meet the ladies at the mini-van. We have a championship to win.
Day three of competition is the fiercest by far with some of the closest matches of the tournament. I play my most challenging line of singles against a six-foot-tall athletic blonde from team Inter Mountain but manage to clinch the match in two sets. Kate and Mylene play with incredible grit, battling two tie-breakers to win a crucial two set victory, 7-6, 7-6. Megan and Stacy and Kelly and Gayle are still playing nail-biting doubles matches against more team Inter Mountain behemoths. They don’t know it, but our fate is going to come down to games won so every point counts.
Kelly and Gayle win their first set but a heated debate with their opponents erupts at the start of the second set. Officials are called and now the match is personal. The other team is distracted but Gayle and Kelly thrive on this type of challenge. They lock in, elevate their game and we get the scores we need to win the round and advance to the finals!
The final is a California battle: NorCal versus SoCal. Again, it comes down to games and its tennis warfare for both teams. Stacy and Megan and I finish our matches first only giving up 3 games between us. The team is in a good position, but it is far from over. Kate and Mylene and Kelly and Gayle are playing on courts on opposing sides of a walkway and the spectators swivel their heads left to right to watch both matches simultaneously. The games rack up in our favor and we do the math- we have taken four games from NorCal so it appears, win or lose, the title is ours. We are too tentative to celebrate until is official and besides, some of the best doubles points I have seen in my life are being played by my teammates on both courts. It is gutsy, passionate, beautiful tennis and when it’s all over, everything is left on the court. And it is enough. We are the new USTA Women’s 3.5 National Champions.
Nationals is over. We are still riding high from our victory. We are the first team in the history of the Los Angeles Tennis Club to win a USTA National Championship. My son Sammy asks we if we get to play in the U.S. Open, he thinks I could be the next Serena Williams; I don’t have the heart to correct him.
But U.S. Open or not, I can no longer imagine my life without tennis, without my team, this community, without the joy this sport has brought into my life. At home, we are parents, wives, executives, writers, lawyers, filmmakers; but, when we step out onto the court for those two (or if we are being honest, four hours) every day, we are athletes. We are champions. And it feels amazing. We don’t want it to be over just yet. I pick up my phone and type a text to the Team “Bring It” thread: “Ladies, let’s get the team together. I think we have a real shot at 4.0 next year….” And off we go.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Joanna Morley graduated from Columbia University with a degree in English and Comparative Literature. She currently lives in Windsor Square with her husband and three children, moonlighting as a writer, clothing designer and avid tennis player.
2 thoughts on “Bringing It: The Road to a National Tennis Championship”
What a great story ! And congratulations to all!
Such a joy and pleasure to read Joanna’s story!! Kudos to the whole team.
(from an 80+ former member of LATC!)