By John Goralski
Kunal Kataria listened to his classmates talking in excited bursts at a teammate’s graduation party last spring. The high school season had just wrapped up a few days earlier. Still smarting from their losses, the underclassmen were already looking ahead to next year’s campaign.
The debate grew heated. Will this be the year that the boys team finally breaks their drought? Will this be the year that they finally topple the perennial powers on the top of the conference standings?
Other teams keep adding championship seasons to their banners on the wall of the high school gym, and Kataria’s teammates—next season’s seniors—were already talking about leaving their own mark on the wall.
It’s a sore spot for Southington’s tennis players.
“Every day we go into gym class, and we see the banners,” said the incoming senior. “It’s been almost 30 years since we’ve won a conference title. We want to add to that. This is our senior class. We want our year on that banner. We want it for our coach because he’s worked really hard for us. We want to win.”
To be successful in the spring it takes a year-round commitment, so Kataria steered the conversation toward the summer tournament schedule. What tournaments were they going to play? As a two-time champion in the at the Children’s Charities Tennis Classic in New Britain, Kataria understands the importance of off-season work. It’s one of the reasons why he surged into the top singles spot as a junior.
That’s when a thought sprung into Kataria’s mind. The Wayton Open has become a mid-season staple for the high school veterans. Regional summer tournaments are a necessary component for any varsity hopeful if he hopes to make the team in the spring.
The Kenny Hill Tournament, named after a former Blue Knight captain, was usually the final stop on the summer circuit, but it was scratched from the schedule this summer. Kataria decided to do something about that.
For the next few weeks, he began to enlist teammates, parents, and coaches in a frenzied scramble to fill the void. He enlisted his father’s help to secure an insurance liability policy. He enlisted his mother to organize food tables and reached out to teammate’s parents for help. He secured the high school tennis courts and opened registration.
On Friday, Aug. 22, Kataria unlocked the gates for the opening round of the Kataria Classic. While most incoming seniors were busy organizing trips to the beach and backyard parties, Kataria was recruiting players and honing business skills that he’ll carry into college and beyond.
He had to make a business plan. He had to collect money and keep to a budget. He had to organize volunteers and schedule the event. There were bills to pay, forms to fill out, and as much work as any summer internship.
“This is something that you just can’t learn in the classroom. You can’t learn it on the courts. You can only learn it by doing something like this,” he said. “It’s something that you really can’t do on your own, but with all the help I got it made it really easy.”
More than 50 entrants piled onto the courts in the early rounds. There were competitive divisions for elite players. There was a parent-child division to bring some fun to the event. There were men and women’s doubles brackets, and even a few divisions for high school players that drew interest from both the boys and girls varsity teams.
“It’s not just about winning. It’s about competing against kids their own age, and we never get a chance to do that,” he said. “I decided to split the boys into As and Bs, so that we could have kids that aren’t always at the top of their team rosters. This gives them a chance to win a trophy, compete, and earn something. It was great. The matches were competitive. We had a two hour match for the boys B final. It was crazy.”
Ultimately, the high school divisions showcased a number of up-and-coming players and unknown locals. Matt Balaoing out-lasted Rohan Kataria during an underclassman battle in the high school boys A-division final. Timmy Davenport out-lasted James Hoder, 6-3, 6-4, to capture the b-division boys title. Southington homeschooler Angela Hage made the biggest impact as she battled to the championship game in three different brackets. She won the high school girls competition and partnered with her mother Lucille for a championship in the womens doubles competition. The mother-daughter tandem’s only loss was to the father-son tandem of Niraj Kataria and Rohan Kataria.
The high school divisions proved to be some of the most competitive matches of the weekend.
“Our high school A singles division had three matches that went to split sets or 7-6 tie breakers,” said Kataria. “That was just ridiculous to see how close every match was and how competitive the division was. That’s why I did this, especially in the high school division. We want the toughest matches that we can get to get ready for the high school season.”
The rest of the competition was just as strong. Dan Rombola swept through the mens A-singles division. Mike Flannery out-lasted Dave Murphy, 6-4, 6-3, to capture the mens B-singles title. Bruce Fiermonte and Jim Quinn partnered for the mens doubles title.
“This shows that our town has tennis potential and that we are growing as a tennis community,” Kataria said. “I want to see that happen because I grew up here and I love this sport.”
Kataria said that the hardest decision he had to make was to hang up his own racquet to devote his time to his duties as tournament director, but he said that it was a small sacrifice to ensure the tournament’s success.
“It hurts me not to play, but I think it was the most responsible decision as the tournament director,” he said. “I wanted to make sure that everyone was having a good time, and this allowed me to talk to everyone. I want this tournament to be known for its tennis. I didn’t want to do anything that could smear the name of this tournament if I got too competitive in a match or didn’t agree with someone during a match.”
The tournament raised more than $500 in entrance fees. Some was used to cover expenses, but he hopes to continue the tournament over the next few summers and raise enough money to impact a local charity.
“We’re looking at some charities that help to educate tennis in other parts of the state,” he said. “We’re going to see if we can raise some money for them.”
The biggest payoff could come next spring as both the boys and girls teams aim for even higher goals.
“This experience was so important for our team,” said Kataria. “A lot of us were out here, talking, playing, and bonding together as a team or playing against each other. I think this builds chemistry for our teams that is hard to get any other way. It also builds our tennis, so it gives us that mental and physical work that we need to win a conference title. That’s something we haven’t done in 20 or 30 years.”
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer John Goralski, email him at jgoralski@ southingtonobserver.com.