By JOHN GORALSKI
Tournament director Kunal Kataria plopped himself in his chair at the end of the second day of his tournament, and let out a tired sigh like a retiring businessman after a hard day’s work. His younger brother looked just as fatigued beside him, along with the host of varsity high school players.
Kunal is the elder statesman of the group, the founder of the Kataria Classic, but the wear and tear of a multi-day tennis tournament was already showing on the face of the 2015 SHS graduate. “Was it worth it?” he asked his volunteers.
That’s when a phone buzzed, and the text recharged the group.
Michael Kwok, a junior varsity sophomore at the high school, had texted to say that his second day at the tournament was one of the best days of tennis he’s had all year. Kwok couldn’t wait to keep playing in the final rounds.
“We didn’t know if we could keep this tournament going, but a text like that shows the overall atmosphere of this tournament,” said Kunal. “I think this year’s tournament has been the best one we’ve had in our history. I think that everything this tournament has done—including that text message on Sunday—makes us want to continue this in the future.”
This is the third year that Kunal and his cronies have been running the annual event. Unlike the other two local tournaments—the Wint Filipek Tournament and the Wayton Open—this one is run by students, in their spare time between work and school.
What sets it apart is that, unlike the others that are fundraising for scholarships for outgoing players, the Kataria Classic is focused on the up-and-coming player. Even the high school divisions are broken down into A and B level brackets so that players like Kwok can gain experience in tournament play.
Kunal said that their “starter” division is one of his favorites.
“The only requirement is no tennis experience,” he said. “We want people to come out and get tennis experience playing tennis for the first time. Those are our favorite divisions because a lot of people who never really had the competitive spirit for tennis can come out, compete, and have a good time out there, too.”
It’s led to some interesting match-ups in the early rounds. Even the starter division included a number of hard-fought split-set decisions. Kwok, a relative newcomer, marched through two rounds before being eliminated.
“He told me that he didn’t think he was good enough to play the high school doubles. He ended up winning the first two rounds and making it to the finals with three really close matches,” said Rohan Kataria, a high school senior. “When we got that text…those are the things that keep this tournament going. It’s kind of what we shoot for.”
In their first two years, the tournament has generated approximately $500 each year which has been donated to the Southington Care Center. Donations are still coming in, but Kunal said that he expects to match that donation again this year.
“It’s been nice,” he said about the partnership with Southington’s senior center. “We were always really close to our grandparents. They are really close to our hearts, so it’s great to give back. It’s nice to give them something to show them that we still care.”
In addition, tournament officials hope to raise enough money to help support middle school tennis programs. Kunal said that this helps reinforce the focus of his tournament—to continue to build experience in town so that Southington’s high school tennis programs can someday rival those of West Hartford or Simsbury on a more regular basis.
“Every year, they come out and they’re so good,” he said. “Nobody ever knows why, but it’s because they have a lot of youth tennis programs going on. They focus on tennis as one of the main sports in their community.”
As for the Kataria Classic, now comes the fun part. With more than 110 entrants, the weekend tournament has swelled beyond a two day event. As of Tuesday afternoon, championship rounds weren’t played.
Kunal said that he expects the tight competition to continue through to the final matches.
“The quality of our match-ups has been better in each division, and that’s something that we’re really proud of this year,” he said. “It makes it so much better when we get to sit down and watch these matches. Every one of them has been close. It makes it a good experience for us, too.”
Check back next week for final results.
Photos by TAMMI NAUDUS
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