- February 9, 2023
A group of Longboat Key tennis enthusiasts is headed to Orlando to participate in the USTA’s 55 and Older Sectional Championships.
Captain Cheri Starn and eight other women are set to participate in the doubles tournament from Oct. 24-26 at the United States Tennis Association’s National Campus.
“Obviously, we all worked really hard,” Starn said. “I’ve got a great group of gals, not only in their ability to play, but their sportsmanship. They’re just incredible women. I’m blessed to be their captain.”
Starn will travel with Karen Nejdawi, Julie McGue, Patti Curtin, Lindsay Prospect, Betsy Winder, Debbie Dean, Penny Thomas and Laura Shapard to sectionals. There are other members of the team who are unable to attend October’s sectionals. The team plays at the Longboat Key Club’s Tennis Gardens, which has remained open throughout the pandemic with restrictions.
“I had three children play college sports and they are highly entertained by the fact that their mother is still playing her sport that started in high school,” McGue said. “I think it serves as an example to young athletes that once you finish, play your sport, whatever it is, even if it’s just participating in soccer, you don’t have to give up on it. You can go back to it later in life, and it’ll add not only athletics to your life, but it’ll add personal relationships, which is deeply satisfying.”
Nejdawi was complimentary of the group's camaraderie.
“A lot of these women have known each other for many, many years, but our club is so welcoming,” Nejdawi said. “I've been a member [for] only two years, and I feel like a true part of this team.”
At sectionals, 14 teams will compete for a spot in the final, which leads to nationals.
Starn’s group won the division tournament, which is composed of 13 other teams in the Manatee and Sarasota counties. The top two divisional teams advance to Orlando.
“We know that [the] Sarasota area is extremely competitive, but we’re also going to be up against many other clubs from other surrounding areas in Florida but outside of Sarasota area,” Starn said. “The competition is extremely tough.”
Last year, Starn said the team finished fifth in the division. McGue credited Starn’s leadership for the team’s improvement this year.
“I have to attribute a lot of the success to Cheri putting together a stronger team this year,” McGue said. “[There are] a lot of different partnerships. People had to learn to play with other people, and I think that made everybody better.”
The sectional tournament was originally scheduled in May, but was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As everybody else has probably professed, COVID felt like a big punishment and we just assumed because we didn’t get to finish our season that nothing was going to happen, even though we fought to be in first place,” McGue said.
Starn then sent the group an email informing them of their invitation to the Orlando tournament.
Starn said the group of 14 women on her team continued to train.
McGue was back home in Illinois when the pandemic first took hold around mid-March. She said she had to ramp up her walking, bicycling and kayaking on Lake Michigan because the pandemic prompted a months-long closure at the Midtown Athletic Club in Willowbrook, Ill.
“Training was not tennis, ” McGue said. “It was whatever else I could grab.”
Eventually, McGue got back to tennis when the club reopened and when she returned to Longboat Key in August.
Nejdawi lives in Longboat Key year-round, so she has continued to play tennis throughout the pandemic.
“I play all summer. Plus, I'd like to run in it,” Nejdawi said. “I try to run at 11:30 a.m. every day because that's match time, and I've done that all summer.”
Each player on the team maintains a National Tennis Rating Program player rating of 3.5 or higher. The NTRP outlines a player’s ability from 1.5 (beginner) to 7.0 (touring professional).
The team practices twice a week, two times a day. Starn, McGue and Nejdawi were confident about their team’s chances in Orlando.
“You bring your A-game plus,” Starn said. “We’re excited to be at this level to have won our division and get this opportunity because the USTA campus is phenomenal. It’s just state of the art.”