These days, Ilia Shatashvili’s tennis game is all about creativity. Not necessarily with how he plays on the court – but with how he gets on the court.
Working as a financial analyst in Manhattan from 7:30-5 each day of the week— and many times staying hours later — it’s gotten harder and harder for Shatashvili to lock down hitting partners when his work day comes to an end. That’s why this past week has been such a rush for the 26-year-old New Jersey resident, who is one of three players representing USTA Middle States this weekend in the US Open National Playoffs.
“It’s been a different type of week for me, and a little bit of a scramble,” said Shatashvili, a Princeton High School graduate and former standout at Columbia University. “Usually when I get out of work, the college players have already finished practicing, and the teaching pros don’t want to hit because they’ve been on the court all day. So when I was preparing for this weekend, I had to get creative to make sure I got some good practice in and got myself ready to compete.”
At this point, the fifth-annual US Open National Playoffs has narrowed the field from thousands of competitors to just 32 singles players (16 men and 16 women) and 13 mixed doubles teams. All of them are at various stages of their playing careers, but the goal for each is the same: to earn a wild card into this year’s US Open.
Players representing Middle States include Shatashvili, Punch Maleka and Sam Shropshire. Maleka earned his trip to the tournament after winning the Middle States qualifying event of the US Open National Playoffs, which took place in late June at New Jersey’s Mercer County Park. Shropshire, a Philadelphia native and Northwestern University standout, found his way in as an alternate after finishing as a runner-up in the USTA Midwest event.
Shatashvili, a finalist in the Middle States qualifying event, also earned his spot as an alternate. But it’s not that simple.
Along with mixed doubles partner Lindsay Graff, Shatashvili took home the title in the mixed doubles division of the Middle States’ qualifying event. That win earned the duo a spot in the US Open National Playoffs – Mixed Doubles Championship, which sends its winner directly into the main draw of the US Open. But when Graff had to pull out of the tournament due to a commitment to her Princeton University tennis team, Shatashvili thought he lost his chance to move on.
Then, last week, Shatashvili received an email informing him that he’d been selected to compete in the men’s singles draw of the tournament. He immediately rerouted his plans for the week.
To help prepare for the competition, Shatashvili pulled out all the stops. He called contacts from his college days, friends from New Jersey and New York, and anyone else he could think of. He wound up with three practice partners that he didn’t expect.
The first was Boris Kodjoe, an actor who has appeared in numerous movies and TV shows over the past 15 years. Kodjoe, best known for his roles in Love & Basketball and Soul Food, played college tennis at Virginia Commonwealth University.
The second was touring pro Frederik Nielsen, the 2012 Wimbledon doubles champion who competes mainly on the ATP Challenger Tour in both singles and doubles.
Finally, Shatashvili found himself hitting with a pro at the John McEnroe Tennis Academy on Randall’s Island.
Three days, three (very) unique hitting partners.
“It was a lot of fun going through the hits and piecing the past few days together,” Shatashvili said. “After the Cryan Tournament, I thought I was done competing for a while, so I was taking a little bit of time off and focusing on work. But this is an awesome opportunity, and I’m really excited. I was really happy to get in.”
Shatashvili said he’ll travel to New Haven, the site of the US Open National Playoffs, on Thursday morning to get settled and go through a day of practice before competition begins on Friday. There, he’ll face longtime touring pro Jesse Witten in the first round. Witten has Grand Slam experience, with his best result coming in the 2009 US Open. There, he won two rounds (over two Top 100 players) before falling to Novak Djokovic in four sets.
“I hit with Jesse in Philly a few years ago, so I know a little bit about him,” Shatashvili said. “He definitely has the resume, advancing in the US Open and taking a set off Djokovic. But I have nothing to lose, and it’ll be an exciting match for me. Usually these matches bring out my best tennis, so I’m going to stay loose and go after my shots.”
Other Middle States Connections
In addition to the Middle States players who advance to the national event, Middle States also had three other players – Jennifer Ellie, Sebastian Quintero and Veronica Corning – moving on. The team of Quintero and Corning finished as a finalist in the Middle States qualifying event, but moved on after Lindsay Graff and Ilia Shatashvili pulled out. Ellie, meanwhile, won the women’s singles event, automatically qualifying for the national tournament.
Player bio capsules:
Sebastian Quintero, 31, is a Columbian-born player who resides in Weymouth, Mass. He has played in ATP tour events in Ecuador, Venezuela, and Argentina, among other locations. Quintero has achieved high rankings of 750 in singles and 546 in doubles.
Veronica Corning, 22, is from Beverly, Mass.. After not dropping a set throughout her entire high school career, Corning played tennis at Boston College and then at Northwestern University. During her 2013 season at Northwestern, she was a three-time Big Ten player of the week and a unanimous selection to the All-Big Ten First Team. She has reached high rankings of 797 in singles and 739 in doubles, both in 2012.
Samuel Shropshire, 19, is from Philadelphia. He is the former top-ranked junior in the Middle States Section. In his freshman year at Northwestern, Shropshire posted a 24-5 singles record and 11-8 doubles record, enough to earn him a first team All-Big Ten nomination and the title of Big Ten Freshman of the Year. He went undefeated in conference play in singles, the first time in more than 20 years a Northwestern player has accomplished that feat.
Jennifer Elie – Elie, 27, is from Brooklyn, NY. A seven-year veteran of the WTA tour, she has played more than 650 matches in singles and doubles, claiming two singles titles and four doubles titles. She has reached high rankings of 286 in singles and 237 in doubles, both in 2013. She is coached by her father, Kerner Elie.
To keep up with Shatashvili and the other players with Middle States connections during the weekend, follow the US Open National Playoffs online, and continue to check back in with Middle States on Facebook and Twitter.