LEXINGTON — His first men’s singles title was seven years in the making – seven years, four hours and 30 minutes, to be exact.
Justin Csepe took the court at 3 p.m. Monday on the final day of the 90th News Journal Tennis Tournament. By the time he left Lakewood Racquet Club at 7:30 p.m. he had swept both ends of a doubleheader – with only an hour break in between – and emerged as the newest first-time men’s champ since Nicky Wong won the first of his five titles in 2012.
To pull off that feat, the second-seeded Csepe beat ageless Will Calhoun 6-2, 7-6 (7-4) in the semis and then took down No. 1 seed Ethan Remy, the reigning boys 18-and-under champ, 6-4, 6-1 for the crown.
“This was my seventh try,” said Csepe, 24, whose best finish until this year was reaching the semifinals last year. “I played a (USTA) junior tournament here right before my senior year in high school and Ron (Schaub, Lakewood pro and NJ tourney director) and I just hit it off. We’ve had a good friendship ever since.”
This title will be good for business. Csepe, a two-time state qualifier for Norton High School near Akron, is the head pro at Aspen Racquet Club in Wooster. One of the best advertisements for his services, other than this championship, is his wife, Alyssa (Gottschling). She didn’t have a tennis background at Lexington High School, where she played soccer and competed as a pole vaulter. But she and her husband reached Friday’s finals in mixed doubles and then she and Csepe’s mom, Valerie, made it to the finals in women’s doubles.
Maybe coaching has something to do with it?
“I was always a multi-sport athlete, but then I trained really hard after my freshman year and was able to make a lot of noise (in tennis),” Csepe said. “I had some good runs and just fell in love with the sport.”
Doubleheaders have become obsolete in baseball, but not in tennis. At least not in the News Journal Tournament, where a lot of the adult players have to work around job and family commitments, or travel a long distance, like Calhoun, which means cramming a lot of matches into a small window.
Calhoun, the oldest player in the men’s draw at 56, already had three matches on the docket Sunday – the quarterfinals in singles and the semis and finals in doubles – so his match with Csepe was pushed to Monday. That meant the winner of their semi was going to get a fresh Remy in the finals. The Lex senior took out teammate Dylan Catanese in their semi Sunday.
But outside of watching him taking a couple of bites from a banana during changeovers in his match with Remy, there was no hint from the way he was moving and performing that Csepe had played an earlier match.
“Somehow you just have to find a way,” he said. “It’s all about how you think about it. I was feeling it. I tried to act like I was into it with my body, but there were a lot of moments when I felt so beat.”
Best case scenario for Csepe: He easily takes care of Calhoun, 32 years his senior, and conserves his energy. Didn’t happen. The first set went as Csepe had hoped, but the second was a grind. Calhoun even had a set point when it was 5-4, but Csepe fought it off and then went on to win the set and match in a tiebreaker.
“That was an intense match, too,” Csepe said. “That second set was a dogfight. That was a lot of energy.”
So what did he do in the 60 minutes between matches?
“I got some dry clothes on,” Csepe said. “You just try to relax and sit down and hydrate like crazy. I had an espresso and had a laugh with my family. All right, let’s go out there and have some fun. That was my mindset. If you take it too seriously, the fatigue is going to get to you. I just tried to relax and have some fun.”
There wasn’t even enough time between matches for Csepe to get an adjustment from his father-in-law, Martin Gottschling, a local chiropractor and part of Monday’s championship match gallery.
“I got one pre-tournament adjustment, and I think I’m ready for another one now,” Csepe said laughing. “I got nothing in between matches today except for a couple of shoulder rubs from my wife.”
One of Csepe’s strengths was adapting his game to his opponent. He was able to come to the net against Calhoun and polish off points with his volleys, but he had to win from the baseline against Remy and his powerful groundstrokes.
On one of the few short balls he got from Remy, Csepe pounced on it for a backhand winner to set up double match point.
“Ethan was hitting his spots so nicely I couldn’t hold back,” Csepe said. “If I’m second-guessing myself, he’s just going to pummel the ball into the corner, so I had to match his pace and beat him where he’s at. Otherwise, he’s going to control the match.
“In the early going he was dictating every point. I got lucky that he missed a couple, but I just decided I had to hit harder because he’s stepping up. I just had to be steady from the baseline and trust my racket. There was a lot of trusting in my racket.”
Remy’s undoing was his serve. He held serve only twice in nine service games. If the serve’s not there it can throw your whole game off.
“It makes it a lot tougher because it’s supposed to be a given that you hold every serve,” Remy said. “My serve was definitely a problem.”
Remy didn’t buy the excuse that Csepe had the advantage of already being warmed up from his semifinal match. But Remy did seem tight at the outset, over-hitting balls.
“It was probably more in my favor,” Remy said, “since he played earlier.”
Csepe struggled with his serve early as well. In fact, no one held serve until Remy in the fifth game of the first set. That gave him a 3-2 lead, but then Csepe held at love to make it 3-all.
Three service breaks followed, as both players fell back into that rut, and Remy was on the verge of capitalizing on a fourth straight service break and making it 5-all.
But his love-30 lead quickly evaporated and Csepe eventually closed out the set, even though it took him a second set point to do it.
Csepe lost only two points in the first two games of the second set and dropped only two points in his final three service games, a radical improvement from the first set.
He even hit a couple of net cord winners – the height of good fortune – and jumped all over a net cord off Remy’s racket. As bad luck would have it, the match ended when a shot by Remy ticked off the top of the net and fell over – landing harmlessly out of bounds.
Remy didn’t get many breaks, but Csepe was mainly responsible for that.
“There were a lot of things that went my way that don’t normally do,” Csepe said. “That’s just sports. As much as I was telling myself to relax, I still had a lot of jitters and that showed in my service games. I had a lot of double faults. But I think winning the first set gave me a lot of confidence and then I was locked in.”
Csepe broke out a bandana tied into a headband for the second match, a style popularized in the 1980s by Wimbledon champ Pat Cash. And Csepe’s old school ways didn’t end there. Built like a linebacker, the way he tumbled and slid and sprawled on Lakewood’s indoor surface would have made Boris Becker proud.
“I was channeling my inner Boris,” Csepe joked. “The big thing was, one more ball. Make (Remy) play, make him beat you. A lot of points he’s going to be crushing it. You make him play one more ball. On the points when you have the advantage, you can look to attack.
“Today was a lot of one more ball. Let’s just step into the ball and swing, just have fun.”
It took someone with championship mettle to end Calhoun’s remarkable run in the News Journal
Playing in his hometown tournament for the first time in 27 years, Calhoun wasn’t given any breaks because of his age and didn’t ask for any. He played seven matches in three days after driving in from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, nearly forcing a third set tiebreaker against Csepe a day after reaching the finals in men’s doubles with partner Jay Harris.
They showed why they are the nation’s No. 1-ranked 50-and-over duo by battling with five-time men’s singles champ Ty Schaub, a former Ohio State captain, and his cousin, Jon Peters, a reigning national doubles champ, before falling in an entertaining title match.
“I thought Justin played well,” Calhoun said. “I feel like three days ago I would have given him a better match. The velocity of his serve, the balls he gets to … there are a number of balls that are winners in the 55s, but he’s there, he’s set up, he’s ripping.”
This homecoming turned out even better than Calhoun anticipated.
“It was nice to see all of the Harris family and Ron (Schaub), and it was so nice to have people come here and cheer me on,” he said. “They were so kind. I loved it.
“To be in your hometown, there’s something about ‘place.’ It just feels good; people you’ve looked up to your whole life. I think of coach (John) Harris (Jay’s father). I think of Ron, the impact they had on me as a teenager in shaping morals and effort. It’s just so good to be back. I love it.”
Csepe is definitely in Calhoun’s camp when it comes to showering Schaub with respect.
“Ron Schaub is the greatest guy,” Csepe said. “It feels very fitting to win this (because of their friendship) and I had a lot of family here, so I’m grateful. We’re going to have fun tonight.”
This article originally appeared on Mansfield News Journal: ‘Find a way’: Wooster pro wins back-to-back matches for men’s tennis crown