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Racket Sports: Epstein, Yellayi new Muny singles champs

By Charlie Garfinkel


Last Sunday, Jonah Epstein, 20, and Disha Yellayi, 18, won the Muny Men’s and Women’s Open Singles tennis titles at Delaware Park.

Epstein defeated Tim Sands in the finals by the scores of 6-0, 6-1 in one of the most dominating performances in the history of the Muny Championships. Yellayi returned to tournament competition after problems with injuries over the past few years and defeated Bella LaMartina in a well played final, 7-6, 6-2.

Epstein noted that he had a really tough match in the semifinals with Michael Rusk, winning by the scores of 6-4, 7-6. “Mike is a very good player and really made me work hard to win the match,” Epstein said.

Epstein is like the Energizer Bunny on the tennis court. His penetrating ground strokes and outstanding foot speed are used to approach the net as often as possible. Once at the net, his unerring volleys (shots hit in the air) and booming overheads have to be disconcerting to any opponent that he plays against.

“My mindset is to keep the ball in play, using my defense to change my game to offense,” Epstein said. Fortunately, my heavily hit ground strokes allows me to push my opponents into the back court and helps me on my many forays to the net.”

One had to feel sorry for Sands during this onslaught, but he had high praise for Epstein.

“I was just thrilled to get to the finals.” Sands said. “Even though I lost badly it was just an honor to be on the court with Jonah. His outstanding play and sportsmanship is only going to make me work harder to improve my game.”

Epstein didn’t take up the game of tennis until he was 10 years old. He had played baseball and soccer at a high level for his age. However, he had no interest in playing tennis.

“My dad talked me into trying to play tennis and I decided to give it a chance,” he said. He went to Amherst Hills, which is now Miller Tennis Center, and loved the game immediately. Epstein gives most of the credit for his love of the game to Wayne Martin, who was a teaching pro at the club at that time.

Epstein started playing in 12-under tournaments and did reasonably well. As his game progressed it was evident that he was going to be an outstanding player. He played first singles for three years and compiled a record of 27-3 playing for Nichols School. After Nichols, he decided on Skidmore College, whose tennis team was ranked one year in the top 20 nationally in Division III during Epstein’s three years at the school. Skidmore has won the Liberty League the past two years and reached the round of 16 in team competition in the nationals this year.

He is looking forward to playing his senior year and going to graduate school after that.

Disha Yellayi’s accomplishment of winning the Muny title is truly an amazing story. She played basketball, soccer, and was into dancing when she was very young. Like Epstein, she didn’t play tennis until she was 10 years old. “I actually had tried playing tennis and didn’t like it at all,” she said.

Once she got hooked on the game, she won her first local junior tournament in Cleveland. It was evident when she moved to Western New York and was seen playing by local experts that she was going to be an outstanding player. She was 13 and was an eighth-grade student at Transit Middle School, but was eligible to play for Williamsville East High School. She won the ECIC Singles Championships and the Sectionals without losing a set, a truly mind-boggling accomplishment for a player so young.

Her parents realized the great potential that she had and they sent her to the Dennis Van Der Meer Tennis Academy in Hilton Head Island, S.C., for six months.

“It was one of the best tennis experiences I have ever had,” she said.

As a freshman at Nichols she played No. 1 and had an outstanding season. Somewhat surprisingly, she didn’t play for the tennis team during her sophomore year as she wanted to concentrate on being on the school’s cross country team. However, she continued to play tennis on her own as much as she could. Unfortunately, the combination of running 7-10 miles a day for cross country and still playing tennis 3-4 times a week resulted in a severe case of shin splints that resulted in her not playing tennis for over 1½ years.

She came back and had another shin splint setback, then didn’t start playing until three months ago. She decided a few weeks ago that she would enter the Munys to see how she would do. Needless to say, winning the tournament was a huge feat. She had to play extremely well to defeat LaMartina in the finals; especially in the first set when the score was tied at 6-6.

Yellayi is also an excellent student and has been awarded a scholarship to Hofstra University, where she will be playing on the tennis team. She is also looking forward to going to medical school.