At the 2022 Nassau County Doubles Championship, Roslyn High School’s Drew Hassenbein and Gavin Koo battled it out against Wheatley’s Aaron Raja and Kavin Shukla, securing a win for Roslyn at the competitive tennis match.
Raja, a friend of Hassenbein, reflected fondly on the match that had no impact on their friendship.
“We had a dog fight, a three-hour final match, and we left it all on the court but then we were friends right after,” Raja said.
In the wake of Hassenbein dying with fellow teammate Ethan Falkowitz after a car crash in May, Raja took that memory of playing a doubles match against his friend and turned it into a doubles tournament fundraiser that would preserve the legacy of the late teens.
Raja, an incoming senior at The Wheatley School and a varsity tennis player, organized a tennis tournament at The Wheatley School Thursday to raise money for the teens and to honor the two tennis players who had a resounding impact on their community.
More than $1,000 was raised, Raja said, and more donations are expected to total $1,500.
Their car was hit by Roslyn resident Amandeep Singh, who prosecutors allege was under the influence of alcohol and cocaine and driving 95 mph on the wrong side of the road.
Raja was close friends with Hassenbein and had played tennis with him since he started at the age of nine. He said they both trained at Robbi Wagner’s tennis training center, which is where the their friendship and friendly tennis rivalry began.
Three days before Hassenbein’s death, Raja and Hassenbein had battled against one another in a high school tennis match.
After losing his friend, Raja began planning a fundraiser for the teens. He presented the idea to his school’s athletic director, who approved the tournament event.
Since it was close to the conclusion of the school year, and Raja had to secure permits for the event, the fundraiser was delayed until August. This also helped increase attendance, Raja said, as students would be returning from summer camps and be local again.
The event was supported by Raja, as well as student volunteers Riya Mittle, Liel Agajan and Rahul Dawar.
The fundraiser was also supported by the Wildcat Athletic Foundation, which helped Raja conduct the event by designing T-shirts and gathering supplies. He said the help of foundation members Susan Marasco and Bernadette Quinn was essential.
“Without it, I couldn’t have pulled this off,” Raja said.
Rain was predicted to begin at the time the tournament was scheduled, but inclement weather was not going to stop the event.
Instead, the tournament was pushed two hours earlier in the day to evade the weather. Despite the last-minute change, Raja said everyone who signed up for the tournament arrived to support the cause.
“You could really see how much we all cared as a community,” Raja said. “That even though they had to get up a little bit earlier, it didn’t matter because of the cause they were playing for.”
The tournament included about 80 participants, Raja said, with a mix of adults and kids playing in either a beginner or advanced tennis bracket. Additional patrons showed up in support of the players in the tournament.
Tournament players included tennis players from Roslyn, Syosset, East Williston, Port Washington and all over the county, Raja said.
“Everyone who was impacted by Drew and Ethan’s legacy had paid their respects by coming to the event and donating,” Raja said.
Raja also played in the tournament, battling against Hassenbein’s father on the court where his son had beaten him just months prior.
Raja said he opted for a low registration fee of $10 in order to boost participation and still raise money for the teens’ foundations. Tournament players were granted at least two matches and two hours on the court.
T-shirts were sold for $20 each at the event that featured a wildcat and a bulldog, the mascots of The Wheatley School and Roslyn High School, respectively.
Raja said feedback from the event was overwhelmingly positive. He said an added benefit of the fundraiser is that it brought the tennis community together.
“People don’t really see each other in high school tennis except for the high school season,” Raja said. “So [it was] old friend catching up, chatting about Drew, talking to me… Everyone letting their feelings out, talking about, laughing, smiling, playing tennis. It was just a really beautiful event.”
While Raja said planning the tournament was stressful at times, the community response of wanting to help made it all worth it. He said a community is better when they act together, and that was exemplified through the tournament.
“The main thing for me as a personal takeaway was how close a community could be if they all put their minds to it,” Raja said.
Raja said there were “smiles all around” the day of the tournament, with lots of joy and laughter when coming together to honor the two teens.
He said the tournament was personal to him due to his friendship with Hassenbein and the loss that he and the community have experienced in the wake of his death.
“It’s still a bit fresh in a lot of our hearts and minds, and [the tournament] made it a great way to not make peace with it but at least cope up with it a little bit.”
Raja said he is considering making the tournament an annual event to “make sure none of their legacy gets forgotten.”