The Long Island tennis community is blessed to have some of the best indoor facilities and best coaches in the world right here in our backyard. Recently, Long Island Tennis Magazine spoke with some of these top coaches to get insight into their coaching/training strategies, what they look for in a great player, views on important local tennis topics, and a background in how they got into coaching. Even the best coach can always learn an extra tip or two, and the following article will provide all players and coaches with a chance to learn from the best.
Carl Barnett taught tennis in the late 1980s with Dr. Henry Rabin, a movement expert. Carl founded the Early Hit Training Center at Glen Head Racquet Club in 2004. Their focus is on the connection between fitness training, movement and the accelerated learning of tennis.
Stonar Coleman is the head pro at Robbie Wagner’s Tournament Training Glen Cove facility. Stonar is in his third year as director of Robbie Wagner’s Tournament Training Summer Camp, and currently coaches several top nationally-ranked junior players.
Dan Dwyer is the head professional at Oceanside, N.Y.-based Point Set Indoor Racquet Club. He was named USTA Man of the Year in 1997 and was inducted into the USTA Hall of Fame in 1998. His list of past students includes John McEnroe, four-time U.S. Open Champion and three-time Wimbledon Champion.
Laurie Fehrs has been the director of tennis of the Melville Eastern Athletic Club for the past 18 years. During her playing career, she played in six Wimbledon Championships, seven U.S. Opens and has a win in both singles and doubles over tennis legend Martina Navratilova.
Steven Kaplan has guided many touring professionals in the U.S. Open and Wimbledon, and has coached more than 350 nationally-ranked junior players. Steve’s background combines a rare blend of competitive and scholastic achievement. In 1979, Steve won the Big East Conference Singles Championship. In 1983, he received his Master’s Degree in Physiology. Steve developed the games of both Keith Kambourian and two-time NCAA Singles Champion Sandra Birch, from the 12-year olds through the pro tour. Most recently, Steve’s longtime student, Bryan Koniecko has achieved the number one ranking in Men’s NCAA tennis.
Lawrence Kleger is nationally acclaimed as a unique talent in junior development. As the director of Sportime’s Excel Tennis Camps each summer and of the Elite development program each winter, Lawrence has trained hundreds of sectionally- and nationally-ranked juniors. His knowledge, experience and keen “eye” help Lawrence to produce players who are fundamentally, technically and mechanically sound. His commitment to true sportsmanship and proper tennis etiquette has produced 13 USTA/Eastern year-end Sportsmanship Award winners. Lawrence is one of a select group of coaches invited to attend two levels of the USA High Performance Coaching Program. He was named the 2006 USTA/Eastern Section Long Island Section Tennis Professional of the Year. Lawrence’s campers have captured more than 70 USTA National Championships.
A tennis pro for 15 years at Rockville Racquet, Pat Mosquera is currently the junior tennis director for past three years at Rockville Racquet. For the past 16 years, Pat has served as the tennis director and head pro at Sun and Surf Tennis in Atlantic Beach, N.Y. He is also tennis director at Ocean Club Tennis in Atlantic Beach, USTA Team Tennis coach for Rockville Racquet and the Sun and Surf Tennis Nassau Champions, and is a USPTA- and USPTR-certified professional.
Louis Vallejo is the director of tennis at Carefree Racquet Club in Merrick, N.Y. He began competing at the age of 10, and has been ranked in the 12-, 16- and 18-and-Under East Coast Division. He began coaching an adult program in his fourth year at Florida International University (Miami). After graduation, he went to Harbour Point Yacht & Tennis Club and worked as a club pro, and eventually, became the head pro. “The pleasure of working with people who appreciate my tutelage is just priceless,” said Vallejo.
How did you get into coaching?
Stonar Coleman: I started out as a ballboy when I was 11-years-old in Ocho Rios, Jamaica. I gradually learned the game of tennis and became passionate about the sport. I wanted to pass down the knowledge that I learned to others. With that being said, as a young man in Jamaica, I also saw that tennis could create many opportunities for me.
Laurie Fehrs: It kind of fell into my lap. Ever since I started as a tennis coach, I wanted to pass on all the tips from my past coaches, like Harry Hottman, Pancho Segura and Elwood Cook, and teach both girls and boys the greatest game of all, tennis.
Steven Kaplan: I greatly admired my father and grandfather who were both inventors and entrepreneurs, and I think this was my motivation to have a business rather than a job. I love athletic competition and I love to teach. Coaching tennis has been a great way for me to express these passions.
Lawrence Kleger: I was playing on the basketball team my freshman year in college, when the coach explained to me that a skinny 5’ 10”, 145 lb. kid from Long Island who couldn’t play defense worth a lick was not going to make it to the NBA. So, I started playing a lot of tennis. Fast-forward to when I finished law school and was studying for the Bar Exam, I somehow convinced Dan Dwyer to give me a job teaching part-time. Even though I was the eighth pro in line at a seven-court facility, I loved every minute that I was on the court instructing. Three months later, I quit my job as a lawyer and started teaching full-time. Even though my parents (and everyone else I knew) thought that I had lost my mind, I knew that it was the right decision for me.
Pat Mosquera: As a junior, I trained and helped with the summer camp at the National Tennis Center in Flushing, N.Y. The head pro gave me an award for being great with the kids. A couple of years later, I was hired as teaching professional in a club in Queens. A few years later, my friend Kelvin Lastique brought me to Long Island and I have been here ever since.
Louis Vallejo: When I was 14-years-old, my father’s good tennis buddy asked me to coach him. He gave me $200 for 10 lessons. That was definitely a sign. At 17-years-old, I was asked to work for the New York Tennis League as the youngest coach on staff. At Florida International University, I was asked to coach the adult programs, which was a big success. People really boosted my ego with compliments which amazed me because I was only doing what I enjoy and do best: making people play better tennis! Well, the rest is history. Thirty years later, I still love coaching people into becoming better tennis players.
Coaching tennis is not a 9 to 5 job. How do the long hours impact you socially and personally, both on and off the court?
Laurie Fehrs: Yes, tennis isn’t a 9 to 5 job, but teaching is a great way to network socially. You meet people from all walks of life and it enhances your social and personal relationships, as well as creates new friends and clients.
Pat Mosquera: A balance between your profession and your personal life can be achieved by devoting the free time that you have available to your family or loved ones to its fullest.
Louis Vallejo: A director of tennis has longer hours due to his administrative responsibilities, in addition to teaching. A head pro or club pro is on the court more hours, but doesn’t need to worry about any consuming paperwork after teaching. In either case, coaches can have off during the day. I’ve found that effectively coordinating your time can allow you to balance work, social affairs, and your personal life.
Have you ever felt a student should move on to a new coach? If so, why?
Carl Barnett: Coaching changes are usually a parent’s decision. My tracking shows their production against higher ranked players falls off in most cases.
Stonar Coleman: Yes, I think this is something most good coaches will experience at some point in their careers. I have had a situation where the personalities just didn’t click anymore, and I felt the student would be better off with a new coach!
Louis Vallejo: No. I have found that help from my fellow tennis pros can be very beneficial. Every good coach has the knowledge and experience through training and competing to produce better-than-average tennis players. Every pro has different aptitudes, such as an eye for mechanics, strategy, mental toughness, world class competition, experience, etc. Pros working together to produce champions is a good thing, but if a coach has a positive relationship with their students, then why change?
Would you recommend a top junior player compete in high school tennis, or do you think that it negatively impacts their game?
Stonar Coleman: The answer depends both on the school and the individual. For some players, it can be a great opportunity and help their college application, and for others, it might not give them enough practice at their level.
Carl Barnett: It's different for every player, but I encourage it as long as the school coach doesn't get involved with the student’s strokes. Players do so much on their own, both in training and going to tournaments. Playing on a school team gives them a nice connection with their classmates.
Dan Dwyer: I don't think this question can be answered with a simple yes or no. Being part of a team can be a very positive factor in one's tennis development. The Davis Cup is a classic case. I think this is a decision that has to be made by the junior after thoroughly discussing it with their coach and parents.
Laurie Fehrs: I strongly believe that any player should play high school tennis. It builds personality as well as team spirit. More importantly, the team provides them a stronger sense of self-esteem. Consequently, the more matches a player plays, the better they get.
Steven Kaplan: Yes, to both. I highly recommend that players make a commitment to competing at some point, to school tennis even if in the short run it could have a negative impact on their game. High school tennis is a healthy and valuable part of a positive, well-rounded junior tennis experience. The positive socialization benefits of participation should not be underestimated.
Lawrence Kleger: This is a very loaded question and I only get four sentences! First, if any of my top juniors really wanted to play high school tennis, I would certainly let them. But I probably would discourage it. Here’s why: I have never had a top player come out of the high school tennis season playing better than when they entered it. Also, tennis players are not evaluated like football players are. It is the results from USTA-sanctioned tournaments that will determine a tennis player’s collegiate career, not high school matches versus local rivals. Finally, there are some high school coaches who will not let their top players miss practice, or an inconsequential match, to properly train for or compete in an extremely important USTA event. Therefore, for a high standing national player, that can become a deal breaker. If it seems that I am anti-high school tennis, just remember that among the New York State High School Champions I have coached is two-time champion Michelle Stracar … my stepdaughter!
Pat Mosquera: I strongly feel that varsity tennis is another piece to the puzzle in developing an all-around player in both sectional and national rankings.
What are your thoughts on a junior player playing up and/or down in ability level and also playing up in USTA age level?
Carl Barnett: It can be valuable, but players need to succeed in their own natural progression.
Stonar Coleman: I think most good players do not mind playing up because they want the competition. The average player might want to play down to get a confidence booster and chase points. But one important point … it’s always good to win at your age group, as it will always give that player confidence.
Dan Dwyer: Very frequently, juniors play to the highest level of their game when they are playing up. I believe this is due to the fact that they are not encumbered by others' expectations of them or of their own expectations. It is sort of like having a built in excuse.
Steven Kaplan: Playing up has its virtues, it is motivating and enlightening, but playing at or below your level is equivalently important. The bottom line is that the locus of control as to how you will improve is internal not external and that should be the message that wise and responsible adults teach. Coaches, parents and practice partners can facilitate to make it easier, but the best players know that they have the ultimate responsibility for their success. I have coached hundreds of top-ranked players and not one of them has ever cared nearly as much about playing up at 18 as they did at 12, and I don't believe they have all gotten dumber with age. Not practicing up doesn't seem to have hurt Roger Federer much lately either. Therefore, I believe that the enormous emphasis on playing above ability levels that players and parents advocate and coaches peddle is, in many ways misguided, ego-driven and undermining of success.
Lawrence Kleger: In terms of practice. I think it is critically important to play up, down and at one’s ability level. The notion that one can only get better by playing with and against better players is a crock. At the developmental levels, it is very difficult to develop and practice one’s tactics against better players. Against better players, you are scraping and scrapping just to hang in there with them, let alone implement new and not-yet-perfected tactics. Often, players who consistently play against better players get really good at one thing—losing! They find new and innovative ways to make it happen. When matches are close, these players have all of those “losing” images fresh in their mind to call on. As far as playing up an age group, that depends on the individual and the age group. When I have someone play up an age group, I make sure that I have a very valid reason for it. For instance, a player may be at the top of their age group with tactical skills on a par with the older age group. I never have a player play up an age group simply to take the pressure off the player that he or she experiences in their natural age group.
Pat Mosquera: If a player has shown a top 10 ranking in their age division, he or she should always play up.
What qualities do you look for in a junior player that separates them from the pack and makes them a top player?
Dan Dwyer: Without question, the most important attribute is the ability to focus and stay on task. This inevitably is expressed with a happy, but serious, attitude that shows that the student is having fun working hard. How well the junior moves is probably the most important physical trait. His or her quickness of the first step and not giving up are good signs of future great players.
Steven Kaplan: While physical talent gives players an initial advantage, and is the ultimate limiting factor at the highest level of performance, I look more to personal qualities to predict playing success, specifically optimism, perseverance and opportunism. I ask, does the player believe in themselves, will they do what it takes to succeed, and do they maximize the quality of each experience? In almost every study undertaken on achievement as well as from my own experience, these qualities are the pillars most highly correlated to achievement.
Lawrence Kleger: I look for character and spirit. I think all great players have both. Juniors with character are extremely coachable, embrace the challenge of the sport and are committed to excellence. Their “PROCESS” of trying to become the best players they can be is both enriching and fulfilling. They are athletes first and winners second. Juniors with spirit have a lot of positive energy, extremely high work ethic, and are intensely competitive without compromising sportsmanship. They never quit and never make excuses. They inspire everyone around them to work harder for them. To borrow a quote from a Supreme Court Justice: “Spirit is that inner quality that I have trouble defining, but I know it when I see it.” By the way, world-class athleticism doesn’t hurt.
Louis Vallejo: Juniors who excel in tournaments have all the same attributes, including athletic ability, coaching, training, mental toughness and motivation. The most significant quality that constitutes a top player is an unwillingness to lose. Champions in any competitive situation refuse to fail. Connors, McEnroe and the William Sisters would sell their souls rather than accept defeat. We all saw the ice man Roger Federer shedding tears after his loss to Nadal at Wimbledon. Need I say more?
At what age (if ever) should a junior player give up other sports to focus on tennis?
Dan Dwyer: I think the junior player, at some point (probably at 13-14 years of age), has to decide how they can best attain their goals in the sport of tennis. Time spent playing other sports would have to be limited if their aspirations are to be a college player. Again, it is important, both socially and physically, to participate on at least a social level in other sports. There is definitely a physical aspect achieved outside of tennis that is critical to all great players.
Laurie Fehrs: This is a very difficult question, but I firmly believe that any student of the game should pursue what they love to do. Is it tough to balance many sports, but these sports give different athletic talents to enhance one’s game.
Lawrence Kleger: I am tempted to say “at birth,” but seriously, I believe that each case is different and that the age is getting younger. If I had to pick an age, I would say that if a high-standing junior is playing other sports on an organized basis past the age of 10, I believe that it will be extremely difficult to reach his/her highest potential.
Pat Mosquera: I would say the time is right when the junior player decides that tennis should be their primary focus. The decision should be left up to them.
Louis Vallejo: I believe this is up to the individual. I’ve taught five-year-olds who began playing tennis as their first sport. I’ve witnessed these students win championships, receive sponsorships from companies and accept scholarships from well-known universities. I also have a friend, Andres Gomez, who has a number four world ranking. He played several other sports until the age of 14. Typically, an athlete should give up other sports and focus on only one by the age of 10, give or take a year. This may seem young to some, but a true champion matures earlier than others and can make this decision. After all, didn’t Andre Agassi make his choice at the age of six?
What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a Long Islander at Nationals?
Carl Barnett: The great advantage is to be at home and have the support from their family and coach when playing a National at the U.S. Tennis Center, which is in our own backyard.
Stonar Coleman: Long Island kids play a lot of indoor tennis, compared to many other places in the country. This can be both an advantage and a disadvantage. Since many national tournaments are outdoors, it’s hard for Long Island juniors to make the adjustment to the outdoor conditions. On the other hand, indoor tennis can really help you hit a perfect ball and have great technique.
Laurie Fehrs: I don’t think there is a huge disadvantage or advantage either way, but if I were to say what is the biggest disadvantage was, it would be playability in a warm climate. The endurance factor in warmer degree weather could hurt a Long Islander’s chances at Nationals.
Steven Kaplan: Long Islanders benefit from the positive economic demographics of the area, as well as the population density. They can tolerate the high cost of training and traveling perhaps better than in other regions of the country and have a wealth of great programs nearby. Longer Islanders also have a greater diversity of court surface options then in other areas, which encourages a well-rounded playing style. The inhospitable weather and emphasis on education here however, make practice opportunities difficult as compared to Florida, California and Texas, and this factor contributes to Long Islanders being at an overall disadvantage at nationals.
Lawrence Kleger: I can cite a whole bunch of disadvantages that Long Island kids have at National Tournaments. Most would relate to playing indoors for the greater part of the year. Long Island kids, for the most part, are playing indoor tennis from the first week in September until well into May. Two of the biggest tournaments are played in December and March/April outdoors. Juniors from the warm weather states where they play outdoors 365 days a year have a huge advantage in these events over our kids that may get to prepare outdoors for a couple of days prior to the event. As for the advantages … I think that we have great coaches and excellent indoor facilities on Long Island. Plus, we’re New Yorkers! New Yorkers are high-achievers who are driven towards excellence. We don’t take “no” for an answer and don’t give up.
What is your best memory as a coach?
Carl Barnett: I know it's simple, but hearing their voice replace mine when playing or sharing coaching with others.
Stonar Coleman: My best memory as a coach is meeting Nick Bollettieri at a seminar at the USTA center in New York in 2000. He is, by far, the best motivator in tennis and has inspired my coaching career.
Dan Dwyer: My greatest memories come from working with wheelchair players and students with Multiple Sclerosis. It is from them that I truly learned that we are the masters of our own fate. The positive attitude, the great sense of humor and the willingness to work hard for what they want, taught me that I could do and should do more as a tennis professional and as a person.
Laurie Fehrs: I would have to say my best coaching memory would be coaching at The Chiquita Cup. I felt very honored to coach top players in the country in a tournament as prestigious as The Chiquita Cup.
Steven Kaplan: While I have some great memories in my almost 30 years as a coach, my most interesting experience coaching happened before my career even began. I was 18 and it was a Sunday afternoon, and I was hanging around Syosset Racket Club (which is now a supermarket) looking to find a game. One of the club owners was also part-owner of Westbury Music Fair, so their acts would sometimes come to play. Since I was the only other person there, the desk receptionist asked me to give a lesson to the people who were going to come down. It was Isaac Hayes of the movie “Shaft,” and later, of “South Park” fame; Diana Ross; and a new group, The Jackson Five. I really just fed some balls and no one cared much about playing. Isaac Hayes didn't take his leather jacket off, just stood there with his racket and gave menacing looks. Diana Ross stayed in the corner and laughed, and Michael Jackson, who while my age, looked 12, spun around every time the ball came. It was memorable.
Lawrence Kleger: When you have been doing this as long as I have, you have a number of great memories. Unfortunately, you can’t remember any of them! One that sticks out is three years ago, when three of my students finished first, second and third at a Girls 16-and-under National Open in Minneapolis. And two of those girls won the doubles title! That is the only time in USTA National play that this has ever been accomplished. What made it extra special was that my stepdaughter, Nicky was the girl who won both the singles and the doubles titles.
Pat Mosquera: I have been teaching for more than 20 years now, and my best memory as a coach was a couple of years ago seeing my son London hit his first forehand at the tender age of one-and-a-half.
Louis Vallejo: I have countless great memories as a tennis coach, therefore, I’ll only mention a few. A young girl who wanted to learn tennis was brought to me by her parents, who noticed she had a lack of motor skills. A year later, she made her high school’s varsity tennis team as a singles player. I also recall offering strategy advice to a junior player who I’ve never met. I then watched him defeat a seeded player at Nationals as a result of my recommendations. His parents sent me thank you cards from California for many years after. In addition, I recall coaching the top ranked male and female juniors in the east for several years. Overall, the answer to this question resides mostly in the bond I’ve established with many of my students.