“Hey, coach.” I remember the first time I heard it. It sounded strangely ominous. I was a Social Studies teacher at John F. Kennedy High School in Bellmore, N.Y. My first few years there, I would go out and hit with the team; coaching was a whole new world.
I had been playing tennis since I was in college, with a passion that bordered on fanatic. I remember attending Forrest Hills to see the likes of Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and Arthur Ashe. I remember wooden racquets and white tennis balls, and when the final of the U.S. Open cost $6 for a seat.
In reflection, I think every coach, every team and every season is a story unto itself. I came from an era when your racquet spoke for you and your behavior was as important as your win/loss record. I had not been much of an athlete in high school and did not relate to the “big game” football approach. I understood what it meant to watch from the sidelines. I mention all of this because it was definitely part of my coaching. I never tired of saying (though my teams certainly were tired of hearing) “You represent yourself, your parents, your school and me. Behave in an appropriate manner or stay home.” I would not tolerate unsportsmanlike behavior; it was probably the only thing that I would flare at.
When I got the coaching position, one of my colleagues said that I would get a whole new perspective on teaching. All teachers feel that they can never have enough “tools” in the classroom and he was correct. I saw a completely different side of some kids, and they saw a slightly different side of me. In retrospect, I was coached as much as I coached. I became a better teacher and a better person for it.
Coaching high school tennis is different from coaching other sports. There is an inverse relationship between talent and need. In wrestling, for example, your high school record is vital to your hopes for scholarship and entrance into the college of your choice. The better you are at tennis, the more important your United States Tennis Association ranking and your performance is in local and regional tournaments. Another difference is that often it is in a player’s and coach’s self interest to excuse a player from practice in order to take a private lesson. What may have appeared to be indifferent coaching to a baseball coach was essential coaching to a competitive team in tennis. Another interesting aspect of tennis coaching is the pressure placed on some coaches. Where football and wrestling may be the measure of success in some communities, the Bellmore JFK team played some schools where the future of the coach depended on their win/loss record. I had a coach lie to me once to postpone a scheduled match by saying his best players were on a religious retreat. I found out later that the “religion” they were retreating to was a regional USTA tryout. The coach was fearful of losing a match.
These are the parameters that shaped my coaching. Like a kaleidoscope, just a little twist gives a very different picture. I carried a squad of 24 players because we had six courts at JFK. Some of the players never got to play a competitive match, but all received Varsity letters (I attended Wantagh High School, class of ‘65, and a letter was a big deal). Some of my proudest moments were when some of the court one and two players would hit with the kids on five and six. Once again, there is much to be learned from coaching and the idea of a team concept.
I had my share of great players and great personalities. When Scott Lipsky came to play for the team, the guys said, “Just put him on court one.” I replied, “Don’t any of you want to challenge him, he’s a freshman.” “He’s number six in the world in juniors,” they told me. Wow. What do you do now? Fortunately, he was a normal child blessed with abnormal talent. His parents, Gail and Mark Lipsky understood Scott’s talents as well as his needs. He was “one of the team,” and I consider it a great honor that Scott came to play high school tennis even in his senior year. These are the things that really matter to a coach long after the phone calls into Newsday (the winning coach makes the call).
What a fun time we had. Shawn Worth (another member of the JFK team), would say, “Put me in last, coach. I’ll get us the win.” And he often did, but when he didn’t he just smiled and said “next time.” I loved that attitude.
David Sickmen always stepped up and was victorious in the final set of a match that would determine the division championship. The whole team was happy for him, as well as themselves.
I had all different types of players, from Tina and Gary, my Russian players, who loved the fact that I could say about five words in Russian, to superstars like Scott Lipsky to David Sickmen, who played basketball and tennis with the same desire to succeed. He would bring you a win or collapse trying. What a blessing to be a coach. This leads me to another priceless memory … the bus ride home.
I coached both boys and girls tennis and, if there is a gender difference, it was reflected on the bus ride home from an away match. I was not a disciplinarian under most circumstances, and if the team lost a match I thought they should have won, I might try and set a somber tone, though I never insisted on it. More often than not, I tried to console the players who lost (I remember being there myself). It is a fact that if 10 million tennis players walk onto the court, five million will lose. Generally speaking, the girl’s team had an easier time coping with an unexpected loss than the boys, however, let me let you in on a little secret—if you want to know all of the scandals and gossip in a suburban high school, go on a bus ride with the girls. It was a great and eye opening experience.
I taught social studies for a third of century, and coached for a decade. I would not trade either for all the gold in Ft. Knox (considering our present economic situation, I guess I am not giving much away). Let me leave this story with two vignettes: Scott Lipsky is now on the ATP Tour and I reside in Florida. When he played at the Delray Beach tournament, he got me a pass. I used to describe my coaching of Scott by saying “I would insist that I open the can of balls for him before matches so he would not cut his finger.” It said “Player Coach.” You cannot imagine how much that meant to me. Another player, Eliot Rosenblum, gave me a coffee mug that said “World’s Greatest Coach.” I know that isn’t true, but nevertheless, I drink my coffee from it every morning. All in all, it was a great view from the front of the bus.