| By Laurie Gruppuso

As Matt Richards prepared to play in his first USTA match seven years ago as a 10-year-old, something would happen off the court that would change his life forever.

It was the morning before Thanksgiving when Matt was awakened by his father and he was told that his 19-year-old sister Jenn was taken to Stony Brook University Hospital in the middle of the night after discovering a lump the size of an orange protruding from her neck. He would soon learn she had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system.

Matt remembers his sister showing an inner strength as she battled through chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and averting death after a blood clot dislodged into one of her lungs. He was by her side when the nausea from chemotherapy was at its worst.

“Nobody knew what was going to happen next,” recalled Matt. “But the one thing we never doubted was the love we shared as a family. We always believed my sister would get better, and that we would help her every step of the way. And even though I was only 10 at the time, my parents made sure I knew what I needed to know.”

Throughout the worst of times, Matt’s parents did all they could to maintain a sense of normalcy. Even though both his father and mother lost their jobs due to the time commitment required to care for his sister, they still found the resources necessary to support his newfound passion for tennis. Before picking up a tennis racket, Matt was already applying his athletic ability to winning championships playing Little League, soccer and basketball. It wasn’t until he was on a family vacation in New Hampshire’s White Mountains that he discovered tennis.

“Everyone wanted to take a steam engine train to the top of Mount Washington,” said Matt. “My father, though, is afraid of heights. So he encouraged us to go to the top of the mountain, and said he would meet us back at the hotel. I decided to chill with him. When we got back to the hotel, we spotted a red clay tennis court. My dad asked me if I wanted to try playing tennis. After a few games, I was hooked.”

Seven years later, Matt is a USTA-ranked national player (he just aged out of the Boys 16s with a ranking of 76th in the Eastern Section, and is quickly rising up the rankings in Boys 18s). His major weapons are his 120 mph flat serve and equally nasty kick and slice serves. He has trained under such coaches as John and Bill Cook (Sportime Kings Park), Nick Brebenel, Afzal Ali (Deer Park Tennis), and Craig Schwartz (Queens College men’s tennis coach). He has also practiced at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and at Robbie Wagner Tournament Training.

Matt is also going into his sixth year playing for the Bayport Blue-Point High School varsity boy’s tennis team , leading the Phantoms at first singles since eighth grade under coach Keith Scharfshwerdt. He is a two-time All-County player and has helped Bayport make the playoffs the last two years. Matt also won a gold medal playing for the Long Island team that captured first place two years ago at the Empire State Games. Last summer, he and his doubles partner, David Arroyave, won the Long Island doubles tournament at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. He also recently won a USTA singles tournament at Sportime in the Hamptons.
“Matt’s upside is very high, which is why college coaches across D1, D2, and D3 schools are paying close attention to him,” noted John Cook. “As good as he is now, he has the potential to take his game to an even higher level. I believe he’s going to get there because of his deep commitment to achieving his goals.”

For Matt, it’s about keeping life in perspective.

“I love tennis, but it’s not life and death. I learned how to be resilient during my family’s dark times,” said Matt. “My sister beat cancer and went on to graduate from Pratt Institute, which is one of the best art schools in the world. And you know what? If you believe in yourself and are willing to work hard, you can achieve anything.”

Laurie Gruppuso

<p>Laurie Gruppuso is president of Bayport-Blue Point Community Tennis Association. The association was founded in 2009 and its goal is to offer high-quality, low-cost tennis to residents of the Bayport-Blue Point and surrounding areas. More than 200 juniors and adults are involved in the Bayport-Blue Point Community Tennis Association. She may be reached by phone at (516) 524-2971, e-mail <a href="mailto:autofix04@verizon.net">autofix04@verizon.net</a> or visit <a onclick="window.open(this.href,'wwwbbpcommunitytennisorg','resizable=yes,location=yes,menubar=no,scrollbars=yes,status=yes,toolbar=no,fullscreen=no,dependent=no,status'); return false" href="http://www.bbpcommunitytennis.org">www.bbpcommunitytennis.org</a>.</p>