Usually, when I sit down to write, I follow two simple rules: Write what you know (suggested by a pretty good writer, Ernest Hemmingway) and “Never marry your first date or your first draft” (source unknown, but good advice on both accounts). This is different. This is difficult.
John Lennon once said that “Life is what happens while you are making other plans.” It has been 15 years since I met Scott Lipsky. During this time, we have traveled two very different, but intertwined paths. It is astounding to me how quickly the years have passed, and how a boy became a man and a coach became a friend. I write this with a mixture of pride, nostalgia and wonder. John Lennon was right.
Fifteen years ago, I was a high school coach at John F. Kennedy High School in Bellmore, N.Y. One day, a player came out and, like Moses at the Red Sea, “parted the waters.”
“Put him on the first court,” the kids said. “Why? He’s a freshman.” I said.
“He’s ranked nationally and internationally,” the kids shot back.
“Oh, well, someone has to challenge him for the first court,” I said.
“I will,” said Sean Worth, a talented player and a great personality. Afterward, I asked how he did. “If you added up all my points,” Worth said, “I did not get a game."
I had met Scott Lipsky.
Tennis, largely a solo sport, can create oversized egos. Everyone is the next Williams, Sampras, Lendl or Connors— choose your hero. Scott’s family were well grounded and realistic people. His mother, Gail, said to me that it wasn’t about Scott’s ability. She wanted him to have a “normal” high school experience. After all, he did not have a cape with a giant “S” hidden under his tennis shirt. Along with all that talent, there was a 15-year-old adolescent, with the same anxieties that anyone has at that age. There were exceptions—I would excuse Scott from practice because he was taking lessons from people who had the ability to improve his game.
Later on, when people would say “YOU coached Scott Lipsky?” I would say, “No, I opened the can of balls so he would not cut his finger before playing.”
I didn’t realize that I was coaching, but in a different arena. My parents had taught me, sometimes at the school of hard knocks, that it was important to be authentic, to do the right thing, to admit your mistakes and to be proud of your achievements. In this respect, I was reinforcing exactly what Mark and Gail Lipsky taught Scott. I was proud of his victories, suffered through his matches, (though not as much as his mom), and before you knew it, I was writing letters of recommendation for college applications.
During this time, Scott had won the New York State Doubles Championships, was a finalist in the State Singles Championship and spent much of his junior year playing in tournaments. He sent his homework to school through the Internet and met his academic obligations, as well as his athletic responsibilities. He was rising in the ranks of the tennis community, at the same time, maturing into someone we were all proud of. When he attended Stanford, it was a special accolade, because it was a perfect fit. He was a scholar athlete. I used to tease him and say that we made a good team, I never shut up and he was stingy with words. I retired from teaching and followed his career on the Internet. We corresponded occasionally.
No life is immune to tragedy. Scott lost his father in his freshman year of college. When I was growing up, my uncle played a crucial role; he was the adult I could talk to when I could not deal with my father. I would be there for Scott if he needed someone to talk to. After all, he had been there for me. Scott came out for tennis in his senior year. It was so unusual for an athlete of his stature to do so that Newsday wrote a story about it. Scott was a stand up guy. We drove to Athens, Ga. to see him in the NCAAs. No longer a teenager, he was a young man.
After a very successful collegiate career, Scott and his doubles partner, David Martin, turned professional. Tennis is brutal on self-esteem. You are out there alone, wearing short pants and facing people with as much desire, skill and as many dreams as you have had since you have been eight-years-old. Your record is only as good as your next forehand. You are only as good as your second serve, your first volley and someone in “who knows-where” Eastern Europe is practicing against a backboard right now. What happens if he is not a success?
I knew the feeling, but for me it was the music business, not sports. In college, I was in a group that had landed a recording contract, appeared in the “showcase” clubs in Manhattan, and thought that every morning would bring stardom, or at least an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. It never happened. When one door closes, another opens, and becoming a history teacher more than fulfilled my life.
Scott started out in the trenches, playing the “Futures” circuit. After a victory, we drove him to the airport. In his 20s, he was already learning to hate airplanes. He was learning his trade.
The next level was the Challengers. This is the equivalent of AAA ball in the Major Leagues. It is not glamorous. You are not Roger Federer, the accommodations are minimal, and the best thing about it, if you get past it, is the stories you can tell your friends. Rooms that have insects the size of ponies, line calls that would make a blind person blush, and all the while, you hope for a break through and an ATP match. I kept track of the scores, e-mailed encouragement, and all the while, reminded him that while his tennis was great, his character was greater. All of his admirers, his family and friends, all respected him for who he was, not what he did. I was as proud as an honorary uncle could be.
When he won his first title, we all were ecstatic he had made it. No more what ifs, only how many mores. As a testament to Scott’s character, the Bryan Brothers were in Boca Raton, Fla. playing an exhibition match. Afterwards, I spoke with Bob Bryan, saying that we knew someone in common. “You know Lips?" he said. “Here, let me sign your cap.” The years rolled by, with increasing speed. There were victories and defeats and sushi dinners when he was in town. In the blink of an eye, we received an invitation to Scott’s wedding.
I met Marie when Scott was playing at the U.S. Open. “This is my girlfriend,” Scott said. He is the master of understatement. We flew to California this past summer for the ceremony. When we arrived, I left a message for Gail that we were here. She called back and said, “When the usher escorts you and Joan to be seated, tell him you are family and that you are sitting with us.” There will never be a more moving moment in my life, if I live to be a hundred.
A month ago, Scott and his doubles partner, Rajeev Ram, played in the ATP tournament at Delray Beach, Fla. They made it to the finals and several longtime family friends were there to cheer him on. When they won, we all cheered as if it was the most important match that had ever been played, and, as far as we were concerned, it was. If you live long enough, your life becomes a story. This has been one of the better stories of mine.
<p>Alan Fleishman has been a devoted fan of tennis since 1969. He won the Town of Hempstead tennis tournament at Newbridge Road Park in 1972 and was runner-up in 1974. He worked as an assistant to the tennis professional in the summer program at Lutheran High School in the early 1970s. While teaching social studies at John F. Kennedy High School in Bellmore, N.Y., he was fortunate to have coached some talented players, but more importantly, some wonderful young men and women during his last seven years at the school. He may be reached by e-mail at <a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org">email@example.com</a>.</p>