In this time of extraordinary challenge, the dreams of many young players to one day play professional tennis have been put on pause. It's concerning to venture outside to play tennis and in some areas perhaps ( and I say this with sadness) irresponsible. With no live tennis, even watching is an adventure. The 2019 encore presentation of a first round match at The Miami Open now airing on Tennis Channel as I write this, is not really doing it for me and what's the deal with people bouncing toilet paper on their rackets on social media?
I was tempted to talk about how trivial the goal of achieving tennis greatness is when we as a world are facing a global pandemic and fighting to preserve our social and economic system. Shouldn't we recognize tennis as just a game when many in the world are fighting for their lives?
Are tennis players hero's when viewed in context to the medical professionals, scientists and health care providers who devote their lives to service and risk it everyday to heal the sick?
These people deserve our admiration and our profound thanks. Yet ,I am also reminded that there are superheroes in tennis and in sports. Which brings me to Billie Jean King, Muhammad Ali and Nick Bollettieri.
Before Billie Jean King was a tennis center in Flushing, she was a great, great player winning 39 total Grand Slams including 12 singles titles. When I watch SportsCenter on ESPN I see arguments about who is the greatest athlete of all time Michael Jordan or Tom Brady? While it's a fun debate ,how about proposing a larger question that resonates in these times?
Who should we value greater, the best athletes or the athletes and coaches who use their fame to be the greatest agents for social change, social justice and personal growth like Billie Jean King , Muhammad Ali and Nick Bollettieri.
Billie Jean used her fame to further equality for Women as well as for what we now call LGBTQ+, in this country and the world. It was not a popular fight at the time. It cost Ms. King opportunities, yet she had a vision larger than herself of equality and inclusion and it's a vision that I hope all young people recognize and follow.
So too, did Muhammad Ali selflessly fight the good fight for social justice. He sacrificed the prime of his career to champion his beliefs with his unwillingness to support a war that he felt was inconsistent with his conscience and his faith. He went to jail until the US Supreme Court acquitted him unanimously.
As a coach I have a special place in my heart for Nick Bollettieri because he has transformed the lives of so many using tennis as his vehicle to help young people to help themselves. I aspire to follow his example. True leaders don't seek to create followers they prioritize creating other leaders. Look at a list of lives that Nick has transformed. It's staggering.
These people are all great role models because they used sports to be leaders and transform the world in large ways and in small ways.
It's been said, "Think globally, act locally." Certainly words which ring true today.
This is not the time to put your dreams on pause. It's exactly the time to choose to keep dreaming and use these dreams to change the world.
Steven Kaplan is the owner and managing director of Bethpage Park Tennis Center, as well as director emeritus of Lacoste Academy for New York City Parks Foundation and executive director and founder of Serve & Return Inc. Steve has coached more than 1,100 nationally-ranked junior players, 16 New York State high school champions, two NCAA Division 1 Singles Champions, and numerous highly-ranked touring professionals. Many of the students Steve has closely mentored have gone to achieve great success as prominent members of the New York financial community, and in other prestigious professions. In 2017, Steve was awarded the Hy Zausner Lifetime Achievement Award by the USTA. He may be reached by e-mail at StevenJKaplan@aol.com.