On a flight returning from Portugal this past June, I was with 24 varsity collegiate players from the Oneonta State Tennis program. I had eight hours with my thoughts on a transatlantic journey from Lisbon to New York. We were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to play some team exhibitions in Europe and compete against some good European red court clay players. For a young person, this was an incredible experience I know will resonate with them for life. They may not realize it now, but as the years progress, they will have the opportunity to reflect back that these opportunities do not happen every day.
But what if?
What if my father, who introduced me to tennis when I was eight and when I did not take to the sport right away, said to himself, "Don’t push him?” What if he did not realize that this was a seed being planted in a person who will grow and resonate for life, giving me a career? What if I did not work on my game and go into coaching? What would have happened? I can tell you this, I am not really sure where or what direction my life would have gone in. Those questions will remain a mystery.
I am not going to tell you that just because I went into teaching and coaching at the collegiate level that somehow I became a savior for all. It's not true of course, but what I can observe is simply fact … coaching young people at the collegiate level, I know I am not just worried about their forehands and backhands, wins or loses, but so much more.
On this trip to Portugal, I found out that the overwhelming majority of the student/athletes on the squad have never been out of the country or have been exposed to anything but American culture. When in Portugal, we were able to explore many enriching sights, museums and other treasures of European life, past and present. Their senses were stimulated in ways like never before. The augmented education they received on this one-week excursion abroad was a result of their initial exposure to tennis. It was also a result of my exposure to tennis for 40-plus years on a journey that has taken many twists and turns well beyond the sidelines of the court.
So what if?
I know these young people probably would be playing tennis for another school somewhere which one could assume would also be positive, but they would never have been exposed to a European experience under the auspices of our game. Several student/athletes expressed to me when they returned that they were interested in traveling abroad again on their own in the future. I really had to convince them that life has greater borders than just here on Long Island and our annual trip to Florida. It was a real eye-opener.
So what if?
For me and some of these players, it started with a tennis lesson. You just never know.
Fast-forward one-month and again I find myself on an 11-hour flight returning from Israel where I was fortunate to have coached Team USA for the Maccabiah World Games. It was a team of top collegiate and world-ranked tennis players from all over the country. If you are not familiar with the Maccabiah Games, it is the third largest sporting event in the world where you can find the best Jewish athletes from the world competing in Olympic sporting events. I am not a religious person, but it certainly is wonderful to see Jewish athletes from all over the world bonding with one another while embracing the Olympic sporting ideals.
One of the players from Team USA Tennis was a woman who competed for me as a student/athlete at Oneonta State. I had asked this particular player to try out, and when she made Team USA, there were a chain events that took place. Her mother decided to go as a supporter who had not been to Israel in 35 years, followed by her father, who had never been there. This was followed by her younger brother coming along, and when all was said and done, the family had a close religious reunion in Israel. Witnessing this family come together while I was abroad was one of the more rewarding experiences of my own career. I wondered what would have happened if I did not take that tennis lesson when I was eight? What if I did not have parents who supported my efforts and saw the big picture and the future and what could be? What if?
There are tons of stories like this throughout my career that I could point to that would prompt me to ask, “What if?”
On the eve of the U.S. Open which brings hundreds of thousands of people to Flushing Meadows and New York City, opening the doors to endless economic opportunities each year, what if that tournament organizer in 1881 did not have a championship called the U.S. National Championships for men? And then in 1887, actually have the gall to have women compete for that title with their own draw? What if a woman by the name of Billie Jean Moffitt (Billie Jean King) did not have a vision of women's equality?
I suppose you can make an argument that these "What ifs" can take place in all walks of life. However, this is a tennis publication and when you mention names like Billie Jean King, Arthur Ashe and many others who help to change the world, they asked themselves “What if” and they did “It.”
Our little game that has changed the world, it certainly was a game-changer wasn't it? Let's keep it open-ended for you to ponder, shall we!
Lonnie Mitchel is head men’s and women’s tennis coach at SUNY Oneonta. Lonnie was named an assistant coach to Team USA for the 2013 Maccabiah Games in Israel for the Grand Master Tennis Division. Lonnie may be reached by phone at (516) 414-7202 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.