By Ann Liguori
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If the enthusiasm and energy from the USTA Eastern Long Island 22nd Annual Dinner this past Wednesday evening at Crest Hollow Country Club in Woodbury, N.Y., is any indication of the health of the sport of tennis in our country, I can happily say that tennis is alive and well amongst a wide age group.
Over 350 passionate tennis players attended, the ages ranging from 8 to 85! A plethora of awards were handed out in categories such as High School Champions, Long Island Junior Award Winners in categories ranging from Boys and Girls 10s thru Boys and Girls 18s; Eastern Section Junior Award Winners; Adult Rankings–Eastern Section starting with Men’s 25 PPR Singles and Women’s 30 PPR Singles all the way up to Men’s 80- PPR Singes; NTRP Rankings; PPR and NTRP Final Rankings; League Captains; etc. The Hy Zausner Lifetime Achievement Award was given to Ed Wolfarth of Syosset, N.Y. D.A. Abrams was named The Arthur Ashe Multi-Cultural Award Recipient. The Tennis Family of the Year Recipients are the Hoffman Family of West Hempstead.
The award’s dinner was bustling with activity and as noisy as can be and an excellent indication of the renewed popularity of the sport. And it was a reminder of the life-long benefits that tennis offers from fitness benefits to the social aspects of the game to helping to develop one’s focus and concentration skills. In an age when obesity statistics in our country are over-the-top, with many children not getting off the sofa while immersed in video games, and with inactivity amongst youth and adults at an all-time high, it was wonderful to see so many young people and adults of all ages so excited about tennis and playing the sport.
And if one individual is a poster ‘person’ for the life-long benefits and enjoyment one gets from playing tennis, Charles Hurme of Huntington Station would be the one. Two years ago, 97-year-old Charles H. Hurme was named the USTA Eastern Long Island Tennis Player of the Year! At the time he was playing three times a week during the summer. He has won numerous tournaments during his 70-year playing career. He was in the top 10 in the Super Seniors for 10 years and in 2009 he had the most points in the ‘95 and over’ Round Robin doubles tournament in Palm Springs, California. At age 90, Hurme won both the 90 and above national singles and doubles titles!
Along with what seemed like hundreds of awards given out, ‘yours truly’ was the guest speaker. The upcoming US Open Tennis Championships at Flushing Meadows, NY, August 27-September 9, 2012, will be my 30th straight US Open. Twenty-five of them, I’ve covered for WFAN Radio with updates either every 20 minutes or every hour, starting with the ‘day session’ of matches at 11am. The first few years, I worked as a statistician for HBO Sports, rarely leaving the production trailer, as I watched every match they televised and was responsible for telling the chyron operator the score on every single point, which was the score you would see on your television screen.
The next few Opens I covered for ABC Radio Sports and then I started covering the tournament for WFAN Radio in 1987, the year the first all-sports station started. Those were the days before the Arthur Ashe Stadium was built which has the broadcast tower and media rooms, accommodating hundreds of media. Back then, the world-wide press crowded in the small press box on top of Louis Armstrong Stadium. That press box often shook in rain and wind storms. And many reporters smoked back then so it was both crowded and smoky. But as I look back on those days, it was always a thrill to catch up with old friends every year and meet new ones. I can still see legendary broadcaster Bud Collins in the back row holding court and the rows where the Italian reporters sat and where Swedish broadcasters did play-by-play of Borg’s matches in their language. It was one big, open, noisy, happy space. (Now everyone is spread out. Bud works out of a cubicle in the large media room and most of the broadcasters are in a separate area, overlooking the Ashe court).
On Wednesday evening at the dinner, a few of the young award winners asked me how I got into the game and who my favorite tennis players are.
I first started playing when I was 8-years-old. My first racquet was the Wilson T2000, the one Jimmy Connors used. Two years ago, when I saw Jimmy at the Open, I asked him how he ever used that monstrosity. It was so heavy and bulky. I quickly switched to the Chris Evert wood racquet, the one with the elongated grip for the two-handed back hand.
I played four years of Varsity tennis for my high-school team in Brecksville, Ohio. But I played on the boy’s team, because we didn’t have a girls team at the time. In my senior year, I played number one singles for the boy’s team. It was quite the experience to say the least but it helped prepare me for working in a field still dominated by guys.
I have fun stories about playing tennis against football legend Jim Brown, and being double’s partners with Regis and other celebrities but those stories can be recounted at another time.
My favorite male tennis players are Jimmy Connors and Roger Federer. I loved Jimmy’s passion and emotion and competitive spirit. He won the US Open the first two years I started covering the tournament in 1982 and 1983 (he also had won it in 1974 and 1976) and of course Jimbo’s match against Aaron Krickstein in 1991 in the third round is legendary. On Jimmy’s 39th birthday, rallying back from being down 2 sets to 1, Jimmy won the 4th set and was down 2-5 in the fifth set, and fought his way back and won the match in a fifth set tie-breaker. It was the most compelling run at the Open! Mix in the fact that Connors was really about ten years past his prime and the year before, Connors had played in only a couple matches because of a wrist injury and surgery. There’s a reason why that match is the most-replayed match of any on the big screen at the US Open each year during rain delays.
And I admire Roger Federer who dominated the sport for so many years, winning a record 16 Grand Slam singles titles. He has won on all surfaces – clay, grass and hard courts. It’s a pleasure watching Roger play. I did updates on all five of his consecutive US Open championship wins from 2004-2008 and just about every match he’s ever played at the Open. For all those years, when Roger took the court, there was no question he was going to win. And he continually amazes with his speed, shot-making and grace, on and off the court. He’s still ranked third in the world, for goodness sakes. And I’ve always been impressed with the way he carries himself, on and off the court. He’s a leader and Ambassador for the game and a great role model for young people.
The women players I most admire are Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King and Monica Seles. Martina is the greatest female tennis player in history with her 18 Grand Slam singles titles, 31 major women’s doubles titles and 10 major mixed doubles titles. I followed her professional career from the very beginning when she first came to the U.S. from Czechoslovakia, a pudgy, naïve teen-ager who later became the role model for fitness and training for women in the sport.
Billie Jean King and her life-long work and vision made it possible for women to compete professionally and earn equal prize money. I was thrilled when the USTA named the tennis facility after her: The USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. I thought it was recognition, long over-due, based on everything Billie has done and continues to do, to grow the game of tennis and create opportunities for girls and women in sports.
The enthusiasm at the dinner reminded me why I love the game so much – it keeps one young, mentally and physically. And it’s a sport I recommend to young people to take up. It’s a non-contact sport, not violent and the likelihood for head injury is slim. And the different strategies required in singles and doubles makes it challenging and fun.
According to D.A. Abrams, Executive Director of the USTA Eastern Section for six years until this past February, when he took a larger role with the national USTA: “Growing the number and helping to develop volunteers (within the section and the region to support and participate with USTA activities), recognizing and enhancing their total experience and engaging them,” are key goals for the Eastern Section. “I have absolutely nothing to do with this, but the Long Island awards dinner annually is a model for the section…it could be a model for sections across to the nation.”