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Four Tales of Tennis

May 22, 2007 02:43 PM

Wildfires Can't Keep These Women Benched
By: Tori Townsend

Everyone knows not to play with fire, but what about playing during a fire?

Rescue 911…we would like to report a group of extreme tennis enthusiasts playing amidst surrounding wildfires.

You would think that an untamed 6,500 acre brush fire near the Volusia-Flagler county line would send folks to congregate indoors for the afternoon. You would think that after wildfires in 1998, which burned more than 200,000 acres and 76 homes in Volusia and Flagler counties, that outdoor enthusiasts would take a break from the ever so enticing action. You would think that a group of eight women tennis players would opt to skip their traditional morning round robin play because of a hot, dangerous and nearby brush fire. You thought wrong.

Through wind, rain, and literally fire, it would be wise to huddle Jodi Manning, Julie Claude, Liz Coate, Gail Neufeld, Karen Gillespie, Lisa Hickox, Teresa Seeley and Joan Frazier as true tennis aficionados. Although a rare bunch, what may be more surprising was the fact that twelve other players on three different courts were breathing the same murky air while hitting shot after shot.

“We love the game so much, that it would take an evacuation of the area to actually get us to stop playing,” said Julie Claude. “Either that, or the smoke gets so thick that we can’t breathe anymore!”

Tennis admirers know that the game isn’t always played in the easiest conditions, from extreme sunshine and scorching heat to snow and sometimes freezing temperatures. However, this may take the cake as the most extreme.

The group has been playing together for four years and are comprised of players from both the 4.0 and 4.5 USTA league that plays out of the Florida Tennis Center in Daytona Beach. They call themselves the “Thursday Summer Fun Group” because after local league play ended in April, they continue to practice every Thursday in preparation for upcoming USTA summer league play.

Visibility on the courts may be reduced and officials may advise residents to stay indoors with the windows closed, but these eight devoted women are throwing caution to the smoky wind.

When captain Gail Neufeld called teammate Jodi Manning to decide whether play was on or off for the day, Jodi answered, “Well, I can see the houses now across the street.”

An executive decision was made right then. The game was on.

For the Love of the Game
By: Vinnie Abbaleo

Thirty-three years ago, I was graduating college, and picked up a tennis racquet for the first time. It was 1974, and everyone was playing with a steel, Wilson T-2000 racquet, because the world’s greatest player, Jimmy Connors used it. I had been playing golf for about 5 years, and did not improve drastically over those years. It was so frustrating chasing that little ball around, and no “cardio” exercise, to boot.

After getting into tennis, within a year, I was playing well enough to enter some tournaments, and began beating some seasoned players, who had more experience than me. It was weird, but it seemed in a year, I improved more in tennis than I did in 5 years of playing golf. I had absolutely begun a love affair with the game on those courts in 1974. I played every night and remember hitting against a wall if no one was around. I also remember not going home until I hit 50 balls in a row over that line on the wall. If I missed I started over again, then I upped the ante to 100 balls, and never went home until I accomplished that feat.

Now, here I am 33 years later and still play tennis 4-5 times a week, although I forget that I’m now 55, and after 5 hours of playing at night, I’m a little sore the next day. Also, a dream of mine came true three years ago when I began coaching tennis at Atlantic High School, and also began coaching a Special Olympics Team in Port Orange, Fla. One of my goals as a tennis coach is not only to develop the physical abilities of my players, but also to instill in them a sense of citizenship and commitment to underprivileged children, and to the community. We’ve volunteered for the annual Foster Care Kids Day, held at the United Methodist Home, for Special Olympics events and for Ralleyball tournaments, where young children are just learning the great game of tennis.

I truly believe we become enlightened and begin to develop a sense of consciousness when we volunteer, which is as important to our youth today, as building pre-requisite tennis skills.

Over the years, tennis not only has kept me fit, it has given me ions of joy and excitement, and it also was a tremendous stress reliever, especially those years, when I was a child abuse investigator. The stress of that job was seemingly insurmountable, but it was relived daily, with the first smack of a tennis ball. I swear that’s the only way I survived those years, through tennis. Outside of the birth of my 3 daughters whom I taught and are still capable players, I can’t think of another event in my life that has given me so much pleasure, such as the game of tennis.

No-Cut Cara
By: Tori Townsend

It is not everyday a coach will use their own coaching stipend to pay for the kids they teach. However, in the day to day life of Cara Swonguer, head girls’ and boys’ tennis coach at Clearwater High School in Florida, such a rare act of kindness is common. In fact, her commitment to tennis and indisputable care for her students has directed her to adopt a No-Cut program for her tennis teams.

“For me, to give kids the opportunity to play tennis, whether it is on the court or learning in the classroom, I see that as a great opportunity to get these kids to play tennis and have a good time,” she said. “And hopefully, these kids will continue to play the sport after I am done teaching them.”

This is the first year Cara has adopted a no-cut policy, and although it is overwhelming at times, her inner energizer bunny spirit will never stop going. “I try to work with all the kids and give everyone the opportunity to play,” she passionately explained. “I truly have a great group of kids and I feel very blessed and lucky to work with them.”

Twenty one out of her 22 players this year will letter in tennis, and all will receive some type of reward at the end of the season. She has personally donated her time putting together photo albums and picture frames for her players, and has set-up car washes to help raise money for the team’s expenses. Cara admits she could not have done this alone.

“I would have to say that if I was coaching any other sport I would not get any help or support from an outside source to purchase equipment, go to trainings, and receive financial support,” she said. “I have to thank the USTA for being very supportive and also Advantage Yours, who donates t-shirts and restrings our racquets for free.”

When asked what keeps her motivated to keep promoting tennis? She simply responded, “Because I love the kids and I love the sport. I instill in my lessons that tennis is a lifetime sport, and when the kids’ see me enjoying tennis, it definitely rubs off on them.”

Tattoo Tracie
By: Tori Townsend

Perhaps groupie isn’t the right word to describe Tracie Thomas, otherwise known as “Tattoo Tracie”.  Although she is fanatical about the game of tennis, and did offer to play me in a tennis match within the first minute of our first conversation ever, her intentions are far more sensible than that of a groupie. A couple of years ago, Tracie turned in her rock guitar for a racquet, and began using her vocal gift of song to vocalize tennis calls on the court.

“The first time I ever played tennis was when I was 10 years old,” she said. “I quit a couple of years later to get into the music scene.”

After a 15 year career in music, three years in New York City with her band Special Head, and two full sleeves of tattoos along the way, Tracie’s interest turned back to tennis. With a little nudge from her Aunt Nancy, an avid 4.0 tennis player, Tracie was instantly hooked again.

“I love tennis because it is not just the same thing over and over again,” she said, slowing raising her voice in excitement. “There are so many different things to learn, different tactics, and a whole network of people at clubs and tournaments to play.”

Currently, Tracie jams on the tennis court 5 times a week and enters as many USTA singles tournaments as possible. She’s also part of a local USTA league team. Her heart is in the game first for the exercise and second because she thrives on the competition.

Ask anyone about this “tennis groupie” and they will tell you that she will play anyone, anytime, anywhere. In fact, she dares you to play her.

Her challenge doesn’t stem from conceitedness, but rather from an understanding that tennis is infectious.

“If someone plays tennis a couple of times,” she said. “I guarantee they will fall in love with it.”

On the outside, Tracie may look intimidating with her tough appearance and colorful tattoos. She may even get stares and whispers. But about 99% of the time, the tennis community embraces her free style. “Tennis is an open group of people,” she admits.

She also admits that as long as she can walk, she’ll still be playing tennis. Then she corrected herself. “Actually, even if you can’t walk, you can still play tennis!” You are absolutely right Tracie; what a remarkable thought.

*These stories can also be found at TennisMonth.com, along with many more!






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