As manager of the Northport High School tennis team, Jack Leonard’s responsibilities include picking up the balls and lugging the scoreboards to and from each court.
But on Friday, he did a lot more than that, playing doubles in an exhibition match against Harborfields.
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“I was waiting so long for this,” said Leonard, who is autistic. “I’m very happy that fate has allowed me to have this opportunity to actually play. It’s such a blessing.”
So, instead of picking up tennis balls, he was hitting them. Instead of just carrying the scoreboard, he was putting points on it.
“I felt like an actual player, even though it was exhibition,” he said. “I was able to show all my skills out there.”
He teamed with Joe Recchia, and faced Bobby Bellino and Nathan Melnyk, who last week became what is believed to be the first wheelchair athlete to compete against able-bodied students in a New York state varsity tennis match.
“It’s always nice to see another person do something like that,” Melnyk said. “It shows that, as long as we want to, we can do it no matter what.”
Leonard called the match inspirational, saying what he’ll remember most about the experience was competing against Melnyk.
“We both have our weaknesses, but we can still play against each other,” Leonard said. “I have autism, he is in a wheelchair. It’s good to play against someone who understands where I’m coming from.”
Melnyk and Bellino won the set, 6-4, but Leonard displayed an array of impressive forehand and backhand shots. He returned one shot just inside the sideline with a pretty backhand, drawing cheers from the family and friends who gathered to watch his match.
“We were really proud to see him follow it all the way through,” Leonard’s father, Joe, said. “He’s been playing tennis for a long time and this was really his first chance to play in an organized match. It was important for him. I think he played pretty much close to his best and I think that’s what he was hoping to do. It was great to see.”
Leonard began taking lessons five years ago with Harry Kingsley, whose son, Cannon, is a freshman on the Northport tennis team and is one of the top-ranked players in Suffolk. At times during training, Leonard would lose focus, occasionally even leaving the court. But he always returned.
“He’s always been really committed to keep improving,” Kingsley said. “He’s got great ground strokes, a solid serve, he’s quick at the net. He’s always moving his feet. He fights and competes hard.”
Kingsley urged Leonard to try out for the school team. As a sophomore, Leonard tried out for junior varsity team. He didn’t make the team but was named manager. As a junior, he tried out for varsity but was cut.
“He would come back every year,” Leonard’s mother, Lynn, said. “He would try again.”
He didn’t make the team as a senior, but again was named manager. In addition to his ball and scoreboard duty, he practiced with the team every day. When he wasn’t doing drills with teammates, he was hitting a ball against the wall to improve his shot.
“He’s been coming out every day working at it in practice,” coach Peter Quinn said. “He really wanted to be part of the team. He’s proud of it. Being the last match of the season, I said you know what, we’ll get you in somehow.”
Yes, it was an exhibition. Yes, it was only one set. But for Leonard, who spent years practicing and months carrying those scoreboards, it was so much more.
“I hope it’s a very good influence for those who want to play but feel like they can’t because of their physical or mental abilities,” he said. “But I say as long as you focus real hard and commit yourself to it, if you know that this is the dream you want, go get it.”