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Tennis time: Long Islanders find more time for the sport during pandemic

Anthony Marsh, of Lynbrook, played tennis growing up and now, more than ever, he finds a reason to be out on the courts as a way to keep active during the pandemic.  Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

On a recent Saturday during the U.S. Open Tennis Championships, Anthony Marsh tossed a green tennis ball overhead, watched as it rose to its apex and hit it well within the service box.

Ron Fusillo hit the ball back as the rally continued, the reassuring sound of the ball bouncing off strings at North Woodmere Park in Valley Stream.

And although seats at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Queens, were devoid of spectators in early September, thousands of Long Islanders were taking to the tennis courts in recent months.

"Playing is more important right now," said Marsh, 50, of Lynbrook, who in May resumed playing after a long pause since his days playing tennis in college. "You get to go out, get some exercise, instead of being cooped up inside the house."

Marsh regularly plays singles with Fusillo, 64, of North Valley Stream, at North Woodmere and at Bay Park in East Rockaway.

"I played more this year," Fusillo said. "I’m able to work from home. I’m more flexible to play at night, because I finish earlier without the commute."

Responding to the pandemic

Like team sports initially curtailed during the coronavirus pandemic, tennis shut down then returned slowly. Once courts reopened (outdoor in May, with indoor following in July), tennis proved the perfect sport for a pandemic.

"Tennis naturally lends itself to being a socially distanced sport," said Neil Thakur, 62, of Mineola, the U.S. Tennis Association’s representative for Long Island and the metro area. "Even with doubles, you only have four people on the court."

Long Island’s profusion of outdoor courts at parks and schools makes it easy to play while social distancing. Even indoor facilities, which remained closed longer, are naturally spacious.

Kathy Miller, the USTA’s Long Island adult league coordinator and manager of Carefree Racquet Club in Merrick, credits tennis’ "social aspect" as a major reason for its popularity, particularly during the pandemic. "They want to get out there, get some exercise and meet people," she said.

And even if the public couldn’t attend the championships at the Billie Jean King center in Queens, televised matches sparked interest, Miller said.

"Nobody could go to the Open this year to watch it," she said, "but even watching it on TV gives people the bug."

Going back to tennis

For many Long Islanders, tennis is a sport they played when they were younger, only to stop and resume later — sometimes prodded by a life event.

"I played tennis sporadically as a teen, but it never quite stuck," said Soozie Turek, 61, of Huntington. "Then in my mid-30s, as I was going through a contentious divorce, I dusted off an old racket and started hitting balls around. I found it to be very therapeutic, and that’s really how my love for the game began."

Turek took lessons at Sportime in Bethpage, joined a league, enrolled in a summer tournament, made tennis friends — and "never put down my racket after that."

"I did it for fun and exercise," she said, "but I found it also wound up being a great stress reliever for me." Turek, who worked as a freelance court reporter until two years ago, upped her playing time upon retiring. "I play much more now," she said.

Like many players, Turek hits the courts with a frequent tennis partner, playing four to five times a week at Cold Spring Harbor High School, Heckscher Park in Huntington or friends’ homes.

She met Laura Katz, 59, of Woodbury, a decade ago at a tennis competition and they have been playing since.

"During the pandemic, playing tennis has allowed me to release built-up tension and anxiety," Katz said, noting it lets her remain "social with my tennis friends" and "enjoy the great outdoors."

Marsh called tennis "a sport that I’ve loved since I was a kid, growing up in Brooklyn." He played for St. John's University before graduating in 1993. "You’re hyped up. Your whole thing is to win," he said of team play, noting matches today are different. "Now it’s just fun and entertainment."

A passion, too

While some play as a pastime, for Long Islanders like Sunny Fishkind it’s a passion and a mission. The Bethpage resident, 78, was recently named to the USTA’s Eastern division hall of fame.

"I’m extremely involved in tennis. It’s like my life," she said. "However, I don’t compete. My husband plays. We play together, almost every single day. We don’t even play games."

In addition to being a substitute teacher in Wyandanch in 1977 then teaching fourth grade there in 1978, Fishkind worked in West Babylon as a librarian and computer instructor for 29 years.

She is a veteran tennis instructor, having taught and coached for more than 40 years. She was the girls’ varsity tennis coach at Bethpage High School from 1979 to 2005 and the boys’ varsity coach from 1979 to 1990. Since 1986, she has been director of the Hofstra University Summer Tennis Camp.

And even she played more during the pandemic. "I have more time to play, so we’re playing more," Fishkind said, noting the camp was suspended this summer.

She sees tennis as a way to enjoy herself and find pleasure and purpose. "It’s a healthy feeling being out there. You can always get better," Fishkind said. "When I teach the kids, I tell them my motto. ‘You never lose. You either win or learn.’"

When the sport ground to a halt in March as even outdoor courts were closed, players — especially those who are passionate about the sport — learned to adapt.

The USTA provided guidance and ideas online to keep players engaged with tennis. Some players hit sponge balls against their garage. "People were being innovative," Thakur said. "They would roll up a piece of cloth and hit it back and forth with a frying pan."

Fishkind, for instance, got her tennis fix by stretching tape across the backyard between two lawn chairs to create the top of a tennis net and volleying with her husband, Eddie.

"We just drill each other and practice," Fishkind said of rallying with her husband. "We can hit the ball back and forth 50 times."

In addition, without tennis camp, she tried to introduce a 2½-year-old girl across the street to the game.

"I didn’t have camp and I missed the kids," she said. "I gave her tennis lessons in her backyard on her patio."

Popular in a pandemic

As courts reopened, more people than ever seemed to be playing.

"Once the weather became more mild and tennis was deemed a low-risk sport, courts opened up and I’ve been out there ever since," Turek said.

In New York City, for example, lines formed at places like Fort Greene Park. "There seems to be a new surge in tennis," Thakur said. "We have more courts [on Long Island than places such as New York City]. We have schools, parks, more opportunity to play."

Some players found themselves traveling around to find new courts after finding wait times at their usual locations.

"There’s a lot of demand," Syosset resident Michael Massimilla, 59, said of shifting from other locations to Cantiague Park in Hicksville, "but if you like your tennis, you can find places to go. If you search around, you can find places that are less busy, but it takes some work."

Long Island ordinarily has a variety tennis programs and leagues, most of which were suspended in the spring during the height of the pandemic.

In the Town of Hempstead, where tennis courts reopened May 15, Supervisor Don Clavin said residents' response was "positive," with the courts being used throughout the summer and early fall.

And, he said, the town resumed its adult tennis instruction program in September, following coronavirus safety protocols.

Miller said that pre-pandemic, about 5,000 people have played in USTA adult leagues in Nassau and Suffolk. This summer, however, only about 1,500 played in the leagues, which started later than usual (in July rather than May).

"We set them up in games to figure out levels of players and break them up into permanent games once we see the level of everybody," Miller said of a senior program on weekdays at Carefree that pairs players by ability. "It’s a matter of people playing with people they’re comfortable with."

Family time

Amid the pandemic, parents who were working from home also found they had more time to play with their children.

"Usually the parents are working and not spending as much time with their kids," Fishkind said of the change.

On a Saturday in September, Eric Zambrana, 49, of Port Washington, practiced side by side with his son Marcos, 8, hitting a ball against a wall at Syosset-Woodbury Community Park, while Marcos’ twin, Lorenzo, attended tennis camp.

"We’re practicing," he said. "It helped us get through the shutdown." While he has working from home, Zambrana said, he has been playing "a lot."

Jack Wong, 59, of Syosset, rallied nearby with his son Jimmy, 23. "It’s a challenging sport," Jack said. "This is more physically challenging," he said of singles. "At my age, I don’t know how long I can go with singles."

With Marsh and Fusillo, back in Valley Stream, it's the competition that keeps them going — winning points, games and matches.

"We’re competitors," Marsh said. "You want to have a winner and a loser. You get to brag to the person that you beat."

Stretch and hydrate

You can get hurt playing any sport — and tennis is no different. But there are things you can do to reduce the chance of injury.

Steve Kaplan, owner and manager of Bethpage Park Tennis Center in Bethpage State Park, said, for example, that clay courts can be safer.

“As you get older and your joints become more sensitive to pounding, clay courts are more forgiving,” said Kaplan, who has a master’s degree in physiology from Adelphi University.

It’s important to hydrate the day before you play, as well as before, during and after playing. “Once you’re thirsty, it’s too late,” he said. “You need to be really well-hydrated to play tennis. That will keep your heart rate at a reasonable level.”

“As with any physical activity, it is recommended that you stretch your legs and muscles before playing tennis to avoid injuries,” said Neil Thakur, the U.S. Tennis Association’s representative for Long Island and the metro area. “Tennis involves running forward, backwards and laterally with quick stops so stretching before playing is helpful.”

Kaplan added that it’s important to stretch after you play, as part of a body’s recovery from the exertion of the sport.

“You stretch after you play, because your mobility is something you need to do as an ongoing program,” he said. He also advises doing a “functional movement warm up,” mirroring movements you’ll make in the sport before you play.

And, of course, Kaplan and other tennis experts said it’s a good idea for older people to check with their doctors before beginning any new exercise routine.

— Claude Solnik

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