For 36 years, Michael Bellomo has traveled to Flushing to watch the world’s best tennis players practice for the U.S. Open, and for many of those years, the Glen Cove man wistfully wondered whether he could have been competing on the court instead of sitting in the stands.
When he was a child, several people said he had the potential to be a tennis pro – but Bellomo, 51, said his father couldn’t afford to pay a top-notch coach to nurture his talent.
“I always look back and think, ‘Man, what could have been,’” Bellomo said on Saturday after a day of watching back-to-back practice sessions with his family. “It hurts.”
But his love for tennis is unabated, and he’s instilled it in his two children. For Bellomo, the U.S. Open each year is a family event he wouldn’t miss.
Bellomo said that as a child, “I was kind of a natural” at tennis. He was fast and had a strong serve. A friend of his father gave him free lessons but urged his dad to pay for a higher caliber coach.
“He used to tell my father, ‘He’s got it,’” Bellomo recalled.
His dad, Joseph Bellomo, a house painter and an avid tennis fan, didn’t have the money for expensive lessons, but a wealthy Old Brookville woman who hired the elder Bellomo for a job let his son use her indoor tennis court for practice. And some nights, Michael Bellomo snuck onto the grounds of a fancy Glen Cove hotel to play on its courts.
The responsibilities of fatherhood and an aging body mean that today Bellomo rarely plays.
Since the early 2000s, son Matthew, 22, daughter Jessica, 17, and wife Antoinette, 49, have joined Bellomo at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center each year for five to six days of watching practice.
They’ve splurged a few times to buy tickets to tournament matches, but they can’t afford to do so most years.
Yet even when they’ve attended the tournament, they’ve never been as close to their tennis heroes as when they watch them during the free practice sessions, when they sometimes sit in seats that cost thousands of dollars a few days later.
Michael Bellomo takes time off from his job as a custodian at Glen Cove High School and the four get up early each day to arrive at the gate an hour and a half before it opens, so they can run to the courts to get the best seats. The guards at the gate already know them well from past years, Antoinette Bellomo said with a laugh.
They have talked, joked around with and posed with some of the sport’s biggest stars.
Jessica Bellomo excitedly swiped through her smartphone to show photos of her smiling next to Marin Cilic, Stan Wawrinka and Grigor Dimitrov. Draped over her seat Saturday afternoon was a white towel Dimitrov had handed her a few hours earlier. At home, she has a wristband he signed two years ago.
Each August is a reunion for the Bellomos, as they catch up with fellow fans and U.S. Open security guards and ushers they’ve met in past years. When they watch the tournament matches on television, they’re as excited to spot their employee friends as they are to see the players.
“They’re like our extended tennis family,” Antoinette Bellomo said. “We’ve become so close to them.”
The annual excursion also is a bonding experience for the family.
“I keep telling my kids, ‘I hope you never forget this and remember to bring your kids,’” Antoinette Bellomo said.
“I know I’ll bring my kids,” Jessica Bellomo said.