SPORTS – As he approached his 55th birthday two years ago, Gregory Bellcourt suddenly found himself injury free and pretty darn fit. Like any competitive tennis player about to enter a new age division, he decided to see just how good he could be.
The result was that by this time last year, Bellcourt had become the No. 1 men’s 55 and over player in the nation according to the United States Tennis Association. Due to a change in job status — he is now the Director of Junior Programs at the Tri-City Racquet Club in Latham — he didn’t have any time to play tournament tennis this year and currently is not ranked. But as the summer months approach, Bellcourt is anxious to get back on the court in a competitive way and see once again how he stacks up against some of the best players in the country.
“I got to the top of the hill and around this time in 2021 I was still No. 1,” said Bellcourt, an Albany resident who grew up in Cobleskill. “But I’m working full-time now and on the weekends, so I just didn’t have the time to defend all my points. And frankly I was a little burned out.”
Bellcourt and his older brother Scott, a Niskayuna resident, spent much of 2020 and 2021 traveling to national events in Newport, Rhode Island, New York City, Boston, Atlanta and Philadelphia. Scott also secured a high ranking, climbing to No. 7 in the 60 and over age division during that stretch, and has remained near the top ten this year, currently at No. 11. While both brothers had earned Eastern Tennis Association rankings in the past and Scott has maintained his national ranking, the success Greg enjoyed over a 12-month span in 2020 and 2021 is unparalleled by any other Capital Region tennis player, ever.
“I wanted to see what I could do, take a year to get ready and then see if I could really get the best out of me,” said Bellcourt. “Back in 2019 I started training and eating well, and looking for people better than me to play with. And all those nagging injuries I had just sort of stopped. I felt fit and ready to give it my best shot.”
Bellcourt’s success wasn’t born from a steady diet of junior tennis. In fact, he played soccer into his college years at Siena, and didn’t really get serious about tennis until Lloyd Mott, athletic director at Queensbury High School, told him the position of boy’s tennis coach was available.
“I was teaching history and hadn’t really played tennis much at all,” said Bellcourt. “But the AD approached me and said, ‘you’re gonna be the tennis coach.’ I said, ‘oh, really,’ and I ended up coaching the Queensbury team from 1987 to 1992.”
Bellcourt then enjoyed a graduate internship at The College of Saint Rose, where he coached the men’s tennis team, and then headed out to the Boston area and taught history at Tyngsborough High School for 10 years. All the time he kept on playing tennis and getting better, and when he returned to the Capital Region around 15 years ago he was one of the best players in the area.
“I had a lot of time to develop my game when I was in my 30s,” said Bellcourt. “I would look for better plays to hit with and after a while I caught up with them. I just started playing a lot more, playing in leagues and tournaments, and got better.”
Bellcourt said playing with people like Saratoga Springs’ Paul Arciero, Gloversville native Eric Friedman and Scotia’s Tom Schmitz helped improve his game, and later finding younger guys to hit with like Bill Brahler, Matt Vaughn, Brian Byrne and Eric O’Hearn also boosted his talent level.
Arciero, a Skidmore College professor and an expert on health and exercise science, said one of Bellcourt’s keys to success is that he appreciates what the game of tennis offers and always remembers to enjoy himself on the court.
“He loves the game of tennis and it shows when he plays, often smiling and congratulating his opponent for a winning shot,” Arciero said of Bellcourt. “His accomplishment of No. 1 in the country, especially during the pandemic, is a tribute to his dedication and commitment. It’s not very often that a player from upstate New York achieves such a lofty and impressive goal.”
Arciero, a former Skidmore College tennis coach and arguably the best player in the Capital Region two decades ago, said watching Bellcourt’s improvement has been a pleasure.
“Greg is a great competitor and person,” Arciero said. “I enjoy competing against him and enjoy being his friend even more.”
Bellcourt said he feels like there should be an asterisk next to his ranking because the schedule of nationally sanctioned events wasn’t as complete as it might have been during a non-COVID year. Still, he played whoever it might have been across the net, and he usually came out the victor.
“I remember back in January of 2020 I played Jeff Snow, and I figured I didn’t have a chance against him,” said Bellcourt. “But then I walloped him, and once that first big victory gets in your blood you feel a little bit invincible. I won five tournaments in a row after that. I’m still shaking my head over that.”
Bellcourt did lose a match to another top player in the men’s 55s, John Saviano of Los Angeles, who after defeating Bellcourt got past former ATP player Dan Goldie in the final. Goldie was the top seed in the 1989 OTB International Open in Schenectady, and climbed as high as 27 in the world that summer.
“I played Saviano pretty close in the semis, and he turned right around and beat Goldie in the finals,” said Bellcourt. “It made me feel pretty good that I could hang with these guys that used to play on the tour.”
When he isn’t giving instruction at Tri-City Fitness, Bellcourt is working on his own game with the best players in the area.
“I try to play hard practice matches four times a week, and on Sunday night I have a group of guys come in to hit with each other,” he said. “We have older guys like me, and we hit with each other and then we’ll hit with some of the best high school and college players in the area. It’s a great way to get ready for the summer.”
One of those Sunday night hitting partners is Greg’s older brother Scott, who was born in Albany and works in the commercial real estate field.
“I’ve always had to play in Gregory’s shadow, but I wouldn’t be as good as I am if it wasn’t for him, and I think he wouldn’t be as good as he is without me,” said Scott Bellcourt. “We traveled together to tournaments and we pushed each other.”
Scott was always a good player, but his game continued to improve as his brother’s did, and he also got a boost from regular practice sessions with former Niskayuna resident Inder Singh, now living in Florida. Singh was the best player in the area throughout much of the 1970s.
“I never beat Inder until he got older, into his 40s and 50s, but that was still quite an accomplishment,” said Bellcourt.
Bellcourt said one of the secrets to success is going for his shot when he gets the opportunity,
“Fitness has never been one of my strengths, so when I play, the points don’t last long,” he said. “I don’t have the foot speed that Gregory has, so I try to hit the ball hard, get into the net and put away a volley.”
His younger brother revealed that getting the point over quickly is also a huge part of his strategy.
“If the ball sits up where it can be attacked, I try to crush it and get to the net,” said Gregory Bellcourt. “Scott and I aren’t getting any younger. If the ball sits up there nicely, you take one big bite of the apple and you go for it, and then sneak into the net if you have to.”
As much as he’s anxious to start playing more tournaments again, he’s really focused on the development of his younger students at Tri-City Fitness.
“What brings me to work each day now is the younger kids I’m working with,” he said. “I want to find the next really good player, and we have a bunch of kids that I want to help become as good as they can. That’s what I love doing these days.”
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