Serving It Up: Tennis ace Carnavos finding success in pickleball

Judy Carnavos enjoys playing a game of pickleball during a women’s pickleball group at East Side Rec in Saratoga Springs on Wednesday, July 27, 2022.
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Judy Carnavos enjoys playing a game of pickleball during a women’s pickleball group at East Side Rec in Saratoga Springs on Wednesday, July 27, 2022.

Tennis may still be her first love, but Judy Carnavos has a serious new crush.

An East Greenbush native and retired teacher in the Guilderland Central School District, Carnavos has long been one of the best women’s doubles players in the Capital Region tennis community. These days, however, instead of just throwing her tennis gear in the car when she heads to the courts, she might opt for a different racquet sport. 

Like so many others who have spent much of their lives playing tennis, Carnavos has taken up the game of pickleball, and she really does love it.

“I retired in 2016 and when I traveled to Florida that first year I couldn’t find any tennis players at my level,” said Carnavos. “The place where I was staying had a lot of pickleball players so I picked up a racquet and started playing. I was hooked right away.”

Carnavos says there is an awful lot to like about pickleball.

“I like the social aspect of it, and you can have a lot of fun playing with people at all the skill levels,” she said. “It’s not like tennis in that way. I organized a bunch of women, around 14 or 15 of us, and we play every Wednesday up at East Side Rec in Saratoga Springs. We do a round-robin thing, and we have women who are really strong and some maybe who are in the middle, lower-end level wise. But we still have very good games. We have a great match every time we step on the court.”

Earlier this summer, Carnavos, a Schenectady resident, partnered up with Betty Bellinger of Saratoga Springs to win a gold medal in the Empire State Games Pickleball Tournament, competing in the 60-to-64 age group.

“We had a lot of fun, and the people who play pickleball are phenomenal,” she said. “It’s very competitive, but still really nice. The age range of women that I play with are usually mid 50s to mid 60s, and in Florida many of them are retired teachers. Up here there aren’t really that many places to play. We have to go all the way to Saratoga, and I know a very good pickleball player who travels all the way to Queensbury to play.”

While Carnavos loves her new sport, she hasn’t given up her tennis game.

“Typically, I’ll play pickleball about three times a week and tennis once or twice a week,” she said. “I’ve been playing both now for a while, and there are other people who do both, too.”

Three decades ago, when there were still plenty of competitive tennis tournaments being contested in the Capital Region, Carnavos played with and against some of the best, including Sue MacDonald, Sue Keegan, Ginger Winkler and Nancy Angle. These days, like most other players, her tennis usually consists of USTA league play in the 55-and-over age division at the 8.0 doubles skill level. And while she helped restart the Pro League last year, bringing together the best players in the area in a team format, she doesn’t quite feel comfortable playing against 20-year-old college players.

“It was great to get the Pro League going again, because it was a lot of fun and very big back in the 1980s when I played in it,” she said. “But I’ve had some injuries, and I just don’t feel that I’m strong enough to play on a regular basis.”

While the new Pro League was able to get off the ground successfully, the COVID-19 pandemic did make things difficult.

“We played three matches at Central Park and three at the Colonie Country Club, but we’re still making up matches that were canceled because of COVID issues,” she said. “It made things pretty stressful for the team captains to schedule things. Once we do finish this season, we’re going to get together with the captains and discuss things to see if we want to have an indoor season or not.”

When she isn’t worried about keeping the Pro League going or playing tennis herself, Carnavos will be on a pickleball court somewhere. Of course, right now, during the outdoor season, that usually means playing on a tennis court and sometimes having to be a little bit creative.

“Hopefully the pickleball lines will be on the tennis court, but you do have to lower the center strap if you can because the net should be just a little bit lower in pickleball than tennis,” she said. “We’ve learned that if we put all of our bags on the side of the net to weigh it down, the height of the net is just about right.”

STADIUM COURT MEMORIES

Here’s your tennis trivia question of the day. When first-round play got under way in the 1987 OTB Open on Central Park’s brand-new Stadium Court, who were the first two combatants?

If you said Frenchman Eric Winogradsky and Canadian Stephane Bonneau, wow! You know your stuff. It’s hard to believe that was 35 years ago and, by the way — if anybody is wondering, Winogradsky, ranked No. 89 in the world, defeated Bonneau, ranked 109th, 6-3, 6-3.

I headed over to Central Park earlier this week to see what was left of the Stadium Court and I probably should have visited the place last week. It’s pretty much gone. The court is dug up, bleachers and press box are gone, and only one of the rusty iron gates that led fans to their seats remains.

There is a sense of sadness as you walk around the premises, but it’s probably more about growing old than anything else. Sure, it’s nice to have world-class tennis in your neighborhood, and the Stadium Court was good for that, but it was not for much else. My own circle of tennis friends quickly realized that playing a match on the Stadium Court yourself wasn’t a whole lot of fun because you’d have to go walking into the bleachers every two minutes to retrieve a ball and that got old real quick. So now it’s becoming a swimming pool. I’m OK with that because I still have the memories.

There are four that stand out in my mind. When Ivan Lendl showed up on a Tuesday morning in 1993 to play a 10 a.m. match against Frenchman Guillaume Raoux, the stands were filled by 9:45. Two enterprising souls, who missed their chance at a seat in the Stadium Court, climbed a tree to get a shot of the three-time U.S. Open winner. It was the largest crowd for a tennis match ever in Central Park. Of course, I only have anecdotal evidence to support that, but in three decades now nobody’s ever argued the point with me. And Lendl, who seemed more concerned about playing golf at the Mohawk Club during his Schenectady visit, came away with the victory. With tournament director Nitty Singh scheduling him for all morning matches so he could hit the links later in the day, Lendl did reach the quarterfinals before losing to eventual-champion Thomas Enqvist.

Another memory is Tim Mayotte coming here in 1988, and while he defeated Johan Kriek in an entertaining final, the big match was his semifinal win over 17-year-old Pete Sampras. While Mayotte was one of the top American players for years, the verdict was already in on Sampras. While he may have come out on the losing end that day, you could tell he was destined for greatness.

Memory No. 3 is reigning Wimbledon champion Michael Stich showing up in 1991 and winning the OTB final over Spaniard Emilio Sanchez, who had climbed as high as No. 7 in the world the previous summer. A packed Stadium Court crowd that day watched Stich post a convincing but entertaining victory over Sanchez, 6-2, 6-4.

My No. 4 memory of the Stadium Court goes back to 1990 and the women’s final, when 15-year-old German Anke Huber defeated American Marianne Werdel, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4. The men’s final, played first that Sunday afternoon, wasn’t memorable, with India’s Ramesh Krishnan easily dispatching New Zealand’s Kelly Evernden, 6-1, 6-1, but Huber and Werdel more than made up for it. I’ll never forget that at 4-3 in the final set, with Huber about to serve, the two women walked back onto the court after a changeover and were suddenly given an impromptu standing ovation. It was quite a moment.

There are plenty of others, and if you have a special one you’d like to share, please email me and tell me all about it. I might share it with my readers.

JUNIORS ON DISPLAY

One thing I love about tennis is that it’s just so watchable.

It’s great to see two 12-year-olds bang the ball back and forth, and it can also be just as enjoyable to take in a mixed doubles match between people in their 80s.

I can remember during the summer of 1977 when 12-year-old Jimmy Arias, ranked No. 1 in the country in his age division at the time, came to what was then called the Schenectady Racquet Club and reached the men’s final of the Country Liquor Open before losing to Australian Bill Lloyd. I remember hearing how Arias, who was from Grand Island out by Niagara Falls, was going to be at the club on a Thursday night for a hitting session in preparation for the tournament, so I went out there to watch. It was unbelievable to see this thin, tiny kid — Arias never got past 5-foot-9— crush the ball so hard. We couldn’t believe it when he defeated our club pro, Dave Taylor, 6-1, 6-3, and were a bit disappointed when he dropped the final to Lloyd, a former world-class player who had previously climbed as high as No. 90 in the ATP rankings.

That was indeed a memorable weekend, and these days the club, now-called Sportime Schenectady, also has its share of outstanding junior players. I don’t know if they’ll climb as high as No. 5 in the world like Arias did in April of 1984, but they are still quite entertaining to watch.

Later this month at Sportime, Aug. 27-28, the club’s Peter Green will be serving as tournament director for the Unity Cup, a team event that brings together some of the best young local players in the area as well as around the USTA Eastern Section.

In the 12-and-under division, expected to participate are twins Jolie and Easton Chichalk of Mechanicville, who are heading into the seventh grade.

Also, Green just returned from Kalamazoo, Michigan where two Sportime members, Zain Choudry and Olivia Dartawan, participated in a national event. The two Niskayuna residents competed in the 14-and-under division.

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