In 1994, Sports Illustrated asked the question: Is tennis dying?
While the answer was a resounding “no,” Larry Yakubowski thinks it was probably a fair question at the time. He’s not sure what happened after the tennis boom of the late 1970s, but the passion that gripped so many Americans when guys like Connors and McEnroe were at their prime hasn’t dissipated in Yakubowski.
A teacher and coach at the Doane Stuart School in Rensselaer, he has spent most of his last five summers as the teaching pro at the Albany Tennis Club at Ridgefield Park. Previously he has run summer programs in the town of Bethlehem and Prospect Park in Troy, and for more than a decade he has been the single biggest reason that competitive tournament tennis is still a reality in the Capital Region.
His work ethic and promotional skill has helped him become the area’s premier tournament director, and the upcoming event he has taken under his wing, the Tri-County Open, has also stood the test of time.
Scheduled for Labor Day Weekend at Ridgefield Park and conducted by the Albany Tennis Club, one of the oldest groups in the country dating back to 1884, the Tri-County Open has endured for more than 100 years while other tournaments have come and gone. Entries for the event should be submitted to Yakubowski by Tuesday at noon.
Yakubowski, who is also organizing a bus trip to this year’s U.S. Open on Friday, is a native of Hyde Park. After graduating from Marist College he moved to New York City and worked as an accountant for Texaco, Inc. In 1989, with his wife taking graduate courses at the College of Saint Rose, he moved to the Capital Region and began coaching the University at Albany women’s tennis team.
He also spent time as a teaching pro at Wolfert’s Roost Country Club and the Capital Region Tennis and Fitness Club before landing a position as a mathematics and physical education teacher at Doane Stuart, where he also coaches tennis and basketball.
Yakubowski is 52, and has been ranked as high as sixth by the USTA-Eastern Section in his age group. He is currently 12th in his age group, based on 2011 results, and in 2006 teamed up with Dave Denny of Ballston Lake to earn the No. 1 ranking in men’s doubles. In 2007 he was also ranked 78th nationally in the 45-and-over division.
Q: When did you become a tennis player?
A: I saw John McEnroe on TV in 1977, and I saw the little bit of rebellion he had and the imagination in his game, and I dropped my baseball glove and bat and picked up a tennis racket, a Bancroft Borg, and had it strung with Blue Star nylon. I gave up what had been a pretty successful baseball career at the time. I was a pitcher and I played first base, but I quit as I was entering my senior year and started playing on the tennis team instead.
Q: Why do you think tennis became so popular in the late 1970s?
A: If you look at the top of the game you had these wonderful personalities, like Connors and McEnroe. You loved them or you hated them, and no matter who you loved, the emotions ran strong. You also had these great players with monosyllabic names, like Bjorn Borg, Stan Smith and Bob Lutz. It was a much simpler time in those days.
Q: So, what happened with the game’s decline beginning in the late 1980s?
A: I really don’t know the reasons, but I see kids who get to a certain level and then they abandon the game. It’s very disturbing to me. I think maybe people are very programmed these days, as are the kids, and I think I’m something of a throwback. I spend a lot of my time outside, breathing fresh air, and I’m not worried about the distractions associated with the information age.
Q: How has the game changed?
A: You go from using what was an extension of your hand to what has become this huge instrument. The racket and the strings have changed the game. The rackets are very maneuverable and have a tendency toward head lightness, and the strokes and the strings today are imparting a fair amount of top spin or overspin on the ball. There’s more air pressure on top of the ball and that’s bringing it to the ground. There’s so much more ball speed to impart ball rotation so what you have is higher speeds with more control. The game is very forgiving today because of the racket and string technology. The older rackets that were used 20 and 30 years ago were much more unforgiving.
Q: When did you discover that you like organizing tournaments and teaching tennis, as opposed to just playing the game?
A: I would organize corporate tournaments when I was working in the Chrysler Building in New York City. It would be the chemists that worked for Texaco against the comptrollers like myself. Texaco was also a major sponsor of the U.S. Open so we always had good seats at Louis Armstrong Stadium. So, I always like organizing, and then I realized I would grow as a competitor if I started teaching. I discovered that doing one would help me become better at the other because tennis is such a mental game, and you have to have recognition of important points and opportunities. Ultimately, it’s not about your stroke, it’s about the concepts of offense and defense, and finding the right blend of those two as a competitor. I’m also a keen observer of people, so I really enjoy marrying the personality types with the game styles. I find it very interesting.
Q: Do you prefer the one-handed or two-handed backhand?
A: If I’m working with a real young kid, a 6-year-old say, I would teach him or her the two-handed backhand. The mechanics mirror the forehand. You have to have good hip rotation and at that age you need two hands to stabilize the racket on contact. But as they become older, eventually I would teach them the one-hander. They should be able to benefit from the best of both worlds. Sometimes it’s either naturally in you or it isn’t, but the one-hander can be extremely creative. You have better reach, and it can really extract you from trouble more so than the two-handed backhand.
Q: How many players are you expecting for the Tri-County Open?
A: My goal is to get between 125 and 150 players, and that means I’ll probably get somewhere close to 100. It’s quite a bit of work, and I feel like I’m trying to spread the good news because sometimes you have to persuade people to play. It’s not like it was in the 1970s and ’80s when people were knocking down the doors to play tournaments. But if people know that it’s going to be well-organized and well-attended, and that it is meaningful, then we’ll get some players. This is my sixth year running the tournament and I believe I’ve created a bit of good will and trust. People know this event has been around for quite a while, and it’s near the end of the outdoor season. Anyway, I’m proud of the effort I’ve put forth running this tournament and hopefully we’ll have another good response from the players.