BURNT HILLS — Rana Dutta shed tears following Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake’s senior day tennis match last week, after Sallie Suski turned in a straight-sets win and helped the Spartans sweep Ballston Spa.
He’s the instructor who first showed Suski how to hold a racket, how to hit the ball out front and stay aggressive.
“I was feeling kind of sad,” Dutta, a 79-year-old Glenville resident, said. “I never had a student like her. She’s very special.”
The affection is mutual. It was Dutta, she said, who provided the push into the tennis game when she was in elementary school.
“He was my first coach,” the protege said of her early years with Dutta, when the Suski family was a member of the old Woodlin Club in Glenville. “He started the spark that’s inside me.
“There’s no coach like him. It wasn’t your typical coach to student. I was drawn to his energy. I remember him telling me there was something that set me apart and that really got me going. I was the first one on the court and the last one off the court because I wanted to get better.”
Dutta immediately saw that fire in the raw-but-athletic Suski, who went on to make her mark in lacrosse as well as tennis, where she’s helped Burnt Hills win three Section II Class A team titles.
“You’ll see some kids who have no interest. They are there just to have a babysitter — and I wanted no part in that. Other kids have an interest, but are not motivated,” said Dutta, who taught youth tennis at the Woodlin Club for a half decade before it closed six year ago. “In Sallie, what stood out was her extreme intensity.She was eager to learn and a quick learner. Very focused. Her interest excited me, so it was a two-way street.”
Suski’s mother, Kelli, saw the bond grow during lessons at the Woodlin Club and, later, at Indian Meadows in Glenville, where she often chased down tennis balls while the two worked out.
“They have nothing in common,” Kelli Suski said of her 17-year-old daughter, who is considering a nursing career, and the India-born Dutta, a computer expert who came to the United States in 1972 after stays in Canada and England. “But a love of tennis brought them together.”
The pair continued to work together after the Woodlin Club closed, and Dutta took an instructor spot at the Parkside YMCA in Glenville.
“I was afraid I was going to lose the best coach in my life and my friend,” Suski said. “He said, ‘I am willing to work with you at Indian Meadows.’ I was also doing gymnastics at the time, and thought of how much he motivated me, so I stepped away from gymnastics to focus on tennis. He must have given me over 100 lessons.”
Those lessons came free of charge.
“Kelli offered me, and I said no,” said Dutta, who still works a couple times a week at Knolls Atomic Power Labratory in Niskayuna. “My reward was to see her improve.”
“He’s so generous. So kind,” Kelli Suski said. “Not a lot of people do things like that.”
Though the steady lessons ended about two years ago when Sallie began working part-time jobs and became more involved in other school activities, Dutta continued to provide tips and encouragement. He has been a regular at Burnt Hills home tennis matches since she began playing at the junior varsity level while in eighth grade.
“I don’t play a match without hearing him,” Suski, BH-BL’s 2016 Coaches Award winner for tennis, said. “He taught me everything, from how to hold a racket to the mental game.”
A Spartans co-captain with Lauren Carr, Suski said Dutta’s appearance made BH-BL’s senior day that much more special.
“He took off from work, and that meant so much to me,” Suski said. “After the match when I said, ‘I’d like to mention my coach,’ he started to cry.”
Suski came close.
“I gave a little speech,” Dutta said. “I wanted everyone there to know how and why she made it to the No. 2 singles player. She had motivation.”
Suski and fellow senior Brittany Katz will be playing doubles as the No. 2 seed in the Section II individual tournament which begins Oct. 17. The Spartans (11-2 Suburban Council) will begin their quest for a fourth consecutive Section II Class A team title today at home against South Glens Falls in the quarterfinals.
Her longtime coach will be cheering her on.