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The 76th annual Municipal Tennis Championships will be held July 31 through August 10 at the McMillian, South Drive, Meadow, Larkin House, and Nichols courts. All of these courts are needed to handle the anticipated 400 or more entries in 30 divisions.

"We've added men's and women's novice divisions for 2.5 (rated) players. We've also added a Mixed Doubles C and Wheelchair division," tournament director Al Litto said.

The new divisions give players a chance to compete in a tournament situation with players of their own ability. They can have fun and still play without worrying about being beaten badly or outclassed, Litto said.

"Our B and C divisions have always been our biggest," Litto said. "With these added divisions, I'm looking for a dramatic increase in our number of players."

Litto has improved the scheduling of matches. If a player is entered in more than one event, he usually doesn't have to worry about playing back-to-back matches. Match times are also listed ahead of time in The News. This allows players to plan accordingly.

The courts at McMillian have been resurfaced. The bounce is a bit slower than the old courts but players will be thrilled to know that they don't have to worry about hitting cracks in the court.

Past winners of the men's open singles have included such players as the Rev. Bob Hetherington, Clay Hamlin, Jack Sunderland, David Russell, Dirk Dugan, Seth Bowen, Mike Albano, and Neil Simon.

This year's favorite is former Muny winner Ross Nwachukwu. A teaching pro at the Village Glen, the former Drake University star is dominating local tennis. He has won the last two summer challenge series tournaments without losing a set, defeating Don Schwake and John Moog, respectively, in the finals. Moog put up a great fight before losing, 6-4, 6-4.

Nwachukwu is 6-2, 205 pounds with amazing speed and court coverage. He is equally at home in the back court and at the net.

Other contenders:

Don Schwake, a teaching pro at South Towns Tennis Club, has a well rounded game that is marked by great touch and placement. Schwake should play better on the hard courts of McMillan as his net volleys will be more effective.

Rich Rocchio is always a contender. He has an exceptional forehand and has teamed with Russ Tringali Jr. to form one of the area's top doubles teams.

Tringali is the head pro at the Village Glen. Although he is 33, he is still one of the area's best volleyers. The McMillian courts are well suited to his game. If he is serving and volleying well, he will give the rest of the field some problems.

Jordan Freedman is a dark horse. The 1994 Muny singles champ, Freedman has had a series of shoulder and elbow injuries curtail his tournament and match play.

Two-time winner and defending champion T.J. Klier is playing tournaments in the Maryland area this summer, where he is a college standout.

On the women's side, all-time great winners have included Ethel Marshall, Pat Lord, Amy Ehrenreich, Ruth Englander, Karen Peterson, Carol Kraus, Cathy DiCarlo and defending champion Bridget Merrick, who isn't available this year due to school commitments.

This year's overwhelming favorite is former champion Kelly Brown, a teaching pro at the Village Glen. Brown defeated her leading challenger for this year's title, Jenny Schneider, 6-1, 6-0, in a recent Village Glen tournament. She also defeated Merrick earlier this year in straight sets.

The University of Kentucky standout is focused, fit, and playing outstanding tennis. She has added a strong net game to her backcourt game, which ranks among the best of all time in local women's play.

In addition to Merrick, Dena Baritot is another strong competitor who won't be competing in this year's tournament. She has moved to Binghamton.

Other players to watch:

Schneider is the head pro at the Park Country Club. Schneider's game is better suited for the hard courts of McMillian rather than clay court play. An outstanding athlete, she uses her court coverage and array of shots to move her opponents around the court.

Amy Workman, a former Orchard Park star, has all of the shots. If she can be a bit more consistent, she could do well.

Kristin Janese played exceptionally well in the recent Muny Junior tournament. With a good draw, she could go far.

Orchard Park High School star Michelle Mercer has outstanding ground strokes and is a fierce competitor.

Two other players who could do well are up-and-comers Amanda Pesono and Lyndsay Shosho.

"The Muny tennis tournament is like a huge social gathering," Litto said. "It's a chance to see great tennis, meet old friends, and to play in the tournament if you so desire."

Matches run from 4:30 to dusk on weekdays and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends. Men's and women's open finals are tentatively scheduled for Aug. 9.

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