Jimmy Arias is a unanimous choice as Western New York's top male tennis player of the past 50 years. He is without doubt the greatest tennis player to have ever lived and played in the Buffalo area.
Arias leads a star-studded list of the Top 10 players, which were determined by players' world, national, regional, state and local rankings. The players' local tenure and number of Muny and City Open titles were also taken into consideration.
A group of local tennis experts were instrumental in the compilation of the Top 10. The group includes: Jack Sunderland, an all-time tennis great in his own right and an observer of local tennis for many years; Joe DiCarlo, a local teaching professional who has taught many of the area's finest players; Bill Monkarsh, former tennis coach at UB who has worked with many of the area's top players; Todd Miller, the head pro at Amherst Hills Tennis Club, a former city champion and highly respected teacher; Bob Mack, the elder statesman of teaching pros in Western New York and a close follower of the local game for many years, and this writer's own observations and input. (I have been fortunate to have played against, or with, almost every player in the Top 10 while following the local tennis scene for almost 50 years).
The Top 10:
1. Jimmy Arias -- At age 12, Arias defeated Rev. Bob Hetherington in a classic three-set match in the Buffalo City Open finals. At 15, he was already competing on the pro tour. At 18, Arias reached the pinnacle of his career when he was ranked fifth in the world in 1983. The players ranked ahead of him were Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Mats Wilander. No Western New York tennis player has ever achieved a higher world ranking. In addition to winning the National Clay courts and Italian Open in 1983, Arias also reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open that year. Arias was ranked in the world's Top 100 for eight years, spending four of them in the top 20. The feature of his game was an overpowering forehand that was hit with great pace and deception. (Arias resides in Sarasota, Fla., is a commentator for ESPN and participates on the Men's 35 & over senior tour).
2. John Agar -- Agar was a tournament circuit player in the late 1940s and early 1950s who played worldwide. His main claim to fame was reaching the fourth round of Wimbledon in the early 1950s. He lost in four sets to Nicola Pietrangeli, who was one of the Top 10 players in the world at that time. When Agar moved to Buffalo in the mid 1950s, it was evident that a world class tennis player was in our midst. Agar had an all-court game and moved effortlessly. He totally dominated Western New York tennis in the late 1950s.
3. Bobby Banck -- Banck won the National Boys Hard Court 14 & Under Singles and Doubles (with Michael Kures) Championships in 1978. He starred at the University of Arkansas and played on the pro circuit for almost three years in the late 1980s, peaking on the singles rankings at 202. Banck played at Wimbledon, the French Open and the U.S. Open. His ground strokes were classic and impeccable. His expertise of the game, his engaging personality and classic strokes have led him into a career as a full-time tennis coach. He has worked with Justin Gimelstob and Mary Jo Fernandez. He has recently become Monica Seles' full-time coach. (Banck now resides in Bradenton, Fla.).
4. Rauno Suominen -- Suominen played throughout the world in many tournaments and represented Finland in the Davis Cup numerous times throughout the late 1950s and 1960s. He took a job as head teaching pro at Four Seasons Racquet Club (now the Village Glen) in the late 1960s. He promptly won the Buffalo City Open in 1969. He lived and played in Buffalo in the early and late 1970s. His matches with Hetherington (in which he held a slight edge) were legendary at the time. Suominen was one of the few players in the Top 10 whose backhand was better than his forehand. (Suominen now resides in Salt Lake City).
5. Rev. Bob Hetherington -- "The Rev" won six Muny and four City Open titles during his stay in Buffalo from 1970-1984. His record in these tournaments is unmatched by any other player during the past 50 years. He won the National Public Parks Open Men's Singles championships in 1973. In 1985, he won the National 45 & Over Grass Court Championships by defeating Whitney Reed in the finals. (Reed was the top-ranked U.S. player in the open in 1961.) Hetherington's record is even more outstanding when one realizes that he was ranked in the Top 10 in the nation in squash for 14 consecutive years while he was still competing in tennis at a high level. He lives in Richmond, Va.
6. Seth Bowen -- Bowen is somewhat of an enigma. When he was in Buffalo he was a very good player. He was named the top player in WNY in the Buffalo News poll in 1983 by virtue of winning both the Muny and City Open Championships. After leaving Buffalo he became a "great" player. He played on the pro tennis tour and accumulated 16 American Tennis Professional points and rose to a high ranking of 413 in singles and 330 in doubles in the mid 1980s. His career highlight was reaching the finals of a satellite event in Dallas in 1987. His final round opponent was Craig Kardon, who later went on to fame as Martina Navratilova's coach. (Bown resides in Laguna Beach, Calif., where he is on the board of directors of Silent Touch Pictures and also does some acting).
7. (tie) Ross Nwachukwu -- Nwachukwu represented Bennett High School when he became the first WNY male player to reach the finals of the New York State High School Tennis Championships, in 1989. He went on to star at Drake University. Locally, he won four Muny and two City Open championships. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound power-hitter has an all-court game and has great speed afoot for a man of his size. He was on the pro tour for a short period but a lack of finances eventually curtailed his venture. (He is an assistant tennis coach at the University of Kansas).
7. (tie) Neil Simon -- With the exception of Jimmy Arias, no player in the Top 10 had the natural ability of Simon. He had the potential to play and do well on the pro tour. However, the former Amherst High and Tulane University standout virtually stopped playing singles after his undergraduate days. His spirited matches with Nwachukwu in the early 1990s in the Muny, City Open and Village Glen tournaments were memorable. They were virtually even in their overall record against each other. (Simon is now a lawyer in Atlanta).
9. Clay Hamlin -- Hamlin starred at Nichols and then at the University of Pennsylvania from 1963-67. He was an All-Ivy selection and a member of the Penn Tennis Hall of Fame. He was also the only racket star in the history of Penn to win its prestigious senior award based on scholarship, athletics and character. Hamlin won three Muny and three City Open titles when he resided in WNY. After moving to Pennsylvania in the 1970s he was the second-ranked open player in the Middle States Region. In 1996, he was the top-ranked 50 & over player in his region. Hamlin was a classic serve and volleyer with an exceptional backhand. (He is president of Corporate Office Properties in Bala Cynwyd, Pa.).
10. Dirk Dugan -- The 6-4, 205 pound Dugan was All-Ivy for three years while playing for Cornell from 1968-72. In 1971, he was the Ivy League Champion. In addition to having won three Eastern Collegiate Singles Championships he defeated highly regarded Stanley Pasarell (UCLA) in the first round of the 1971 NCAA championships. He won two City Open and one Muny Singles championship and was a finalist in the National Public Park Singles Championships in the early 1970s. His serve and forehand were formidable weapons. (Dugan is an orthopedic surgeon in Ithaca).
Other players who received consideration, in alphabetical order: Mike Albano, Jeff Boychuk, Alex Gaeta, David Russell and Jay Udwadia.