Tom LaPenna, a teaching pro at the Village Glen, is one of the finest tennis pros to have ever coached in Western New York.
His legacy was further enhanced when he was recently selected as one of 16 outstanding tennis pros from throughout the United States to be invited to the Fed Cup matches, the women's equivalent of the men's Davis Cup competition.
The matches were held in Delray Beach, Fla., at the Chris Evert Tennis Academy, on April 20-22.
"Naturally, I was thrilled to be one of the invitees," LaPenna said. "Many pros throughout the country and myself were asked to submit a resume about our coaching careers, and I was honored to be selected."
One of the criteria for selection was how many players ranked locally, statewide or nationally each pro had coached, especially women players. LaPenna has coached players at all of those levels. He now is working with the highly regarded Olga Khmylev.
LaPenna was invited to watch Serena and Venus Williams play and practice and to discuss with other pros what strokes and strategies they could use with the top players back at their home base.
When LaPenna and the other coaches arrived, they were going to talk to highly ranked Jamea Jackson, a practice partner, and Lori McNeil, the assistant coach of the Fed Cup team and a former top 10 player, about the training and conditioning of the top pros.
The Fed Cup match featured the United States versus Belgium. Although Belgium's top two players, Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters, did not play for personal reasons, LaPenna was enthralled by the play of the United States' top stars, the Williams sisters.
After each of the Williamses matches, LaPenna and the other pros would meet to analyze their strengths. They would discuss how the sisters' skills could be used in the teaching of their own advanced students.
LaPenna was especially impressed with the court movement of both sisters. He noted that when they met the ball, regardless of where they were positioned on the court, their striking of the ball was unparalleled.
LaPenna also noted that they are not really that much bigger or stronger than many of the players they play against. However, their timing and court mechanics are superb.
"The way that they exploded into their shots made it look like they were playing baseball. Their swing and power is much more noticeable than most of the women on the tour," LaPenna noted.
Jackson, a Fed Cup teammate of the Williams sisters, was one of the players that LaPenna watched carefully in practice. She is ranked in the world's top 50 and is definitely a player on the rise.
"Having the opportunity to practice with the Williams sisters was such a revelation," Jackson said. "Warming up I would be thinking, 'Hey, I'm hitting the ball as well as they are!'
"Once we started playing actual points, it was a different story. Each sister would hit pinpoint shots, both short and deep, and they would constantly keep me on the defensive."
"Watching Serena, you can tell the difference in her game and other players who are ranked in the world's top 50 women," LaPenna said. "Her serve is outstanding and her attitude both on and off the court exudes extreme self-confidence. With her physical skills that's a tough combination to defeat."
LaPenna and the other coaches discussed the training programs of the Fed Cup members with McNeil. She emphasized that their training is similar to that of top junior players. They do many drills, keep score, do agility and moving training, ball-stroking skills, dynamic stretching before playing and static stretching after playing.
They also concentrate on short sprints for speed drills. As for weight training they don't do much during the actual tournament season.
LaPenna said the knowledge he picked up at the Fed Cup will be "extremely beneficial" to the young players he coaches.
Teen makes his mark
Joe Schafer, 16, is an Orchard Park High School tennis star who is ranked ninth in the East in the 16-Under division. He won the 16-Under sectional singles title at the National Tennis Center in New York during the first weekend of this month.
He continued his fine play by winning his first singles match in the prestigious Easter Bowl tournament in Florida (April 16-23), before losing in the second round. In doubles, he reached the quarterfinals with Robert Wong of Old Greenwich, Conn.
The top five men on the Men's City Ladder for this year are:
1. Phil Primerano, Jr.; 2. Kevin Hulme; 3. Joe Garbarino; 4. Reinhart Zimmermann; 5. Roger Rusch