Editor's note: Al Litto passed away May 20, 2017. This story, written by Racket Sports columnist Charlie Garfinkel, was published on April 16.
For the last five years Al Litto has been battling cancer. His contributions to all aspects of tennis are legendary in Western New York.
Litto really didn’t play much tennis until he was 15 years old. He starred at Cardinal O’Hara High School at first and second doubles. One of his partners was Pam Hamberger, one of Western New York’s finest tennis players of that era. Hamberger was eligible to play because the school didn’t have a girls’ tennis team. Litto also played a year of doubles at Buffalo State.
Watching Litto play tennis in both high school and college, one would think that he had taken many tennis lessons. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Al read many tennis books on all aspects of the game, both the physical and mental part.
Eventually Litto got into playing tennis every day and would show up at Delaware Park looking for competition if he didn’t have a match.
At 18, Litto traveled to Columbia, Md., to take a tennis course from Dennis Van der Meer, one of the greatest tennis coaches of all time. He taught Litto a method of teaching tennis that Litto still uses.
“Van der Meer taught me how to teach both adults and children,” Litto said. “He told me that teaching tennis was like teaching children. You start them on a plan and keep them progressing. You also have to show energy and enthusiasm when you are teaching tennis, how much you care for each and every student, no matter what their level of play is.”
Litto’s love for the game is evident when you see him working with students. He notes that when people are playing in a match they should play smart, high-percentage tennis. However, there will be circumstances when they have to go for the big shot.
Litto has done extraordinary work with the USTA with the mixed doubles, men’s and women’s doubles and junior doubles teams. He has been directly responsible for putting together more than 150 USTA teams.
“I have to make sure that the chemistry that puts each team together works,” Litto said. “Fortunately, I feel that this has worked well.”
Many people have no idea of what putting teams together entails. First, Litto has to find players whose chemistry fits with rest of his team members. From talking to various players on his USTA teams, everyone seems to be thrilled with Litto’s expertise and hard work.
Litto is at the forefront in helping raise funds that resulted in almost 180 brand new tennis rackets being bought for 85 percent of city high school tennis players. In addition, he was also instrumental in finding funding to secure 12 new tennis nets at the Delaware and South Drive courts.
What has made Litto’s contributions even more extraordinary is that he helped a friend put up all of the nets while he was seated in a wheelchair.
“Al Litto is the pied piper of Western New York tennis,” said Rich Abbott, a four-time Muny Open doubles champion. “He has brought so many people into the game. He always goes the extra yard in finding players matches and groups. He is an accomplished tennis teacher and coach of numerous teams. Al is an extremely generous guy and is a tremendous ambassador for the sport.”
For the past few years, Litto has been working with inner-city kids to improve their games.
“Regardless of the players’ level of play, we have been very fortunate in having quite a few of our players make their respective high school tennis teams,” Litto said.
Litto ran the Muny Tennis and Junior Tennis Muny Championships from 1989-2002. His energy and expertise were nonpareil. He organized everything. This included the days and times of play that were posted each day, the draws, assigning players to courts and having a party and refreshments on the last day of the tournament.
“We all know what Al does for tennis,” said Tom LaPenna, director of high performance at the Village Glen Tennis Club. “However, it is what Al does behind the scenes that impresses me the most. He goes above and beyond to find rackets for kids who need them. He gets kids to the courts that otherwise would never venture there if it wasn’t for Al. He has also helped kids and adults alike to fall in love with the sport of tennis. To me, this is why Al Litto stands out in our world of tennis.”