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Family Court

By Jonathan Whitbourne

The 2010 USTA Family of the Year: The Walz Family, Aitkin, Minnesota

On an otherwise nondescript autumn day, a short, slightly pudgy 7th-grade boy approached the Aitkin (Minnesota) School Board and made what he believed was a simple, wholly reasonable request: “We need a boys’ tennis team in this town.” The boy’s name was Carl Walz, and his confidence never faltered—not even after the board challenged him to prove there was legitimate support for such a team by convincing enough boys to sign up for and play intramural tennis. Carl came back later that year with impressive participation numbers in hand, but the Board threw up another roadblock: “You don’t have a coach, and the school can’t pay for one.” Without hesitation, Carl responded, “No problem. My dad will volunteer.” Carl hadn’t asked his father to coach, but he knew the answer would be yes.

And that’s the condensed story of how the small town of Aitkin got its boys’ high school tennis team. But unfortunately this tale takes a tragic turn: On May 28, 1999, shortly after winning the sectional tennis meet, Carl Walz was killed in a car accident. Eleven years later, Carl’s grief-stricken parents still tear up when they talk about their remarkable son. However, despite their devastating loss, the Walzes have learned to transform tragedy into triumph by using tennis, Carl’s first true love, to help and inspire others.

For starters, Carl’s parents, Joe and Cindy, continue to coach tennis at Aitkin High School. Cindy leads the girls’ tennis team and volunteers for the JV boys. In 2007, she was named Section A Coach of the Year. Meanwhile, Joe arranges to work nights in both the fall and spring so he can coach the boys’ team (free of charge) and help Cindy with the girls.

“When you lose a child, you hope that his life created ripples that will reach others,” says Joe. “That’s why Cindy and I coach; we wouldn’t be involved in tennis if it wasn’t for Carl. His passion helped us understand the benefits of tennis, and we’re passing that passion along to others.”

Joe and Cindy have also set up the Carl Walz Tennis Memorial Scholarship, which helps area kids pursue tennis. Many of the youths who receive financial assistance from the scholarship fund use the money to attend Tennis and Life Camps at nearby Gustavus Adolphus College. These camps, a favorite of Carl’s, stress sportsmanship over winning, treating your opponent with respect and serving others both on and off the court. Just like Carl did.

“The Walz family is not doing all of these things because Carl died; they’re doing them because Carl lived,” wrote Neal Hagberg, assistant director of Tennis and Life Camps, in a letter to the USTA National Awards Committee urging them to consider the Walzes for 2010 USTA Family of the Year—an award they have now claimed. “They’ve poured energy into Carl’s passion and made the world a better place.”

In this case, the word “world” must be taken literally. Carl’s siblings—older brother Andy, 30, and younger sister Emily, 23—have brought both tennis and hope to the African nation of Kenya through their respective careers (Andy as an engineer, Emily as an educator). Emily spent a semester teaching at a Kenyan school that was long on student enthusiasm but short on resources. Upon returning to the States, Emily started raising money to rebuild the dilapidated school and buy much-needed supplies. So far, her tireless efforts have netted enough money to build two new classrooms. Her ultimate goal, however, is to construct nine rooms—one for each grade level. Emily has also donated dozens of tennis racquets to the school, where students and their families play on a makeshift dirt court with a single string substituting for a net.

As for Andy, he recently took time off from his world travels to get married. And true to his family’s selfless spirit, Andy and his bride, Heidi, asked guests not to bring gifts to the wedding but instead donate to the Carl Walz Tennis Memorial Scholarship.

“When you lose somebody close, you have extra inspiration to leave a positive mark,” says Cindy. “Our family treats every day as a gift, something to be cherished. We love what we’re doing. And while people say we’re helping others, well, those people are helping us, too … helping us to heal.”

The Shields Family, Reading, Pennsylvania

A streak was snapped in 2009, though few people outside eastern Pennsylvania would’ve realized it. For the first time in 30 years, Pat Shields and his dad, Pete, failed to play in at least one USTA-sanctioned father-son tournament. For three decades, the duo racked up wins (and frequent flyer miles) by traversing the country, competing in events from New York to Newport Beach. And while the father-son tandem never nabbed a USTA gold ball, they gained something much more valuable—closeness.

“Thanks to tennis, my father and I have a special relationship,” says Pat. “He lives in Florida now and I live in Pennsylvania, so getting together for these father-son tournaments was a way to stay close and reconnect. Last year he had some health issues, so we didn’t play. But he says he’ll be back and that I need to stay sharp.”

In the meantime, Pat, his wife, Meg, and their four kids Patrick (17), Lindsey (16), Conor (13) and Amy (11) get their tennis fix both on and off the court. The family owns and operates Fromuth Tennis, a tennis retailer that donates racquets to school districts in need. All six family members also volunteer as instructors for the City of Reading Tennis Program, an initiative that so successfully combines tennis and academics that it was named the 2009 USTA/NJTL of the Year. When Lindsey isn’t teaching tennis to underserved kids, she’s busy stuffing her trophy case: most recently, she finished third at the 2009 Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association Doubles Championship.

“Ultimately, I feel lucky to have discovered tennis at a young age and made sure my kids had the same opportunity,” says Pat, who’s also an assistant coach for the boys’ and girls’ tennis teams at Holy Name High School in Reading, Pa. “There is no other sport that facilitates a family exercising and having fun together like tennis. It’s truly the perfect family sport.”

The Dubins Family, Miami, Florida

Ross Dubins can’t imagine going a day without tennis and, thanks to his job, he doesn’t have to. For more than 20 years, Ross and his wife, Veronica, have operated the Sans Souci Tennis Center, a public facility in North Miami, Fla., that offers a range of tennis programs to players of all ages and abilities. The tennis-loving couple oversees tournaments (including four annual USTA-sanctioned junior events), coordinates leagues and has been instrumental in bringing tennis curriculum to local schools. The Dubins are also committed to helping underserved populations in their area, as the Sans Souci Tennis Center provides free instruction, discounted classes and scholarships for those in need.

“The name of the tennis center, Sans Souci, comes from the French, and it means ‘no worries,’” says Ross. “It’s the perfect name for this facility, because when you come here, we want you to forget about all of your troubles. We want you to relax, enjoy the people your with, and let tennis make you feel good.”

Ross and Veronica have passed along this tennis feel-good vibe to their two daughters—Taylor, 19, and Brittany, 17. Taylor is a sophomore at the University of Central Florida, where she plays on the school’s tennis team. Brittany, meanwhile, is a standout on her high school squad, which she’s helped lead to three straight Florida State Championship titles. Just 18 months apart in age, Taylor and Brittany are also inseparable doubles partners. In fact, the terrific tandem has won several titles together, including the 2008 Florida State Championships Doubles crown.

“We’re really blessed and fortunate to have tennis in our lives,” says Ross. “We play together as a family, and it’s certainly created a strong bond between my daughters. Maybe a little too strong. Every time my wife and I play [Taylor and Brittany] in doubles, they kick our butts.”

The French/Scharff Family, Medford, Massachusetts

When it comes to tennis, Louisa French has one weakness: gray-haired opponents. The Boston-based mother of two discovered this Achilles’ heel about a decade ago, when she started playing league tennis. “My partner and I smiled when we looked across the net and saw that our opponents were 20 to 30 years older than us. We figured this one’s in the bag,” French recalls. But it wasn’t. Using tricky spins, the seniors cruised to an easy victory after running French and her partner ragged.

“I learned a valuable lesson that day,” says French. “Never underestimate an opponent—especially if she’s wearing support hose.”

Fortunately, the drubbing didn’t sour French on tennis. In fact, it inspired her to get better. Today, French, her husband (Adam Scharff) and their two kids (Del, 15, and DJ, 13) are all diehards. The family plays tennis at least five days a week, and French and Scharff compete in a mixed-doubles league. Del and DJ are junior tennis veterans.

“On any given day, you’ll probably see at least one of us with a racquet,” says French. “We recently moved to a house that’s only a half-mile from a tennis club. I keep telling friends that’s not why we moved, but I don’t think they believe me. I’m not sure I believe it myself.”

But what French loves most about tennis is how it unifies her family and allows generations to share a common interest. “What I learned all of those years ago, when two
70-year-olds creamed us, is that tennis truly is the sport for a lifetime,” says French. “I’m looking forward to playing for many, many more years—and beating the young kids when I’m 70.”

The Slonac Family, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

The Slonac family consists of five brothers and one passion—tennis. All five siblings (Brian, Kevin, Glen, Dave and Jim) are involved in tennis, from coaching to playing national tournaments to traveling internationally and competing in team events. But what’s most surprising about this band of brothers is that not one of them has ever taken a tennis lesson … unless you count hitting balls against the family garage formal training.

“We’re all self-taught,” says youngest brother Jim, who recently played in the 2010 ITF World Senior Championships (Men’s 35 division) in Mexico. “Us younger boys learned the game from playing with our older brothers, but that’s really it. Our family didn’t have enough money for tennis lessons; we were our own best teachers.”

A tight-knit family, the Slonac brothers are the offspring of a humble, athletically gifted father. Evan Slonac, who turns 80 later this year, was a standout running back for Michigan State and helped lead the Spartans to two straight NCAA Football National
Championships (1951–52). After college, Evan played briefly in the NFL for the Green Bay Packers before being drafted into the Korean War. Evan didn’t pick up a tennis racquet until later in life, but that hasn’t stopped him from entering father-son tournaments with his five boys. In fact, just a few years ago Evan and Jim finished sixth in a USTA National Super Senior Father-Son tournament (in these events the father must be at least 70 years old). And when Evan isn’t joining his sons on court, he’s cheering them on from the sidelines. “I play every point with them,” Evan says. “We always try to give them support. [Tennis] has kept the family close.”

The family has since grown to include four daughters-in-law and eight grandchildren (six girls, two boys), all of whom play tennis. The brothers and the wives also team up frequently to play mixed-doubles tournaments, including events at the national level. As for the kids, many of them attend the school where brothers Glen and Jim coach the girls’ tennis team.

“Now that we’re older, we appreciate tennis that much more and understand what a positive impact it’s had on our family,” says Jim. “And because we love the sport so much, we do everything we can to treat it with respect. You’ll never see a member of the Slonac family—adult or child—throwing a racquet or talking trash to an opponent. That’s not who we are or what tennis is about. Tennis is a great thing. Our family wouldn’t be so passionate about it if it wasn’t.”

The Somerville Family, Kauai, Hawaii

In 1958, A U.S. Army private stationed in California returned to his bunk after an exhausting day of drills to find a telegram resting on his pillow. Understandably nervous, the Nebraska native opened the envelope and read its contents. The telegram was an offer to teach grade-school history in, of all places, Hawaii. In those days, soldiers with a degree in Education were offered exemption from military service if they chose to pursue a career in teaching. Unsure of what to do, the private approached his commanding officer and showed him the letter, to which he responded, “Private, the way I see it, you have a very difficult decision: stay in the army or move to Hawaii.”

“I think it took me five seconds, no, make that three seconds, to choose Hawaii,” recalls John Somerville.

It’s a good thing he did. Upon arriving in Hawaii, he met his future wife, Hattie, while playing tennis. The fact that John and Hattie started courting on a court is only fitting, since the two have essentially ushered in a Hawaiian tennis dynasty. Married now for 49 years, the Somervilles have four children—Hannah, Jim, Henry and Betsy—all of whom have excelled in tennis. And while the four siblings have inherited their parents’ love of tennis, their style of play couldn’t be more different.

“Hattie and I are what you call finesse players, but all four of our kids just hit the hell out of the ball,” says John. “People who know us say to the kids, ‘Where’d all of this power come from—certainly not your parents.’”

This ferocious style of play has served the Somerville siblings well. The eldest, Hannah, was a junior standout who trained at the famed Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida before deciding her future (and heart) was back in Hawaii. She also played on the women’s tennis team at the University of California, Berkeley, for four years. Twin brothers Jim and Henry enjoyed success competing in U.S. Satellite events, and Henry is now the head teaching pro at the Oahu Club in Hawaii. Meanwhile, Betsy has played doubles in the main draw of all four professional Grand Slams, including the US Open. She now sits on the USTA Hawaii Pacific Section Board of Directors.

Not to be outdone by their kids, 75-year-olds John and Hattie still play or coach tennis every day. Hattie is one of the top senior players in the world and has netted dozens of USTA Gold Balls, including the USTA Senior Mother-Daughter Grass Courts Championships, which she won three times with daughter Betsy. When Hattie’s not swinging a racquet, she’s stringing them. In fact, she once strung a racquet for John McEnroe when he was touring Hawaii.

“Sometimes I pinch myself and wonder if all of this is really happening,” says Hattie, who in 2007 was inducted into the USTA Hawaii Pacific Section Hall of Fame. “I’ve been playing tennis for 70 years, and the game continues to teach me things. Tennis is more than a part of our family, it is our family.”

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