Serve For The Cause
October 18, 2019
When Amy Zeglen pulled into the parking lot of Tri-City Fitness in Latham, N.Y. to compete in the sixth annual Serve For the Cause breast cancer charity tennis tournament, she was overcome with emotion.
"I had tears," the breast cancer survivor says. "It brought everything back."
Cause notwithstanding, there's a reason a tennis tournament specifically might have felt so monumental for the mother of two: The sport and her journey with the disease are unmistakably intertwined. In May 2017, on the very same day she received her diagnosis, Zeglen competed in a USTA Leagues match that would turn out to be the deciding factor in sending her team to USTA Eastern Sectionals.
"Nobody knew [about the diagnosis] except me," she recalls. "I found out that afternoon and then went to the match. ADVERTISEMENT I told myself that this could be the last time I play tennis, so I had to get out on the court. And then I kicked [butt]. I won it."
Her team advanced, and Zeglen subsequently underwent three surgeries. Although she didn’t compete at Sectionals, she got something much greater out of that victory; she specifically cites the symbolic power of her win—that display of personal mental fortitude on a terrible day—as something that helped her believe in her own strength through some of the darkest periods of her treatment. Now, cancer-free for two years and in the parking lot of Tri-City, she knew she was about to compete with many of the same people from her USTA Leagues days for the first time since that match. It seemed like a truly full-circle moment, and she felt overwhelmed by both where she had been and where she was going.
Then she walked into the facility and saw the event in full swing, and realized she had nothing to worry about.
"Everybody was in pink and so happy," she says. "It was really a celebration of life—through tennis. It was beautiful. It was empowering."
Serve For the Cause was envisioned by USTA Eastern’s Northern Region Tennis Service Representative Jenny Irwin, whose own mother was diagnosed with breast cancer eleven years ago.
“I wanted to do something,” Irwin says of organizing the tournament. “As it was affecting me personally, I realized how much the disease affected so many other people—whether they were survivors themselves, or they had a mother or sister or co-worker or friend.”
The response has been huge. In just six years, Serve For the Cause has grown tremendously. 44 players competed in the inaugural event. In 2018, 112 signed up. This year, the tournament reached capacity with 160 participants. (“We didn’t have any more court space,” Irwin says.)
As a result, Serve For the Cause has raised nearly $35,000 for breast cancer charities in the capital district over the last six years. Just in 2019, the event brought in over $10,000 for To Life!, a local organization that provides support services to breast cancer patients and their caregivers.
“It’s really one of those events where the tennis is secondary,” Irwin says. “People are more competitive about winning the prize for having the pinkest outfit than they are winning on the court.”
A sea of players decked out in their best tennis pinks is just one of many things that make the event so unique. Indeed, the high point for Zeglen was not the matches themselves, but the camaraderie among all the women playing—including some, like her, who had also battled the disease.
"Another survivor reached over the net and gave me a big bear hug," she says. "I'd never met this woman in my life…it brought more tears to my eyes."
For Zeglen, the day ultimately encapsulated why she loves the tennis community so much—and also, why the sport is so meaningful to her, particularly after her specific experience.
"[Dealing with a health crisis] is a lot of mental grit," she explains. "Winning that match point takes mental grit. You just have to be in the moment. Tennis taught me that. Hit one ball at a time. Get through that one painful moment at a time, so you can get back to your life."