Eastern

2022 USTA Eastern Tennis Woman of the Year Recipient: Janet Lefkowitz

Scott Sode | March 08, 2023


There’s a story that Janet Lefkowitz—the tennis director for Greenburgh, N.Y.’s parks and recreation department and USTA Eastern’s 2022 Tennis Woman of the Year—always tells when she reflects on her career. She was leading a weekly adaptive tennis program at Camp Victory, the town’s summer camp for the disabled. Every week a young boy would come out to participate. He was visually impaired and in a wheelchair, and possessed a wide range of issues that made physical activity incredibly difficult.

 

“[He was dealing with] everything,” Lefkowitz says, “that a human being could possibly endure.”

Lefkowitz herself first learned to play tennis when she was eight years old at a summer camp in Cooperstown, N.Y.

But each week, he would come out to the tennis court and try the sport. To teach, Lefkowitz used lightweight racquets with a shorter handle and a larger head so that campers could more easily hit a foam ball when they swung. Even still, this young man struggled to make contact with the ball at all over the course of the entire six-week camp.

 

Nevertheless, he persisted. The last day of the camp, Lefkowitz fed the boy a ball. This time, he not only hit the ball, he hit it smack in the middle of the strings. He hit it so well, in fact, it sailed right back over the net.

 

“This big smile appeared on his face,” she recalls. “For him, that was like winning Wimbledon. He just kept at it and kept at it, and he finally got it. There was not a dry eye on the tennis court—I was standing there with tears running down my cheeks. I mean, this is what it’s all about.”

 

Lefkowitz has dedicated her entire career to creating moments like these. In addition to her duties managing the sport in her municipality, Lefkowitz is also the co-founder of Help Expand Recreation Opportunities, or HERO, Inc. Through HERO, Lefkowitz has helped organize adaptive tennis initiatives in her community for over 30 years. Today, she hosts a wide range of tennis offerings for a variety of different groups: the developmentally disabled, children with autism, veterans with traumatic brain injuries, men and women diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, among many others. She runs much of this programming at the tennis courts in Greenburgh’s Anthony F. Veteran Park.

 

“The fact is, even to this day we don’t serve these groups the way we should,” Lefkowitz says. “In the beginning, HERO had very modest programs. [But] by the mid-1990s, we were working with around 400-500 people. Everybody who heard about what we offered jumped on it because nobody else was doing it. The need was just so great.”

Over time, Lefkowitz has become one of the preeminent leaders in the field—not just in Westchester County, but nationwide. She even wrote the very first adaptive tennis curriculum for the USTA. One of her top directives as a veteran carrying out this work over decades? People first.

 

“You have to really care more about the people than you do about the sport, which is not necessarily true for some tennis professionals,” she explains. “They’re very into the perfect forehand. We don’t care about the perfect forehand. We want people to come out and have fun. That’s number one. If in the bargain, while they’re having fun, they achieve something and feel better about themselves, that’s a bonus.”

 

Fun, after all, is what got Lefkowitz into the tennis industry in the first place. She was an active participant in a local parks tennis league when the Greenburgh recreation commissioner recruited her to take on the director role in the town.

 

“He came to me and said, ‘Look, we have this wonderful park. We don’t really use it the way we should. I want you to develop a program for all the people who live here,'" she recalls. "So I started in 1985 and made $5,000 a year. That was just the beginning.”

Lefkowitz (second from left) leads many of her clinics in Greenburgh's Anthony F. Veteran Park.

Today the Greenburgh tennis operation has grown to become, by Lefkowitz’s estimation, the best in the county. The 19 lit courts in the park have served as a venue for USTA Eastern’s League Sectional Championships, the New York State High School Boys’ Varsity Championships, the junior qualification rounds for the US Open, among many other big events. Lefkowitz credits her staff, and in particular her assistant director Roberta Maloney, for keeping everything running smoothly and helping to support the program’s astronomical growth.

 

“I’m very lucky,” she says.

 

Her work in the town also led to a position coaching the boys’ and girls’ tennis teams at Woodlands High School in Hartsdale, N.Y., a job she held for just about 25 years. For Lefkowitz, coaching was never about winning every match or becoming state champions. She always emphasized that her students just get on court and have a good time.

“These kids weren’t going to stay if it’s drudgery,” she says. “I had very few kids who played independently of the team. I usually provided them with racquets because they couldn’t afford them. [But] they just got such a charge out of it. We had so much fun. It was wonderful.”

 

Perhaps unexpectedly, that game plan did work, and the team began to win more frequently.

 

“When I took over, I think they were 2-13,” Lefkowitz says. “And it took me about two or three seasons, but we ended up with a winning record. And that was a big deal. Not that I particularly cared whether we had a winning record, but the kids cared.”

Of course, Lefkowitz’s biggest contribution to the tennis ecosystem is undoubtedly her work through HERO. Her tireless efforts have provided thousands upon thousands of people with a bit of joy they deserve. 

 

“I recently went out to a day camp on Long Island with a colleague who [HERO] helped train,” Lefkowitz says. “We worked together with a great number of young people who are living with autism. After the program, a boy came over to us. He was holding a tablet that he uses to communicate because he’s nonverbal. He tugged on my colleague’s t-shirt, put the tablet in front of her and smiled at her. All that was on the tablet was two words: ‘tennis’ and ‘fun’. That’s why you do this work.”

 

But the participants aren’t the only ones to get something out of it. Lefkowitz notes how much she herself has transformed by working with these underserved communities. She's thankful for all the people who have come into her life as a result.

Janet Lefkowitz gives a tennis lesson at James E. Allen Jr./Sr. High School in Dix Hills, N.Y. Photo Credit: Long Island Tennis Magazine

“I just enjoy myself,” she says. “I find it to be fun! I mean, what happens to you when you work with these people is you really stop thinking about yourself because life is very difficult for them, and they simply do not complain. It really educates you on what’s important. Do you think I’m going to go on Wednesday night to my MS class and complain that my knee hurts? I don’t think so. It’s very humbling. And fun. So I feel very grateful that I’ve had this opportunity.”

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