Include-All: Joe Ceriello
David N. Dinkins—the first Black mayor of New York—once said that his “greatest interest and concern” as a member of the USTA National Board was that “people playing tennis look like this country.” Every day, USTA Eastern strives to operate under that governing principle; it is the section’s mission to ensure that anyone who wants to pick up a racquet has the opportunity to do so. There is a place on court for everyone; the sport should always reflect the diversity of all our many dynamic, vibrant communities.
Of course, an organization whose mission is to serve all should be composed of individuals who also “look like this country”. With that in mind, USTA Eastern has taken great strides to diversify its staff and board over the last few years so that those from all walks of life—with varying perspectives, experiences and approaches—can have a seat at the table. In our new feature series Include-All, we aim to shine a spotlight on some of those many different voices. This month, in honor of Pride, we speak to Joe Ceriello, a member-at-large on USTA Eastern’s Board of Directors. Ceriello—who currently serves as the Executive Director of the Kings County Tennis League (KCTL) in Brooklyn—tells us about his life and career in tennis, and how it all started with Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and a driveway.
When did you first pick up a racquet? When did you first engage with the sport?
CERIELLO: I fell in love with the sport in the ‘80s, watching the rivalry between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova with my grandma. I also had two neighbors, and we played driveway tennis together for a number of years. We happened to live near an abandoned court, and we took a vote on whether we should move [our game] to the abandoned court, which had cracks with grass growing through it. I was the lone vote that wanted to continue tennis in the driveway, so we moved to the court. [Laughs]. I had my first lesson at 13, and I’ve been playing ever since. It’s been a major part of my life.
What do you love about the game that has kept it a part of your life?
CERIELLO: I wasn’t necessarily an athletic child. I was very closeted. I was always so hesitant to step outside of myself. Tennis was really something that allowed me to find my athleticism. I really came into my own. It was really the gateway to all sports, to be honest.
You could have chosen many different career paths. Why were you specifically interested in looking for a job in the tennis industry?
CERIELLO: I’ve had three great passions throughout my life that have been pretty consistent. Theater and arts has been one. Tennis has been one. Languages and culture is another. I was a theater performer, and when I decided to leave the business, I knew that I had to go into something else that I loved, so I actively pursued a career in tennis. I applied for jobs for two or three years unsuccessfully. Today, I honestly think you’d be hard-pressed to find another individual on the planet who’s had more jobs in tennis than I have. It’s hard to name a job in tennis that I haven’t had!
You started in the ticket office at the US Open and over time have worked in many different capacities: with Team USA events like Davis Cup, in player services, in USTA community marketing. Prior to your role with KCTL you served as the Chief Marketing Officer at New York Junior Tennis & Learning (NYJTL), the largest nonprofit tennis and education program in the country. What’s been one of the highlights for you during your time in this business?
CERIELLO: I would say a standout is getting to be the tournament director for a [WTA tour] US Open lead-in event at the [NYJTL facility] Cary Leeds Center. That was something I never thought I’d be able to achieve. But there’s actually many [highlights]. Getting tennis featured on Good Morning America and Today. Last year, we brought in a $1 million dollar endowment that will go directly to helping kids pursue tennis and education. I got to be a key player [in organizing] the Davis Cup final in Portland where Team USA beat Russia [in 2007]. There’s been a lot of great stuff.
More recently, you’ve specifically worked with organizations who bring the sport to underserved communities, like NYJTL, and at KCTL, which focuses on developing tennis opportunities for kids in Brooklyn public housing. Why has that work been meaningful to you?
CERIELLO: The last number of years, I’ve been on the non-profit side of the business. I knew how tennis changed my life. It opened up a world that I never felt connected to. So I see it as a great connector. I jumped at this particular opportunity with KCTL because I knew the programming was so good, and that the organization’s efforts have made such an impact on the community where we work.
As a member yourself, how do you think tennis as a whole can best support the LGBTQ+ community?
CERIELLO: I think the LGBTQ+ community within tennis is wonderful. The Gay & Lesbian Tennis Alliance (GLTA) is a real community. I’m a parent, I don’t get to play that much, but that group is so warm, welcoming and robust. I’ve loved the warmth I’ve received from those in tennis, as well as the friendships I’ve made. Overall it’s all about being inclusive. As I’ve said, the game is really a connector, an equalizer.
You are in the middle of serving your first term on the USTA Eastern Board of Directors. What compelled you to join?
CERIELLO: As I’ve mentioned, tennis has given me a lot. So I really thought that I could give something back. And I was really drawn to Eastern’s leadership.
USTA Eastern has made a concerted effort to diversify its board over the last couple of years. What has your experience been like working alongside such a varied group of leaders?
CERIELLO: The Eastern board strikes me as wildly diverse in a way that I’ve rarely seen in tennis. That feels wonderful. I love that aspect of it. That’s part of the reason why I love being a New Yorker. I feel most comfortable in that diversity of thought. It’s also a really smart group of people, and it’s a really kind board. You can feel the camaraderie.