Organizer of the Month: March 2020
Each month, USTA Eastern selects a passionate advocate who has made exceptional contributions within his or her community through tennis. In honor of Women's History Month, we recognize an incredible leader whose four decades of extraordinary service to the sport has earned her two of the section's higest distinctions: The Tennis Woman of the Year Award and induction into the USTA Eastern Hall of Fame.
"You never lose, you either win or you learn."
If things had gone differently, longtime Long Island tennis instructor and advocate Sunny Fishkind (above, left, with husband Eddie) might have been a dancer.
“I used to dance,” the Brooklyn native explains. “Then I met my husband, Eddie, and he didn’t dance. I used to have to go sit and watch him play softball and baseball all the time. Finally, I thought, ‘There’s got to be something we could do together that would satisfy both of us.’”
That ‘something’ turned out to be neither dancing nor softball, but tennis. The young couple purchased a book on how to play and started hitting volleys back and forth across their bed. They read about forehands and backhands, looked at pictures, and then practiced swinging a racquet in front of a mirror to perfect their form. They completely taught themselves. “I took just one lesson during that time,” she recalls now with a laugh. “I must’ve had the stupidest pro in the world because he said to me, ‘You don’t need lessons. You know how to do everything right, you just have to practice.‘”
It was from these DIY origins that Sunny would go on to build a career in the sport that has spanned 45 years and counting. From 1979 to 2005, Sunny served as the Girls’ Varsity Tennis Coach at Bethpage High School. (She also concurrently coached the boys’ varsity tennis team for 12 seasons.) In 1993, she was appointed Coordinator of Girls’ Tennis for Nassau County High Schools, a position she held for 11 years. In this role, she scheduled all county matches, sat on the state girls’ tennis committee, wrote and developed the Nassau County Girls’ Tennis Handbook, created and ran the Nassau County tournament for many years and also coached the Nassau County girls’ tennis team at the annual state tournament. Even after retiring from Bethpage, she worked as an Assistant Coach at Hofstra University for three years. And every summer since 1986, she has served as the Director of the Hofstra University Summer Tennis Camp. Through this program, Sunny has introduced thousands upon thousands of young kids to the game. “I just absolutely loved the sport,” she says of why she took on so many responsibilities in addition to her day job as a librarian. “It really was my favorite thing to do—it was so much fun.”
Keeping the game fun has been Sunny’s guiding philosophy as a coach and instructor since the beginning of her tennis career. When she started at Bethpage, “we were the worst,” she acknowledges. But she refused to cut a single student, and if a particular player didn’t start, she tried to give that player a specific responsibility, like keeping score.
“I’m not a very competitive person,” she says. “The motto I’ve adopted recently is ‘You never lose, you either win or you learn.’ But I really always believed in this. I remember we once played against the best team on Long Island. I told the kids before they went out, ‘I don’t think you’re going to win. Don’t worry about it. Have fun, but see how many points you can get.’ Then the next time we played that team, I said, ‘Did you remember how many points you won? See if you can win more this time.’ I really felt that it was just fun, that [the score] didn’t matter.”
The coaching style may not have always resulted in first place trophies, but it did net Sunny a multitude of accolades: She was named Nassau County Tennis Coach of the Year in 1982 and Long Island High School Coach of the Year in 1996. She also received the Coach of the Year distinction from USTA Eastern in 1997.
And even though she has left high school coaching behind, the mentality continues to serve her well in her role leading the tennis summer camp at Hofstra University.
“I tell the parents at the camp—and I really believe this—that you can’t turn a kid into a tennis player in six weeks, but you can make them love it,” she says. “I think we get kids to love it, and that’s one of the reasons many of them come back year after year.”
Indeed, the camp has been a massive success for 35 summers running. So many children—aged 6-15—have learned the fundamentals of the sport through the program over the years that Sunny can’t even give a ballpark amount. (“There’s no way I could come up with any figure,” she says.) Sunny actively continues to tinker and adjust the curriculum; in 2019, for the first time, she offered a full-day tennis experience for interested campers. (Historically, the camp has been divided into morning and afternoon sessions.)
And she has no plans of slowing down any time soon. “I learn something from kids every day,” she says. “They’re open, they’re uninhibited, they’re warm. You get ideas from them. They are a lot of fun for me. They keep me young—and immature!”
Ultimately, building these bonds and relationships has been the crowning achievement of her career—and why she’ll continue to grow the game as long as she can. She’s actively seen passion for the sport transcend generations.
“I was working as a volunteer at the US Open and I ran into a girl I took to the state tournament when she was in high school,” Sunny says. “I mean, I knew her mother, who also played. This girl has a son who plays now. Here’s a girl who played in high school, bringing her young kid who also plays, to meet me and my husband. That’s the pleasure I get from this—the connections.”