The Legacy of USTA Eastern, Through the Eyes of the Women who Lead it: Part 1

Scott Sode | March 23, 2021

Throughout USTA Eastern’s long history, many women have made major contributions toward enhancing the quality of the tennis landscape and infrastructure in communities across the section. That is especially true today, as women hold the bulk of the upper management roles within the organization. Jenny Schnitzer, who joined the Eastern staff fresh out of college 29 years ago, serves as its CEO and Executive Director, and four of its six departments are led by women. Julie Bliss Beal heads up the Competitive Department, which organizes and directs all junior and adult competition; Jocelyn Cruz-Alfalla leads the Community Department, which helps develop, support and sustain tennis programming in schools, parks and neighborhoods across the section; Monica LaMura manages the Marketing & Communications Department, which publicizes and promotes all organization initiatives; and Lauren Bull and Susan Friedlaender oversee Adult Leagues, which is the largest section-wide competitive program. Bliss Beal just celebrated her twentieth anniversary at Eastern, and Bull and Cruz-Alfalla have both been staff members since 2007. In honor of Women’s History Month, we gathered all six women together for a (virtual) roundtable discussion. In the first installment of this two-part series, they each talk about their own background in the sport and why they ultimately sought out a career in tennis.

What’s your own personal history in the sport? When did you first pick up a racquet?

JENNY SCHNITZER: My parents played in the park. Every weekend they took me with them. They would give me coloring books, and I would just hang out by the net posts. Then when they were done, they would say, “Come on, let’s play!” All my brothers and sisters played. Even today, when we go on vacation, we still play together. It was a great gift that our parents gave us. Then there was the CityParks summer program [in Inwood Park in NYC]. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday during the summer my friends and I would play from 9-12. On Fridays we’d compete with other parks. So I developed great friendships through the parks program. And then from there I started to compete. At that point it became a passion for me. It’s [carried me] through now. My entire life so far has been about tennis.

Executive Director Schnitzer (left) as a young player with Althea Gibson (center).

LAUREN BULL: I first picked up a racquet as a young adult, back in my early 20s. I’d started dating a tennis pro. And he was determined to have a girlfriend who played tennis. That’s exactly how he put it [Laughs]. He was very into teaching me...little did I know I was getting all these free tennis lessons that were worth a lot of money. But I really took to it, and I enjoyed it, and it brought out the hidden athlete in me. I got good enough to start playing with peers, and then eventually to start playing in Leagues which were in their beginning stages at that point in my life.


JOCELYN CRUZ-ALFALLA: My dad got me started—we played in the local park. He was a Community Tennis Association (CTA) president, of the Eastern Filipino Tennis Association. He’d always call it “efta” [Laughs]. He’d say ‘We’re gonna go and play at efta!’ What made me love the sport was that it was something I could do with my dad. It was important to me, to him. I met a lot of my closest friends out of the Eastern Filipino Tennis Association, people who are still a part of my life today. It was really a personal experience. 


SUSAN FRIEDLAENDER: I also played as a little kid. I have three older brothers, so I had to do everything that they did [Laughs]. I played all through high school. Then I stopped playing from 17 until 35, until my kids were in school and I had some free time. And I started playing again [in Leagues]. And you just get bit by the bug, so you just start playing and playing and playing. 


MONICA LAMURA: I was five or six. I just had so much fun playing with my parents. It just became a family activity. And I was good! I was good as a little kid, and then my skills started to deteriorate as I got older [Laughs]. But it gave me a lot of confidence growing up and I think that’s what kept me coming back.


JULIE BLISS BEAL: My dad made me fall in love with it. He actually played a lot when my sister and I were little. He would also play in the parks. We would bring our little chairs with us [to watch]. I didn’t start picking it up competitively until I was about 12. Tennis made me feel so confident about myself. I loved that I could construct points on my own and that it challenged me to think independently. And of course [you got to wear] cute outfits! [Laughs].


So Julie, did you play competitively as a junior in the Eastern Section?


BLISS BEAL: I did! I played high school tennis, I played Junior Team Tennis, I played  adult tournaments. I was your typical USTA Eastern member—all in!




What’s it like to be a former Eastern junior now overseeing all of junior competition?


BLISS BEAL: For me, I think it makes me a little more relatable to the parents I speak with or the kids I speak with. I’ve been in those positions on the court where I’m dealing with a competitor who I didn’t think made the best call or I didn’t think acted like the best sport. Being a mom myself now, I can relate even more when I’m speaking with parents about how to navigate some of these situations as a bystander.

You all are clearly very passionate about tennis. Why did you seek out a career in the sport? 


SCHNITZER: I played college tennis for St. John’s. While I was there, I knew I wanted to [work in] tennis. I would tell everybody what I wanted to do about getting tennis [included in P.E. classes in schools] and helping kids. When I graduated, there happened to be a job at Eastern overseeing the schools program. It was exactly what I had developed in my brain. I knew I wanted to give back to tennis and really help support school programs and those community programs like the parks program I grew up in, and that’s exactly what this position was. It was perfect all around.


CRUZ-ALFALLA: I played in high school and college. I was a public health education major. 

Schnitzer (far left) and Friedlaender (fourth from left) pose with their USTA League team.

I worked for an ambulatory care service through Lenox Hill Hospital [in New York], specifically working with a women’s shelter. But I was always teaching tennis on the side. At the same time I was [working with the shelter], I worked part-time as the head coach of the women’s tennis team for the college I graduated from, Hunter College, for eight seasons.


Eight seasons?


CRUZ-ALFALLA: Eight seasons. I remember coaching such great, smart young women who dedicated the time to be on a team and continue their studies. I was so impressed. I must’ve been three years out of undergrad, so I wasn’t so far off from them. We won the championship in our conference seven seasons in a row—


Oh really. So you were a very good coach?


CRUZ-ALFALLA: I tried to be [Laughs]. I did get coach of the year. I tried to empathize with the challenges of being a student athlete at a commuter school for a Division III program that doesn’t have any bells and whistles. We didn’t have our own tennis courts.  So for me, it wasn’t just the tennis skill itself, feeding them balls and coaching them on their forehands. Understanding them individually was important, working together as a team was very important, and I think that translated into determination of winning. What was exciting, which is kind of an odd foreshadowing, was that our home courts were at the National Tennis Center (NTC). So the USTA was always this emblem that was hanging over me while I was coaching. I was walking on the grounds of the NTC feeling so proud. Proud of the student athletes that they got to championships. Proud of the work that we put in together as a team. 


Is there anything you learned from being a coach all those years that you apply to your current position?


CRUZ-ALFALLA: Coaching was really a hustle. Some of the players on the team were nursing majors and their classes interfered with the tennis schedule. What I learned was how to juggle, how to balance. And I think that carries over to professional life all the way through. 

How did the rest of you end up in tennis and at USTA Eastern?


LAMURA: I used to string racquets and teach peewee tennis at a local beach club as my summer job in college. I’d also teach private lessons on the side at the park...I remember putting ads in the paper. Sort of like Jocelyn, [after graduating] I worked in public health—on the agency side—for seven or eight years [before] I got hired in the marketing department at USTA National in my early 30s. I started on the pro side and then gravitated toward [marketing for] kids and community programming, and that’s where I stayed for about five years. And then everything changed. My job was moving to the USTA National Campus in Orlando...I would not be moving [Laughs]. But it became this stars aligning moment, because the former marketing person at Eastern happened to be leaving, and I was able to secure that position. Now I’ve been in the tennis space for a little over ten years. So that’s sort of my professional journey: Started off stringing racquets and here I am talking to you [Laughs].


BULL: It wasn’t really a planned-out thing. I’d had a whole other career in computer programming before I had my kids. I took some time off after the third child was born and wanted to return to work. I just thought of looking at the USTA [for opportunities] and there happened to be a job posted. So I applied for that [in 2007] and the rest is history. I think I got the interview because at that point I was just all about tennis. I played Leagues myself, I had a tennis pro husband, three kids who played in tournaments. I had a lot of knowledge about the programs as a player.

LaMura (right) with her mom after winning the Connecticut High School State Championship.

BLISS BEAL: I graduated at an amazing time in 2000 when we were coming out of a technology boom. We had companies coming onto our campus interviewing us as juniors for jobs when we graduated as seniors.  I just happened to [look up] careers in tennis, and USTA Eastern came up. And I thought, let me put in my resume. Right away everyone that I met and interviewed with, it just felt comfortable. We already had a common interest.  I remember that the executive director at the time said, “You remind me of somebody that we have on staff—Jenny Schnitzer. You’ve got that same energy and passion for the sport.” Sorry, Jenny [Laughs].


FRIEDLAENDER: I was freelancing in market research. I was getting kind of tired of it. I felt like [taking the job] would be working in something I loved. I love Leagues, I love the friendships you build, I love the camaraderie. And it was also something I knew I could make better, by making it friendlier, more accessible, and more fun. And I knew a lot of the people. I captained Jenny in Leagues [Laughs]. Jocelyn and I also played on a 3.5 Mixed Leagues team together. I had also met Julie before because I had captained a Junior Team Tennis team. It felt like home right away.


How did your Leagues team that included Jenny do, by the way?


FRIEDLAENDER: We went to Nationals [Laughs]! We had so much fun.

SCHNITZER: Told you she was a good captain!


Click here for Part 2 of our conversation, which includes a discussion about greatest memories and accomplishments working together, as well as thoughts on leading an organization in a field that skews heavily male.

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