Tennis: Enrichment Like No Other
James Maimonis, Communications and Engagement Coordinator | October 14, 2016
SOUTH HADLEY, MA- National Hispanic Heritage Month celebrates the histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America. In tennis, we have many Hispanics who have made significant impacts on and off the court, and one local hero is South Hadley, MA resident and Puerto Rico native, Eric Cestero.
Cestero is one of the richest tennis players in the world by his account. No, he hasn’t made millions of dollars winning tournaments, but the experience of pure euphoria every time he teaches or spreads the joy of tennis is what enriches his life and motivates him to continue growing this great game.
“Wherever life has taken me, I’ve always been involved in tennis. I’m never really going to get rich playing tennis, so what’s better than teaching a sport you’ve been so involved in? It’s really seeing people so happy and grateful after you work with them that makes you feel rich,” Cestero said.ADVERTISEMENT
Cestero was born in Puerto Rico and moved back and forth to the United States multiple times due to a combination of school, work and his father’s job in the military. But no matter where he went, tennis was always on his mind.
His first encounter with the game was at seven years old in Puerto Rico when his dad came home one day from work with a wooden racquet.
“He said, ‘here, I want to give you this. I want you to practice just a little bit and learn how to play tennis,’” Cestero recalled.
So from that day forward, Cestero made it his mission to learn and play the game of tennis. He walked around with his racquet everywhere he went and would even go to the library to read books about tennis and the game’s history.
“Tennis is the sport that has the most passion for one individual. I coached and played all sports, but tennis is the sport that you really have to put an interest in learning,” he said.
Despite never having any formal training, Cestero went on to play tennis in high school and college before working as an athletic trainer for Puerto Rico’s Olympic Committee. He focused on the basketball and tennis teams throughout the late 1970s and early 80s, and worked directly with Gold Medalist Gigi Fernandez.
“I first met Gigi in 1978 at the Central American Caribbean Games in Colombia and worked with her again in 1979 at the Pan-American games in Puerto Rico. I would hit with her after practices, and I learned a lot from her. We made a good friendship.”
While Cestero was working, he always found time to teach tennis and share his passion with kids. He held clinics and gave free lessons in his hometown, just to grow the game in whatever way he could.
He moved back to the United States for good in 1989 to complete his education, earning a doctoral degree from Springfield College. Upon finishing his schooling, Cestero met Lester Mcdonald, who gave him his first opportunity to teach tennis in Western Massachusetts.
Mcdonald was part of the Tennis Opportunity Program, which provided free summer camps to kids throughout the City of Springfield. Many of the program’s children and parents only knew Spanish, so he asked for Cestero’s help to run the program, for both his coaching ability and to communicate with those who didn’t know English. Cestero accepted, and all he took as compensation was the occasional few dollars to fill up his gas tank. Cestero also helped stabilize the program by getting a $5,000 USTA grant to be used over the next five years.
From there, his involvement in the Western Mass. tennis community has only grown. He has since moved to South Hadley, where he is extremely active is both coaching and playing.
In addition to playing on USTA League teams, Cestero has been the assistant coach at Mount Holyoke College for 20 years and will be going on his 20th season as a no-cut high school coach for the South Hadley girls varsity team.
At South Hadley, Cestero had 28 girls on his team last year and has had as many as 32 in one season.
“I’ve tried out for teams and haven’t made them, and that experience of not making the team when I put a lot of effort in and tried so hard was awful,” Cestero said. “I want to make sure all these kids get uniforms. As a coach, I said I will never cut a player from any sport when they’re doing so much to try and get better, and seeing them get better is the most gratifying thing for me.”
Despite his massive numbers, Cestero’s teams have managed to win multiple Western Mass. and state championships. He keeps his kids interested by encouraging them in a positive way, and more so than winning, seeing them progress is what keeps him motivated.
"Even if I’ve had to do deal with personal problems, I always find a way to keep everyone on the team and making them realize their importance and belonging here,” Cestero said. “By cutting them, you get anger in them and you get them to hate the sport, not love it. I’m an educator, I try to encourage them, and I’m all about growing the game, so I think that’s why it comes easy for me.”
“I met Eric over 20 years ago when he coached me in college, and I learned very quickly his passion and enthusiasm coaching tennis and how much the game meant to him,” said Jon Kostek, USTA New England Youth Play Manager, who played under Cestero at Holyoke Community College. “Eric uses this passion for tennis wherever he is, whether it’s coaching high school kids, volunteering at an afterschool program or engaging and opening doors to tennis with the Hispanic community in Western Mass.”
Starting in 2012, Cestero went back to Van Horn Park in the North End of Springfield to offer free lessons to the Hispanic community. He lent out equipment at no cost in addition to the sessions. Within weeks of posting flyers in local supermarkets and having few people show up early on, word got out, and he ended up spending every Saturday for the next two years sharing his passion.
“I love working with the Hispanic community, not because I’m Hispanic, but because a lot of the times they don’t have the resources, and they’re so grateful for what you’re doing for them. They still try and give me whatever they can, like fruit, or just little things like that, and it makes me smile just knowing how happy I’ve made them.”
After seeing his success and relatability amongst young tennis players, USTA New England asked Cestero to lead a tennis program at the Downtown YMCA as part of the organization’s Hispanic outreach in Springfield.
The program was designed for beginner players, and according to Cestero, all girls signed up to attend. Unaware the program was only scheduled to run for four weeks, he kept teaching them and inviting them back to watch their progress and love for the game grow. Nine weeks later, the program finally came to an end, but Cestero’s relationship with the girls certainly didn’t.
“I can see it in their faces, the enjoyment and the way they grasp that inner satisfaction, that’s why I want to keep teaching them,” Cestero said. “I kept in touch with some of the girls, followed up with them and even gave them lessons a few weeks later.”
“Eric was such a pleasure to work with this past summer with the launch of our Hispanic Outreach initiative with the YMCA,” said Matt Olson, USTA New England Executive Director and COO. “He was truly the heart of our program and the kids at the YMCA of Downtown Springfield embraced him as their coach. He’s an important part of his community and truly dedicates himself to growing our sport.”
Although Cestero is long retired from his day job, he’s far from retiring from tennis. As long as he is able to, he plans on spreading his passion for the game he loves to as many people as he can.