Lee Community Tennis Association: A sense of community, court side
From her front-row seat, Clare "Bunnie" Lahey kept glancing at the mix of travelers and empty seats behind her on a U.S. Open-bound bus parked at the Lee Big Y. To her dismay, the Lee Community Tennis Association (CTA) founder and executive director couldn't squint more faces into being on the organization's annual one-day trip to the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York City.
"This is a fund-loser," Lahey said shortly after 7 a.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 29.
After two decades of packed paid excursions, the Lee CTA hasn't been able to fill the bus for the past two, though it has come close; this year, for example, it drew 44 CTA members and nonmembers, 11 shy of the bus' capacity.
"Last year, I said it was going to be the last, but it was so fun," Lahey said.
For Berkshire County tennis fans, the Lee CTA-sponsored trip has long offered an alternative to transportation headaches surrounding the country's premiere tennis event, which wraps up on Sunday. With nonprofit margins ever-so-tight, however, the combination of subpar attendance and a lack of youth on recent journeys probably spells the end for this pillar of Berkshire County tennis fandom.
"Think so," Lahey said on Tuesday when asked if the previous week's bus trip was the last.
In the future, she envisions a van or bus filled with high school students traveling to the U.S. Open Qualifying tournament, which features lower-ranked players battling for places in the main event during the week leading up to the Open.
"Our focus is really keeping kids in the game. We want to see everybody playing," Lahey said, overlooking the six courts she spearheaded building at Lee Middle and High School.
On-the-court participation hasn't been a problem lately. This summer's Lee CTA leagues and lessons included more than 200 adults and children, according to Lahey. Some of them carried coolers and other items onto a King Ward coach bus that was set to depart Lee at 7:15 a.m. It would stop in downtown Great Barrington before continuing on to Queens, where attendees would watch matches for nearly eight hours. Day passes to view all 17 match courts were included in trip packages ranging from $62.50 to $125, with prices varying based on age and Lee CTA membership.
Part-time Otis resident Barbara Jacoby sat in her customary aisle seat behind the driver. The 87-year-old played tennis four times per week this summer and is a U.S. Open devotee; she has attended all but one Lee CTA bus trip, only missing the 2010 edition.
"That's when I fractured my femur. It took me almost two years to get back to the court. That was the goal," she said.
A couple rows back, Ed Bevan of Great Barrington spoke about how joining the Lee CTA helped him acclimate to life in the Berkshires after moving to the county some years ago.
"I didn't know anybody in the local tennis community, and I wanted to play," he said.
He loves watching the Women's Tennis Association.
"I'm a Halepeno," Bevan said, referring to Romanian star Simona Halep.
Bevan is no longer a Lee CTA member but is still on the email list, which prompted him to come on this year's trip.
"Thank you for organizing this, Bunnie," Bevan said to Lahey at one point. "I've had my eye on this for the past couple of years, but haven't been able to pull it off."
Gratitude for Lahey's efforts was a refrain throughout the trip.
"She's really done great things," Pittsfield resident Joanna Fribush said.
"Look at how lucky we are [to have her]," Lee's Paula Farbman said.
Like Bevan, Farbman joined the Lee CTA after moving to the Berkshires. Her fellow players became her friends.
"That's how I met [them]," Farbman said.
She hung with Lahey on this day. They followed the masses making the pilgrimage to the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center from a parking lot behind the New York Mets' Citi Field shortly after 11 a.m., crossing through the area's transportation vortex. Aircrafts approaching and exiting LaGuardia Airport roared overhead. The Long Island Railroad and New York City subway lines rattled nearby. Cabs and other cars careened down one-ways, buses and bikes often flanking them. It was immediately apparent why Berkshire natives accustomed to enjoying the comforts of the county's summer hum might be hesitant to venture into this chaos of planes, trains and automobiles with their own vehicles.
But a seasoned U.S. Open veteran like Lahey can navigate through the traffic and the day's schedule with little problem. Upon entering the grounds, she looked at her sheet of matches.
"Let me see what I circled," she said.
Shortly thereafter, she had settled on a destination: the stands between courts 11 and 12, two of the smaller venues that Open regulars cherish for their intimacy. Fans are just feet from players, not unlike walking up to a local court and watching amateurs play. Lahey began weaving through crowds to the courts, looking back at Farbman and this reporter at one point with a smile.
"We're following you," Farbman assured her.
"I like to skirt around," the 77-year-old Lahey said while watching a doubles match between pairs Oksana Kalashnikova and Nao Hibino and Kateryna Kozlova and Belinda Bencic.
Even on a day that reached 97 degrees, Lahey and Farbman bounced around the grounds. They stopped at the Grandstand to check out 2016 U.S. Open winner Stan Wawrinka, took in more doubles on the side courts, peered over throngs watching Venus Williams at Louis Armstrong Stadium and closed out the day by seeing past U.S. Open winners Juan Mart n del Potro and Andy Murray at Louis Armstrong and Arthur Ashe stadiums, respectively. Murray took on Fernando Verdasco, who was leading in the fourth set when one of his drop volleys flummoxed Murray.
"Oh!" Lahey said with reverence.
She would soon be boarding the bus back to the Berkshires, where the season's final Lee CTA matches awaited. The organization doesn't currently have any fall programs scheduled, but it will participate in Lee Founders Weekend with "Tennis on Main St." at 5 p.m Friday, Sept. 14; a tennis carnival and tournament from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 15; and a vintage wooden tennis racket tournament for adults from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 16.
By 7 p.m., Lahey was back in her bus seat. A long trip home loomed, but there was a sense of calm about her.
"For me," she had said of tennis earlier, "it's my meditation."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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