When Rocco Cona was introduced to tennis at day camp as an 11 year old boy, he slowly became fascinated with the sport. Since that time he became a high school player, park instructor, town tennis director, college player, junior clinic instructor, early bird coordinator, country club pro, indoor club head pro, tournament player, men’s and women’s college assistant coach, country club tennis director, USTA volunteer, Junior Tennis Cup Men’s Coach, junior and adult tournament director, boys and girls high school coach, National USTA Doubles Champion, tennis convention speaker, director of tennis, director of operations, club owner and most proudly – tennis professional. There is not a facet of this sport that he has not at some point in his career that he has not been involved with.
Rocco was born and raised in the city of Deer Park on Long Island in New York. He graduated from Deer Park High School in 1979 where he played varsity tennis for all 4 years, the last 3 at #1 singles. He was not an accomplished player at that time but got to play and was exposed to many top players and he knew that with practice and dedication he could someday become a top flight player. It was a long process. He first began taking lessons and clinics at the Deer Park Racquet Club and his first pro, Rey Garrido soon suggested that he should try to be accepted into the Port Washington Tennis Academy, a prominent junior factory that helped produce many of the top junior players in the New York area including John McEnroe, Vitas Gerulaitis and Patrick McEnroe. The tennis director at the Academy, Bob Binns, Jr. was from Cleveland and played college tennis at Columbia. Bob was friends with Tom Katousky, the new coach at Kent State who was looking for players. Bob recommended to Tom to take a chance on a young man who was very athletic but had limited tournament and high level experience but felt would improve quickly. Rocco visited the campus, loved the school and soon accepted an athletic scholarship to Kent. While at Kent State Rocco played 5th singles and 3rd doubles as a freshman while trying to learn about this new level of play. It was quite an eye opening experience but because of experienced upper classmen like Chris Moore, Kevin O’Connell, Tony Debo, Chuck Kotyk and especially Len Simard he began to improve quickly. Before his junior season, new coach Andy Wiles (North Canton Racquet Club), took over the Kent program and was really making improvements to take the team to the next level. Unfortunately, due to budget cuts, the team was cancelled following the 1982 season. The University of Akron was the first to inquire about finishing his career there. Head Coach Dave Bard asked about red-shirting the first year there, help recruit some players, finish most of his required classes and have a big time last year of college tennis. With the help of new players Francois Poirer, Marty Junor, Sanj Kalra, Aaron Mulrooney and fellow Kent State transfer and good friend Bill Kohut, the Akron Zips had the best results in program history, finishing second in the Ohio Valley Conference behind Murray State. The college tennis experience remains the highlight of his playing career because of the team concept. “Team” always was more important than “individual” because requires the players to conform and sacrifice to accomplish a greater goal.
Rocco graduated from the University of Akron with a degree in Secondary Education (Social Studies) in 1984. He did his student teaching at Cuyahoga Falls High School and to this day remembers the valuable lessons he learned from his teacher Myron VanDerlin during that time. If he was leaning toward being a teacher before, that experience solidified his desire to teach where his passion was: tennis.
Rocco’s tennis teaching began in the summer of 1978 where he worked as an instructor for the town of Babylon Parks and Recreation Department. His boss, Michal Glass, gave him many important teaching ideas and concepts that he still to this day continues to incorporate into his teaching philosophy. That philosophy was basically to make sure the fundamental were stressed, build a good foundation from the footwork up, multiple repetitions and respect for the game. “Many people have come before you teaching tennis and you need to make them proud!” For two summers he worked at Babylon and in 1980 he took over the position of Director of all the Parks and Recreation Tennis Complexes; 7 parks with courts, all the physical facilities and a staff of 8 instructors. He did that for three summers.
While in college at Kent State in the fall of 1979, Rocco first met Ted Sawyer, the Head Pro at Parkview Racquet Club (now LaTuchie Tennis Center) in Stow, Ohio. He was told that some of the Kent State players would go to Parkview to help Ted with junior clinics on Saturday afternoons. From that time, Rocco assisted or taught some junior or adult clinics there. In the summer of 1983, Rocco became the pro at Twin Lakes Country Club in Kent, Ohio while also working the early bird program at Parkview. Upon graduation from the University of Akron in 1984 and Ted accepting the position as Tennis Director at Westwood Racquet Club in Richmond, Virginia, Rocco was appointed the Head Pro at Parkview in May, 1984, a position he held until April of 1987. In 1985 Rocco also became the Tennis Director at Fairlawn Country Club in Akron, Ohio and stayed there for 21 summers when Ted Sawyer took his position in 2006. In July 1987 Rocco began teaching at Springside Racquet Club, later to be known as Springside Racquet and Fitness Club, and in 2001 became the Managing Partner, Director of Operations and Tennis Director, a position he maintains today.
Rocco began his coaching career at the University of Akron upon graduating in 1984. He was the assistant coach for the men’s program 1984-1993 and when Head Coach Dave Bard took over the women’s program, they swapped back and forth between the two programs for 2 seasons. In 1993 Rocco accepted the position of as Head Coach at Walsh Jesuit High School, at the time a boy’s only school. When the school went co-ed, he also became the girls coach for their second season of play. He still coaches both teams with the girls having won 3 state championships (2002, 2006 and 2009) and a 3rd place finish (1995). The boys finished 4th in the state in 2008. During that time there have been many state qualifies in singles and doubles with many of them placing in the top four in the state.
Rocco also coached for four years the Junior Davis Cup Men’s Team for Northeast Ohio which consisted of college players and also coached and captained the Midwest Intersectional Men’s Team for two years consisting of players from various age groups, 25 through75 years of age.
Rocco has been recognized during his career as “Coach of the Year” multiple times by the Akron Beacon Journal, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Akron Touchdown Club and the Dapper Dan Club for his teams and individuals achievements.
Rocco played 4 years of varsity tennis at Deer Park High School (New York), twice earning MVP honors. At Kent State he played 3 years varsity before playing his final season at the University of Akron in 1984. He was the MVP of that team, too. The team set record for wins and finishing second in the Ohio Valley Conference that year. Beginning in 1983, Rocco won 17 Akron District Tennis Association titles including 5 singles, 6 men’s doubles and 6 mixed doubles titles and never lost a match during that tournament’s existence. In 1983 the Parkview USTA 5.5 team won NEW, Ohio and Midwest titles before losing in the Regional Finals in Minneapolis by 1 set. In 2000 the Men’s 5.0 team from Springside Racquet and Fitness Club won the NEO, Ohio, Midwest titles and qualified for the Nationals in Palm Springs.
In NEO Rocco has been ranked #1 in singles, doubles, mixed doubles, 35 singles and 35 doubles many times. He has won over 125 sanctioned tournaments in various categories. Until 2008 he was still competing in doubles events. Through the years he competed in doubles tournaments with many partners including John Dister, Scott Stewart, John Treml, Steve Mazak, Neil Carpenter, Jack Archer, Eric Schott, Alan Walker, Matt Howard, Ted Sawyer, Tom Coulton, Tim Morgan, Sanj Kalra, Beth Schaefer and Barb Burzinski. Of special note, there are a few players who he has had memorable tournaments and matches with. Barb Beattie was a frequent mixed doubles partner and together they won the Kidel Cup in 1983 in Youngstown and played a qualifier for the US Open in New York. Tim Brueggeman and Rocco played many local tournaments together and in 1999 played the National 35 Grass Court on Long Island, losing in 3 sets in the final after being up a set and a break. Rocco’s teammate at Kent State and Akron University, Bill Kohut also was a frequent partner and for many years they formed a great partnership both on and off the court. The biggest and most prestigious tournament results came with a partnership with Ohio State University player Ernie Fernandez. Rocco and Ernie won 2 national titles together (National 35 Clay Courts, National 40 Indoors) and 1 runner-up (National 35 Clay Courts). In addition to the two gold ball and 1 silver ball, they also competed in the Naples Invitational (semifinalist- lost to Peter Doohan and Pat Serret) qualified for the Nuveen Senior Tournament at New Albany Country Club in Columbus where they lost in 3 sets to John Lloyd and Mel Purcell. Ernie was a fantastic partner whose skills were overwhelming. Those were memorable experiences. The partner that Rocco played the most matches and tournaments with was Greg Prevette. Rocco and Greg played many tournaments together for a lot of years and experienced many highs and a few lows. There were ranked #1 in NEO at least 5 times during a long span. The fun and excitement of tournament tennis made the profession of tennis pro and instructor very rewarding because of the competition and recreating the uncertainty of match play that his students deal with. It made him a better pro and teacher. It is difficult to teach unless you been in the pressure-cooker of a match.
Rocco has had many top professionals work with him at his clubs over the years. Great tennis people such as: Greg Aten, Greg Prevette, Bernie Frost, Ted Sawyer, Beth Winquist, Mike Hobbs. Ernie Fernandez and Paula Howard. All have or are still contributing greatly to the sport of tennis and to Springside. But none have been as committed or been with Rocco as long as Springside’s Head Pro, Matt Howard. Rocco has known Matt since he has been a young man (10th grade) and has worked at Fairlawn County Club or Springside more or less since he’s been 18. His dedication and devotion to his students, Springside and the profession of Tennis has been overwhelming. He and his wife Paula have helped put Springside Racquet and Fitness Club where is today. Another integral part of our operation is Alan Walker. Alan is a superb tennis professional as a teacher, tournament director, Walsh Coach and confidante. We are very lucky to have such a fine teaching staff.
Rocco would also like to recognize some staff from his Fairlawn Country Club day. Fantastic customer service was always achieved with people like Bobby Davies, Scott Stewart, Matt Gsellman, Lisa Brenner, Lisa Maroscher, Greg Prevette, Bernie Frost, Matt Howard, Mark Riccio, Neal Desai, Nehal Desai, Keith Varian, Doug Varian, Kareem Gaheed, Kellie O’Hara, Denise Smith, Ted Sawyer, Krista Stepanik and many others. But 3 special people need to be recognized: Mike Kropko, Scott Kropko and Chris Petit. They were the heart and soul of that tennis complex for many years. They went above and beyond the call of duty to make the tennis experience there beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. I’m forever grateful to them for their hard work, dedication and loyalty.
Another important person in this story is the friendship, partnership and coaching partner I’ve had with Ron Gander. His steady influence, advice and passion for this sport have helped me strive to be better all the time. I will always learn from him and his wife Carol. They give much more than they take.
My Springside staff is fantastic and the journey we’ve all taken has been a great ride. We are family that has gone through the ups and downs of both personal and professional situations. We are very lucky to have the staff we do. Larry, Stella, Sue, Steve, Charles, Ernee, Jeanne, Maryann, Leigh Ann and all the others care about our members and each other. I’m especially indebted to Val Murphy for her loyalty, expertise at many levels, commitment, devotion and passion to her job. She is the heart of Springside and I am forever grateful.
OVERALL TENNIS PHILOSOPHY
- A player should be taught the fundamentals and be comfortable with them before teaching them more advanced technique and tactics. The goal is to build a player that will play tennis for a lifetime.
- Tennis is not supposed to be easy. Improvement comes with hard work, dedication and repetition. Quick answers to tennis problems don’t usually last.
- Playing on a team requires the individual to sacrifice self for the better of the team. Sometimes that will work in your favor, sometimes it will not. You will enjoy this sport of a lifetime if you come to this realization!
- Every time you set foot on a tennis court you will have a new experience. Most of these will be positive. When a negative one happens, learn from it and go forward. Don’t dwell on the past, look forward to the future!
- Competitive tennis can often bring out the best in people and can be quite rewarding. It’s best to be humble in victory and quiet in defeat.
- In junior tennis and high school tennis, let the child go through the ups and downs of this sport. There are important life lessons. Never talk to them about their match until they ask you. It’s their tennis, not yours!
- Judge improvement every six months, no change that will last happens that quick. Change can be difficult!