The following is a chapter excerpt on Jay Berger from Sandy Harwitt’s book “The Greatest Jewish Tennis Players of All Time” (for sale here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/193755936X/ref=cm_sw_r_tw_dp_x_RIZZyb1KGTC5C
It sounds very cliched to say, but nonetheless is very true: Trying to catch up with Jay Berger is like trying to hit a moving target.
Jay is here, there and everywhere, which is not that surprising considering that since 2008 he’s served as the USTA Head of Men’s Tennis. Trying to develop talent is no easy or part-time responsibility. It was never that Berger wasn’t amenable to chat about himself, his life in tennis, and his relationship to Judiasm. It’s just he’s one guy trying to be in a multitude of places at the same time. Just watching him traverse a Grand Slam tournament with American players — pros and juniors alike — on courts peppered around the grounds is dizzying to the observer.
Finally, during a relatively mundane work week at the USTA’s Boca Raton training facility, Jay phoned, first offering apologies for being so hard to pin down, and then with the good news that he had some time to talk – right then and there.
“You’re in a car,” the question was posed, but not needed since the background noise betrayed Berger’s whereabouts. He laughed, “Yes.” The response: “Perfect, you’re a captive audience then.” Jay patiently waited as the tape system was turned on and then spent some quality time telling his story.
Jay was born in Fort Dix, New Jersey, but relocated with his family to South Florida where Jay grew up and initially facilitated his own interest in tennis.
“I started playing tennis on my seventh birthday,” said Berger, the son of a dentist. “I got $10 from my grandmother and I went out to Walmart and bought an Emerson racket. I started by hitting balls in the street with my dad.”
Berger quickly upgraded from the road in front of his house to a tennis court, playing at Center Court, a club in Sunrise, Fla., where standout doubles star Robert Seguso also played. A half year into owning that Emerson racket and Jay was taking a once-a-week tennis lesson and by eight he was starting to play 10-and-under tournaments.
“I was dropped off at the courts at eight in the morning and picked up at five o’clock,” said Berger, thinking about how he developed as a youngster. “I would just try to find people to play with. I’d just hang out at the courts at the club all day. I’d play with anyone I could find.”
Back in Berger’s time, there were so many quality juniors in South Florida alone that a player had all the competition they needed to improve while living a more traditional childhood. Part of Jay’s normal childhood routine was attending Hebrew School and being Bar Mitzvah’ed.
Of growing up, Berger said, “Judiasm was definitely part of my life and who I was.”
He remembered that his dad donated money to the Israel Tennis Center. Nowadays, however, Berger says, “Not so much,” when asked if he’s active within the Jewish community. His wife, Nadia, isn’t Jewish and they haven’t raised their four children in the religion.
“There was definitely a sense of who the other players were who were Jewish and I think there probably still is,” Berger admitted. “You know, when I see (Israeli tennis player) Dudi Sela I think he knows who I am and I know who he is — there’s definitely some recognition.”
From the time Berger was 12-years-old to throughout his pro career his main coach was Jorge Paris. But he also was fortunate enough from his mid-teens to pick the brains of tour players Brian Gottfried and Harold Solomon. Solomon would frequently hit with Berger, but it was Gottfried who would become a vital mentor and coach. Besides for Berger, Gottfried worked at the same time with Aaron Krickstein, Jimmy Arias and Greg Holmes.
“I was lucky at 16 to start training with Brian Gottfried,” Berger said. “Brian was a huge influence in my life, my pro career. I couldn’t have a better transition to the pros than with someone like Brian, who was such a consummate professional. In a different way, Harold was also an influence.”
In 1985, Berger made quite a splash in the juniors, winning the USTA Boys’ 18s Clay Court and USTA Boys’ 18s Hardcourt titles. The latter, more commonly known as Kalamazoo, comes with a special prize to the victor every year – a wildcard into the upcoming U.S. Open. Still an amateur, the No. 730th-ranked Berger, who had only ever played one pro tournament prior to the U.S. Open — losing a first-round match in Boston that summer — made great value of that U.S. Open wildcard. He journeyed to the fourth round, where he fell in four sets to Yannick Noah. To reach that fourth round, however, Berger upset Brian Teacher, the 1980 Australian Open champion, in a four-setter in the third round. The big joke about Berger at that U.S. Open was that this unknown junior and his family had to keep checking back into the swank St. Moritz Hotel on Central Park South every time he’d win his match. No other Kalamazoo champion has fared better as Berger did at that U.S. Open in the Open Era.
In today’s world, Berger would’ve probably taken that fourth-round appearance as a sign he was ready for the real world: the pros. But in those days, juniors went on to college and that’s exactly what Berger did. He enrolled at Clemson University, where he spent two years and received All-American honors before joining the pro tour.
During his career, Berger won three titles (Buenos Aires in 1986, Sao Paulo in 1988 and Charleston in 1989). He ended the 1989 season with a year-end best ranking of No. 10, enjoying a career-high ranking of No. 7 in April of 1990. His best results at the Grand Slams was reaching two quarterfinals — at the 1989 French and U.S. Opens. He also represented the United States in Davis Cup, winning both singles matches he played.
“For me, the highlight was playing Davis Cup, without a doubt,” Berger said. “That’s something I always dreamed of being part of and is one of my greatest memories. Obviously, making it to the Top 10 was something I’m not sure I ever thought I’d be able to do. Getting to the quarterfinals of a couple of Grand Slams would be some of my highlights. And getting to the semifinals at the Lipton (Key Biscayne) at home in front of friends and family was exciting.”
During his career, Berger claimed a number of victories against top players, including Mats Wilander, Pete Sampras, Michael Chang and Boris Becker. In fact, when he upset Becker 6-1, 6-1 in the Indian Wells third round, en route to the semifinals, it would turn out to be the worst defeat Becker would suffer during his stellar career.
“Really, when I look back on my career I think the thing that is nice is that I did everything I could to be the best player I could become,” Berger said. “I was known by my peers to be a great competitor, somebody who was pretty fierce on the court. You know, it’s great to be able to look back and have no regrets in the way I went about my tennis and I think that’s what it’s all about.”
Berger would be the first to admit that although he was a top 10 guy his American compatriots, such as Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, kept him from being a major focal point in the game. However, there is one notable, quirky style to his game that many fans remember clearly. Berger had a unique service motion where he did away with the normal backswing motion of a serve. When he got in position to serve, his starting point was with the racket located behind his back — almost as if he was using it as a back scratcher.
“My serve developed — the first time I ever used it I was 16-years-old and I was playing the 16-and-unders at Kalamazoo,” Berger said. “I was going to graduate high school a little bit ahead so that was the year that college coaches were going to be looking to recruit me because I was going to graduate at 17. In my first round match I pulled a muscle very badly — my chest muscles — and the only way I could’ve continued the tournament was to continue serving in a half motion. I served some of the best tennis I ever served.
“That was the first time I ever used that serve,” Berger continued. “When I went to college my first year I was having a lot of shoulder issues and I also wasn’t serving that great – it was probably the weakest part of my game. So I just decided to try the serve again and it just worked better for me so I stuck with it and never went back.”
Upon his retirement, Berger went into coaching and spent some time as a coach at the University of Miami. In 2003, he joined the USTA national coaching staff, working to help current players and assist in identifying talent for the future. Berger believed his path after playing the pros was to pursue coaching as it would fulfill his desire to give back to the game he loved.
“I find it extremely satisfying at times, sometimes not as satisfying, but overall I really enjoy what I do,” Berger said. “I do love learning about tennis. I enjoy trying to become as good as I can as a coach. I don’t feel like I go to work every day. I feel like I get to follow my passion.”
“The Greatest Jewish Tennis Players Of All Time” is a guide to the best and most influential Jewish tennis players in the history of the sport and includes features and biographies of the greatest players, stories of both break-out success and anti-Semitism. Beginning with the Italian Baron Umberto de Morpurgo in the 1920s, the book features stories such as the best German player who was prevented from playing by the Nazis, the player who competed on both the men’s and women’s tour, the only fully Jewish player to rank No. 1 in the world, and the player who was denied entry into a country to play a Women’s Tennis Association tournament—in the 21st century. This history also discusses the ways in which Jewish individuals have been instrumental behind the scenes, playing key roles in the growth of tennis into one of the world’s most popular sports. Among the 37 players featured are Dick Savitt, Brian Teacher, Ilana Kloss, Aaron Krickstein, Brad Gilbert, Julie Heldman, Amos Mansdorf, Anna Smashnova, Justin Gimelstob, Angela Buxton and Brian Gottfried. The book retails for $19.95 and is available where books are sold, including here on Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/dp/193755936X/ref=cm_sw_r_pi_dp_vl8rub1RK7P00
“Tennis does have its ‘Game, Set and Matzo’ element and I am thrilled to present them in ‘The Greatest Jewish Tennis Players of All Time,’” said Harwitt. “Each player’s personal saga will touch all tennis fans, Jewish or not, because their stories are instrumental to the history of the game. The experience writing this book was an exciting and rewarding adventure in discovering many fascinating stories.”
Harold Solomon, who is also profiled in the book, contributed the foreword to the book. “You don’t need to be Jewish to appreciate the story of any of these Jewish tennis players,” wrote Solomon. “You just have to be someone who has a curious side and likes to learn about people and how they ended up being who they are and doing what they did.”
Gottfried, the 1977 French Open singles finalist, said of Harwitt, “Who better to write a story about the lives of Jewish tennis players than someone who has ‘been there and done that.’ Sandy has been a fixture on the ATP and WTA Tour for many decades as a very knowledgeable and respected tennis journalist. My family and I have enjoyed getting to know her over the years and being included in her book has been an honor and a privilege.”
Peter Bodo of Tennis.com said, “Sandy Harwitt is a deeply experienced and well-traveled writer, which brings to this book a special stamp of authority. It isn’t just a good book about Jewish tennis players – it’s a good tennis book, period.”
U.S. Davis Cup captain and former world No. 1 Jim Courier said, “Sandy has lived and breathed the sport for years. Her detail and insight into these players personal and professional lives is both remarkable and inspiring.”
Tennis writer and historian Joel Drucker said, “Dozens of Jewish men and women have made a distinctive mark on tennis. Longstanding tennis writer Sandra Harwitt has dug deep to bring these compelling stories to life – fascinating backstories and remarkable journeys both inside and outside the lines.”
Television commentator and former player Mary Carillo said, “Sandy Harwitt is the ideal writer to bring you the lives of the people in this book. She is a true tennis “lifer” and her love and knowledge of the game has produced one remarkable story after another, about tennis players you knew, or wish you knew.”
Harwitt, a freelance sportswriter who specializes in tennis, has covered more than 70 Grand Slam tournaments for media outlets such as the Associated Press, ESPN.com, ESPNW.com, the Miami Herald, the New York Times, and Tennis magazine. She is a member of the International Tennis Writers’ Association and the Association for Women in Sports Media. She lives in Boca Raton, Florida.
Founded in 1987, New Chapter Press (www.NewChapterMedia.com) is also the publisher of “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All-Time” by Steve Flink, “The Education of a Tennis Player” by Rod Laver with Bud Collins, “Macci Magic: Extracting Greatness From Yourself And Others” by Rick Macci with Jim Martz, “Roger Federer: Quest for Perfection” by Rene Stauffer (www.RogerFedererBook.com), “The Days of Roger Federer” by Randy Walker, “Andy Murray, Wimbledon Champion: The Full Extraordinary Story” by Mark Hodgkinson, “The Secrets of Spanish Tennis” by Chris Lewit, “The Bud Collins History of Tennis” by Bud Collins, “The Wimbledon Final That Never Was” by Sidney Wood, “Acing Depression: A Tennis Champion’s Toughest Match” by Cliff Richey and Hilaire Richey Kallendorf, “Titanic: The Tennis Story” by Lindsay Gibbs, “Jan Kodes: A Journey To Glory From Behind The Iron Curtain” by Jan Kodes with Peter Kolar, “Tennis Made Easy” by Kelly Gunterman, “On This Day In Tennis History” by Randy Walker (www.TennisHistoryApp.com), “A Player’s Guide To USTA League Tennis” by Tony Serksnis, “Court Confidential: Inside The World Of Tennis” by Neil Harman, “A Backhanded Gift” by Marshall Jon Fisher, “Boycott: Stolen Dreams of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games” by Tom Caraccioli and Jerry Caraccioli (www.Boycott1980.com), “Internet Dating 101: It’s Complicated, But It Doesn’t Have To Be” by Laura Schreffler, “How To Sell Your Screenplay” by Carl Sautter, “Bone Appetit: Gourmet Cooking For Your Dog” by Suzan Anson, “The Rules of Neighborhood Poker According to Hoyle” by Stewart Wolpin among others.