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Easter Bowl featured in Inside Tennis - (04/06/2009)

America’s top juniors return for Easter Bowl

By Steve Pratt
 
The Easter Bowl Spring Nationals return to the Rancho Las Palmas Resort in Rancho Mirage April 12-19 and like every year since 1968, the nation’s top junior tennis talent will be on display.

Chase Buchanan won the boys’ 18s and Melanie Oudin the girls’ 18s last year in Seena Hamilton’s tournament that has always served as a launching pad for America’s next great tennis players.

Just two weeks ago, Oudin led the United States Fed Cup team to a quarterfinal victory over Argentina in Surprise, Ariz. Recent winners of the Easter Bowl that are enjoying success on the professional level include Andy Roddick, Sam Querrey, Donald Young, Robby Ginepri and Ashley Harkleroad.

The tournament even has its own website for the first time and can be found at easterbowl.com where you can view old photos of the tournament and see list of all the past champions.

Hamilton is considered a pioneer in junior tennis circles and has always done innovated things to set the Easter Bowl apart from other events.

Hamilton said it was tough promoting the event at first. Then she got an idea from Gladys Heldman, the editor and publisher of World Tennis Magazine. “I was told since I couldn’t pay the best kids to play then instead I would give them airline tickets,” she said. “That is how JimmyConnors played the first Easter Bowl and we got headlines in the New York Times.”

She was one of the first to have a sports psychologist give seminars to parents and started the week with a player welcoming party. All the TV and publicity it received early on were all unique to junior tennis in the early days and she used her PR background and love of the game to create a unique atmosphere somehow making a highly competitive event fun to play.

A former author, editor and host of an all-night radio show, Hamilton was also one of the first tournament directors to get sponsors to underwrite the costs of the tournament.

There has been recent discussions by the USTA to possibly make the tournament a clay court event and move it to Florida.

USTA director of junior competition Lew Brewer said because there are more clay courts in Florida, a move might have to happen. “There are some who think American juniors would be better players if they had more competitive experiences on clay and the springtime seems to be the logical time to do that. On the other hand, there are people like Seena that think the tradition and history of America is one of hardcourt tennis. We’re taking a real hard look at that and have had some exploratory talks with Seena about it. But it would be a big thing to ask Seena to move the tournament to Florida so it could be on clay and that’s a decision that weighs heavily on us. It’s really just an idea right now and something that we have to talk more about.”

“We like where it is now,” said Hamilton’s son, Bryan Fineberg, who is taking a more active role in the major operation of the tournament this year. “It’s in an ideal location and positioned well to grow within the Rancho Mirage community. I’ve always stayed somewhat removed from the Easter Bowl. But I would like to see the legacy continue. The thought of it ending or turning into something entirely different is somewhat disturbing. My 8-year-old daughter Kelly knows this is her grandmother’s tournament and maybe it could one day be hers too.”

Moving would not be a first for the Easter Bowl, which was played in New York the first 10 years. From 1979 to 1981 it was moved to New Jersey and from 1982 to 1983 it was in Florida. In 1984 it moved to Tucson, Ariz., and from 1985 to 1994 it was moved back to Florida. In 1995 the tournament was played at the Riviera Resort in Palm Springs and then alternated between California and Florida until 2000. The past two have been played at Rancho Las Palmas.

Fineberg said Hamilton has had her run-ins with the USTA, but that is not uncommon when you’re dealing with such a big organization. “The more important the Easter Bowl became the more she had to start fitting in with the USTA framework and how they do things,” Fineberg said. “That’s not always been easy for someone like Seena who is used to thinking outside the box. At times there has been friction.”

Brewer agreed. “Seena and I have a good working relationship,” he said. “We understand each other. If every tournament director had their heart in their event like Seena has then American tennis would be much better off because she truly is concerned about the players and the event. Seena’s very passionate about this tournament.”

Fineberg made it all the way to the quarters in the 18s at the Easter Bowl in the early 1970s and went on to play the pro circuit for several years, earning wins over players in the top 100 in the world. Nerve damage to his wrist ended his playing career and Fineberg went on to spend the next 20 years directing tennis clubs. For the past 10 years, he has been involved in real estate.

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