Forty years ago, Kit Bryon came to town to inspire greatness in young tennis players.
By Robin Jovanovich
Forty years ago, Kit Bryon came to town to inspire greatness in young tennis players. He’d witnessed it as a member of the Rutgers men’s team in the late 1960s, especially when they played and got whacked by Princeton. He’d worked with legendary Australian coach and player Happy Hopman at Port Washington.
By the time he was in his mid-20s, he was a successful tennis teaching pro “at a sleepy club in a sleepy town,” he recalled in a recent interview. “I knew I couldn’t do what I wanted to do at a country club. I actually wanted to be in indoor tennis.”
So, he joined Rye Racquet, where he focused on strengthening the junior program for the next 20 years. Before long, he was grooming players, like Kathy Horvath and Terry Phelps, for the pros. Horvath, at one time, went on to become the No. 1 junior in the world, made it to the Top 10 of the WTA, and, in 1983, was the only player to defeat Martina Navratilova. Phelps turned pro and made it to the French Open quarterfinals in 1985.
Along with coaching the greats was a lot of time spent traveling to tournaments with them. In 1991, Byron got remarried and “didn’t want to be on the road in some godforsaken bubble over Thanksgiving anymore.”
In less than a year, he found himself on a new instructional path. “We had a pretty good general program for adults at the time, but once female players from neighboring clubs started showing up and signing up for clinics, we expanded our offerings at a fast pace.”
In 1993, Rye Racquet’s first year in the MITL (Metropolitan Interclub Tennis League), their women’s teams won three divisions. They quickly worked their way up from the bottom of the division to the top, where they remain. The 4.0 team is headed to Nationals later this month.
“We’re a real program, not a ‘hit and giggle’,” Byron remarked. “We know what team you should be on, who you should be in a clinic with. My pros and I talk about it and make it happen.”
The women on his teams have access to five clinics a week, including volley, serve, and balance programs. They play practice matches; Rye Racquet pioneered cardio tennis.
“I have 100 women who want to compete. They’re dedicated and fit. They are here for one reason: to play high-level tennis. They care. They’ve become my friends, and in the process have modified me as much as I have them,” he said musingly. “I’ve even mellowed.”
Byron goes to all his team’s matches. “Watching them play a match is very different than watching them in clinic. As a coach you’ve got to be there to see what they do differently in competitive play.”
Long the sole owner and operator of Rye Racquet, Byron has slowed down a step. He’s teaching eight, not ten, clinics a week. But he’s built one of the finest teaching facilities in the Northeast and a great support system of 18 full-time pros. Go Inagawa, director of adult programs and summer camp, started playing at Rye Racquet as a junior and returned after playing for Syracuse University. Carolyn Cruz, director of operations, played No. 1 at Cornell University. League director Hirome Inagawa plays on the MITL A team.
And Byron is back to helping a whole new generation of players. “Through the USTA QuickStart program, in which the kids start off with smaller racquets which give them better control, we’re ensuring they’ll be equipped with correct fundamentals by the time they’re 11 or 12.”
When he’s not on the court, you’ll occasionally find Byron sitting on a stool on the other side of the glass just watching the level of tennis rise for the 1,000 players who walk in the main building and the bubble every week. When he walks on court, there’s a distinct spring in his step.