“You should probably check out that small boy over on Court 8,” said Seena Hamilton, founder and director of the Easter Bowl. I am paraphrasing. It might not have been Court 8. But I duly trotted over to check him out.
Actually, if you knew Seena Hamilton, you also know that I had no choice. Seena was feared and revered and, ultimately, appreciated and loved. She died last August at age 92.
The small boy in question looked to be rather good. He was beating bigger, older boys. He was skinny, with curly dark hair and a rather good serve. His name was Pete Sampras.
This was the kind of thing that happened at the Easter Bowl, the premier mid-season tournament for the best —and aspiring best — junior tennis players from across the U.S. You stumbled upon someone quite talented. A few years later, they won Wimbledon.
The Easter Bowl was Seena’s creation and it was the only national junior tournament that offered competitions for boys and girls in the 12-, 14-, 16- and 18-and-under age divisions at the same time, at the same site.
One year, possibly the same year as the tiny Sampras sighting, another gangly youth played, and won, a gruelling marathon match with the same set of tennis balls throughout. Perhaps the umpire had been so riveted by the emerging talent of David Wheaton he forgot to call for new balls. Both players apparently forgot, too.
Seena was one of the first people my new boss, Gene Scott, made sure I met when I started in 1979 as editor of his then weekly, later “fortnightly” tennis publication, Tennis Week.
I was duly forewarned. Be nice. Get on her good side.
Tennis Week produced an Easter Bowl special issue and Seena read every word. Before it went to press. She had a background in journalism and she knew the trade well. She held the bar up high and you jumped.
What became rather rapidly obvious, however, was that if you wrote well and reported fairly, you were a star in Seena’s book. Her reputation as a tough taskmaster masked her good heart and was in any case a necessity to get the business side of the event to work. Work it did, and so did you the minute you turned up at the Easter Bowl.
The reward of course was that you could later brag about how, “Oh yes, I could have told you Pete Sampras would be a superstar; I saw him at 12 at the Easter Bowl,” even if you hadn’t actually clocked then quite what a mega-talent you were previewing.
It was a bit like getting an annual sneak preview screening of a later Oscar winner. Everyone played the Easter Bowl. Seena is gone but it’s still going. It’s on right now. Just as she intended.
(The Easter Bowl celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, which brings back fond memories of Hamilton for many closely involved with the tournament through the years.
Linda Pentz Gunter is a familiar name to many through her 20 years as a tennis reporter and columnist, and as the longtime editor of Tennis Week. She also appeared as a television commentator on the USA Network and Prime Ticket.)