July 22, 2023

I learned about “levels of excellence” by watching ultimate mediocrity…through the experience of my dad being the men’s varsity tennis coach at New York University (NYU) for over 20 years.

While NYU is an academically sound place to go to college, varsity sports are just not a “thing” there (for the most part).

The fact that the campus is in the middle of Greenwich Village, a densely populated area of New York City, means that there was no real estate allocated for tennis courts when my dad coached…so every match had to be played “on the road” at campuses which had tennis courts.

Strike one on having a decent tennis team at NYU.

Then there was “recruiting” and scholarships, neither of which were happening for tennis players at NYU.

Strike two.

The resulting talent was “guys who played tennis who wanted to go to one of the most exciting universities in the greatest city on earth” (yes, I’m biased). 🙂

I guess we can call that strike three.

 lost many more matches than they won during my dad’s tenure…but I learned a valuable lesson about excellence…by embracing mediocrity.

When NYU played another inner-city rival who had home courts, with some players on modest scholarships (e.g., St. John’s University located in Queens, an outer borough of New York City), NYU would lose 9-0 most of the time.

On a good day, we’d lose 8-1, or 7-2 (there were 9 individual matches, 6 singles and 3 doubles at that time) …but we never won the overall match.

[Note: We had one player who was actually really good in the early 1970’s…he played doubles with professional tour player Vitas Gerulaitis…and he would have accounted for an occasional “point” against the likes of St. John’s…I guess that was NYU’s brush with greatness :-)]

I was shocked when I heard that “powerhouse” St. John’s went down to Princeton University in neighboring New Jersey to play a match, a suburban campus with amazing facilities, and an endowment to enable some of the most prolific tennis players (who were also top students) to receive financial aid …and they lost 9-0.

It didn’t hurt that tennis is known to be a sport for the affluent (although that has changed over the decades…a good thing)…and Princeton is known to be attended by many in the highest social stratum…so that was another built-in advantage. 🙂

Then it would be Princeton’s turn to take a road trip to the south or the west…to play schools like the University of Miami or Stanford University…and Princeton would get outclassed by those “tennis factories” (and lose 9-0 themselves).

These are schools who give hefty scholarships to potential professional players. Plus, those schools had weather working in their favor with their players playing all year round.

The reasons for the various levels of excellence can be explained…and it’s not surprising that this is the case in every profession or endeavor, not just sports.

A Broadway star beats out a Broadway understudy for a lead role…but that understudy is a superior talent compared to tens of thousands of actors and actresses throughout the world.

A 4-star restaurant in a city known for multiple 5-star restaurants beats every Diner, Drive-In and Dive on the planet (with no offense to Guy Fieri).

And so on…

I’m sure this is not some amazing epiphany for you…but it was for me in my youth watching men’s varsity tennis at NYU.

And it has stayed with me my entire life (and career).

There’s always another level to attain (or not attain) …but that shouldn’t stop you from achieving excellence within your own little slice of the world.

What I learned from my experience being a “fan” of NYU Tennis:

  • “Looking up” at greatness (i.e., excellence) is merely information to take in…not to envy…and not to put yourself down in contrast. Use it for inspiration…and never for self-destruction.
  • “Looking down” at those less fortunate or less adept (i.e., mediocrity) is something to embrace…not to “look down” with disdain or mockery…and to help those who are behind you to achieve a new level of excellence. While it may be more advantageous to “play up” in order to improve your own skills, it is equally important to “play down” (as a teacher, coach or mentor).
  • Looking straight ahead—all the time—is the winning ticket (while looking up and looking down for general guidance). Staying on course. Be in the present and control what is in your control. Always strive for best outcomes. Maybe you will never be the world’s best in everything you take on (there are so few who achieve that level of excellence) … but always be the best in the endeavors you choose. And celebrate your successes regularly.

I learned all of this being a “fan” of my dad as well, the “architect” of those underachieving and overachieving tennis teams.

They underachieved by any competitive measure, lost more than they won, were humiliated by the talent of the teams they played, and they couldn’t receive scholarships or play on home courts. Not to mention the weather in the northeast of the U.S. can be cold in the spring and fall 🙂

But they overachieved, following my dad’s lead, by always looking at what was in front of them at any moment, not worrying or feeling jealousy about what other teams “had” …and always knowing their place in the world.

Not a bad way to compete.



P.S. My dad passed away 18 years ago this August…but honoring him for his ability to be the “world’s best in his world” is what I wanted to accomplish today.

A year ago, I wrote “The pink tie that keeps on giving” as a tribute to my dad, a lifelong teacher (and now you know he was a coach as well).

Well, if you can call coaching NYU Tennis a real coaching gig. 🙂

If you haven’t read it, read it here, and let me know what you think.

About the author 

Brian Kurtz

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