Gustavson Column: Saying goodbye to a 35-year tradition

Chris Ujkic won his eighth straight men's singles title in the Bob Wall Memorial Tennis Tournament. (Credit: Garret Meade)
Chris Ujkic won his eighth straight men’s singles title in the Bob Wall Memorial Tennis Tournament this summer. (Credit: Garret Meade)

All things must pass
All things must pass away.
George Harrison

It is with profound regret that I announce the demise of the Bob Wall Memorial Summer Tennis Tournament. It has been a staple of North Fork summers for more than 35 years now, but time and the grayification (that’s not a real word, is it?) of our community have finally taken their toll. 

Most of the final matches of the tournament were contested this past weekend, and the results had a familiar ring to them. Former Mattituck High School tennis ace Chris Ujkic won his eighth consecutive men’s singles title along with two doubles titles, raising his nine-year total to 25 Wall Tournament championships.

Skeptics might suggest that Ujkic’s dominance in the tournament has discouraged others from entering, but overall entries in all categories, not just men’s open singles, had fallen to the point where tournament director Jim Christy literally had to beg players to enter in recent summers in order to field a tournament.

The begging is over. But not the memories.

In the beginning, what was known as the Orient Tennis Tournament had its birth on Don and Peg Stephenson’s clay court on Birds Eye Hill in Orient in 1978. It was an intimate affair at first, and I believe a comparatively ancient Horace Terry defeated a comparatively youthful Lee Fitting in that first men’s singles final.

The following year, the tournament moved a few hundred yards uphill to a clay court belonging to Jack and Margaret Stern. And there it thrived for about a decade, eventually expanding to include women’s singles and all three doubles events — men’s, women’s and mixed. (I remember those early years somewhat painfully because my friend Joe Townsend Jr. defeated me, year after year, in the men’s singles final. Eventually, I actually won the tournament one year, but not until it had changed venues to the North Fork Country Club. After that, the finals were moved to Tasker Park in Peconic.)

Somewhere in those early years, the tournament came to be known by the acronym A.O.R.T.A — as in All Orient Racquet and Tennis Association — and came under the direction of Orient resident Bob Wall Sr., who passed away unexpectedly a few years later and after whom the tournament was renamed. And a few years after that, a portion of the proceeds from the tournament were directed to assist with the rehabilitation of Bob’s son, Robert Wall Jr., who was paralyzed in a diving accident.

More recently, once the tournament started to be sponsored by Times/Review Newsgroup of Mattituck, all proceeds have been used to support an unrestricted gift to local high school graduates who played varsity tennis. (DISCLOSURE: In recent years, the majority of gifts has gone to graduates of Mattituck High School, but that’s only because coaches and athletes from that school took a greater interest in the tournament than their counterparts from other area schools.)

Ujkic has not been the only dominant player over the years. Amagansett resident Dahlia Ferrando Aman won the women’s singles title at least 10 times, and Riverhead High School star Steve Paskiewicz took home the men’s singles title eight times, including a memorable 2006 final in which he defeated an upstart 17-year-old high school phenom by the name of Chris Ujkic, who was forced to retire due to heat prostration, with Mr. Paskiewicz leading, 6-1, 3-0.

For all I know, that was the last time Chris Ujkic ever lost a tennis match.

No elegy to the Bob Wall Tournament would be complete without acknowledging the myriad contributions of longtime tournament directors Mr. Christy and Bob Feger of Greenport, or the tens of thousands of dollars in gifts and services donated by the scores of local businesses that have supported the event over the years — not the least among them, in fairness, being Times/Review.

Like the Great North Fork Foot Race before it, the Bob Wall Memorial Summer Tennis Tournament had a great three-plus-decades run and provided a meaningful local forum for gauging the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

And now it, too, must pass.

That said, wouldn’t it be nice if the growing number of senior (that is, 50 and older) tennis players out here would pick up the pieces and organize some sort of age-appropriate league or summer tournament? From the looks of the drop-in scene at Tasker Park and the pick-up games at Peconic Landing, such a scenario is not entirely out of the question.

Tennis, anyone?

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