Pioneers in Tennis: Seena Hamilton
Champion of Junior Tennis
Seena Hamilton didn’t know how to read a draw sheet when her son, Bryan Fineberg, became a top-ranked junior in the 12-and-under Eastern division in 1968. But that didn’t stop her from addressing his lack of local playing opportunities by founding the Easter Bowl Junior Tennis Championships that year at the Midtown Tennis Club in her native New York City.
While Hamilton’s outspoken nature and passion for promotion has made her a controversial figure over the years, her impact on junior tennis is above reproach. In its inaugural year, the Easter Bowl drew 100 juniors, such as Jimmy Connors, Harold Solomon and Dick Stockton, from 20 states. Since that time, nearly every top U.S. tennis player has competed at the now designated USTA National Spring Championship, including Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Andy Roddick, John McEnroe, Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati and Tracy Austin.
Mary Joe Fernandez, a former Top 5 pro who now commentates for ESPN, says the tournament has always been special to her. “Seena was Miss Easter Bowl, the face of the tournament for me,” says Fernandez. “She had a lot of passion for the game, and gave back a ton by promoting the sport as much as possible.”
Tennis Channel analyst Justin Gimelstob won the Easter Bowl 14s and 16s, but fell just short in his bid for the 18s title in 1994. Even as a teenager, he says he recognized that Hamilton’s “energy and passion for kids in tennis were unmatched.”
“Seena is iconic in junior tennis,” he adds. “Her spirit, conviction, self-belief and sheer will created one of the greatest and most prestigious traditions in junior tennis. She gave an unimaginable number of players the motivation and opportunity to excel and appreciate tennis.”
Now at dual sites in Palm Desert and Rancho Mirage, Calif., the Easter Bowl remains the only national championship featuring three age divisions: boys’ and girls’ 18s, 16s and 14s. In all, 768 players from 40 states, plus their family members and coaches, congregate every April for what has been called the Super Bowl of junior tennis.
Now 89 years old and suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, Hamilton remains admired for her innovations and contributions that put junior tennis on the map.
A former journalist and radio personality, she incorporated events like roundtable discussions to generate national press coverage, while negotiating hotel discounts and high-profile sponsorships. She pioneered surveys and symposiums that addressed injuries, fitness, nutrition, sports psychology, home schooling, college tennis and the pro tour. Hamilton was also determined to make the Easter Bowl a lot of fun, selecting family-oriented resorts and hosting a welcome reception, player dinner with DJ and free lunches.
Fineberg, a former tour player, took over as director of the Easter Bowl in 2007 when Hamilton’s health declined. “My mother was a forward-thinking visionary who ran the Easter Bowl like a pro tournament,” says Fineberg, who was director for six years. “She had no tolerance for injustice, and she’d lose her temper, but she did a lot for a lot of people over the years.”
In fact, Robert Kenas credits Hamilton with his start in tennis photography. While on vacation, he was casually taking photographs at Easter Bowl matches in 1984 when she encouraged him to shoot junior players because they received such little coverage. For the next five years, Kenas became a leading source of junior photos for World Tennis and other publications. With Hamilton’s coaching, he shot a portrait of her with Arthur Ashe at an Easter Bowl press conference (inset, above), which she said was her favorite photo ever taken.
Kenas says Hamilton has never gotten enough credit for her many and varied contributions to the junior game, nor to so many of the people whose careers she helped along the way. “Seena is a very unique person — smart, creative, perceptive and always candid, sometimes to her own detriment,” says Kenas. “She paved the way for what junior tennis has become.”
Marylynn Baker, a USTA referee who ran the tournament desk at the Easter Bowl for 34 years, says she would never have gone on to officiate at the US Open, Wimbledon and Olympic Games in Atlanta and Barcelona without Hamilton’s hands-on training. “She was demanding of her staff, and not an easy woman to work with at times, but I saw how she mentored the young people, the hours she put in and how hard she worked,” says Baker.
“I always said you’ll never meet a more passionate and caring person than Seena,” she adds. “I owe so much to Seena. Many of us do.”
"Pioneers in Tennis," an occasional column in RSI, draws attention to trailblazers in the sport. Have someone to suggest?
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About the Author
Cynthia Cantrell is a contributing editor of Tennis Industry magazine.