Most tennis fans know that Nick Bollettieri founded an iconic academy and has mentored such all-time greats as Monica Seles, Jim Courier, Andre Agassi, Marcelo Rios and Venus and Serena Williams.
But from where did the legend gain his knowledge?
Some if it was passed on by none other than longtime Hamilton resident Paul Napolitano, who passed away Nov. 28 at age 97.
“I’m really saddened by his loss and he was certainly a trailblazer,” Mercer County Community College tennis coach Mark Vecchiolla said. “He paved the way for guys like me to do what I love to do, day in and day out as far as establishing tennis here and just being a great role model.”
A member of the Mercer County Tennis Hall of Fame, Napolitano had a massive bearing on county tennis players, having taught at the Hamilton Tennis Center (now Iceland skating rink), Trenton Country Club and Hopewell Valley Tennis & Swim Club. His reach went far beyond that, however, as it sifted down to the aforementioned greats through Bollettieri.
Bill Mountford, the former Director of Tennis at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and a former executive for Great Britain’s Lawn Tennis Association, is friends with Bollettieri and worked alongside Napolitano. He is quick to point out the thread that runs from Napolitano to players like Agassi.
“In terms of the impact Paul had on people through his coaching, there definitely were some great ripples from that,” Mountford said. “When you think about him coaching Nick Bollettieri, it’s more like a gusher than a ripple.”
Bollettieri played singles on the Spring Hill College team in Alabama, where Paul served as head coach for 11 years.
“I remember Mr. Napolitano sharing all the stories about Nick, and through my adulthood Nick and I had become friends,” Mountford said. “Nick always remembers and speaks so fondly of Mr. Napolitano.
“One of the things that was funny is Nick’s recollections were slightly different than Mr. Napolitano’s,” Mountford added with a laugh. “But I think you could argue Mr. Napolitano had a great impact, not only locally but internationally. His imprints were on a very young, impressionable Nick Bollettieri, whose fingerprints are pretty much on everyone and everything in tennis.”
Closer to home, Napolitano was accorded the same legendary status that his former pupil receives on the international stage.
His beginnings were the epitome of humble, as Paul taught himself to play tennis by watching others at Columbus Park in Chambersburg. He became the first great example of his teaching ability, as Napolitano is widely regarded as the second best player to come out of the Trenton area behind Eddie Moyland.
He won a city midget title in 1932 and back-to-back Trenton junior boys titles in 1940-41. There were also six Trenton city singles championships and one doubles title, not to mention matches with and against such notables as Bobby Riggs and Pancho Gonzalez.
A standout for Trenton Central High, Napolitano attended Spring Hill on a scholarship for tennis and basketball. World War II interrupted his schooling as he went into the Navy and fought battles in Iwo Jima, Okinawa and Midway from 1943-46.
After an honorable discharge, he returned to Spring Hill on the GI Bill and continued to play sports while earning a degree in commerce. He won various singles and doubles regional and Middle States championships in 1948 and 1949, while coaching at Spring Hill. In 1959, Napolitano and wife Mary Frances returned north to the Langtree section of Hamilton, where they would raise a son, Art, and daughters Debra and Teri.
Upon his return, Paul got a master’s degree at Temple and began a 31-year career in the guidance department at Lenape High School, serving as head of department his final 17 years. He also embarked on a teaching career and became the teaching pro at Trenton (1959-72), Hamilton (1973-89) and Hopewell (1989-1997). During that time he spawned several generations of successful local players.
“The first time I remember coming across him was when my family had a membership at Hamilton Tennis Club,” recalled Vecchiolla, a 1987 Steinert grad who lived in Napolitano’s neighborhood as a kid. “I went over one day and saw him giving outdoor lessons and I walked into the indoor center. The locker room was just a regular tennis locker room, except for a wooden seat in front of one of the lockers that had a plate on it. It said ‘Reserved for the Dean of Tennis Paul Napolitano.’ I was nine or 10 years old and I thought, “Huh, I guess I should start paying attention when this guy is around.”
Vecchiolla never took a lesson from The Dean, but his dad, Tony, was a long-time golfing buddy with Napolitano, who carded a hole-in-one at Mountainview at age 77. As the story goes, it was a foggy day and Paul never saw it go in the cup, but discovered his achievement once he started to look for his ball.
And while Vecchiolla regretfully never took a class with Napolitano, the coach still took an interest in his career.
“When I came home from college he asked my parents if I would want an extra tennis net he had,” Vecchiolla said. “I was like, ‘Wow! Paul Napolitano is gonna give me his tennis net!’ I picked it up at his house and was thinking, ‘Wow I’m gonna find some use for this.’”
Ah, but the best laid plans…
“It sat in my parents basement for years until they finally sold their house,” Vecchiolla said, chuckling. “I had big dreams of putting it up in my backyard, that never materialized though.”
Mountford first met Napolitano as a little kid when Paul taught at Trenton. Bill’s father organized some private lessons for his son, which he still remembers.
“I thought he had a real good sense about how to work with students,” Mountford said. “I remember distinctly one time when I hit a serve and he wasn’t looking and he thought it really sounded good. I thought that was pretty interesting. You’d have to be a pretty good player to make a comment like that. And in hindsight he was right. I did go on to have a really big serve.”
That serve developed some flaws when Mountford was playing in men’s open tournaments, but Napolitano came to the rescue.
“He gave me 30 minutes of his time,” Mountford said. “He just came out and watched me for a little while. He made a couple suggestions that really helped. He had a very keen eye for it.”
It was typical, as Vecchiolla noted “he never inserted himself in situations but was always happy to help if asked.”
Paul’s wisdom also helped his son become one of the greatest soccer players in Steinert history. Art is in the Steinert and Mercer County Soccer halls of fame, had a hat trick in Steinert’s 1973 state title win, and scored the game-winning goal for Hartwick College in the 1977 NCAA championship game.
“My dad taught me the importance of having the ability to block out distractions and to create your goal and do everything in your power to achieve that goal,” Art said. “He instilled in me that you only have a short amount of time to achieve your athletic goals and everything else will fall into place as you get older.”
Art took that advice to heart, but didn’t realize how big his dad was in tennis circles until he watched him team up with a legend.
“It’s when I saw my dad play an exhibition doubles match in Cadwalader Park that I began to see his importance to the tennis community,” Art said. “He played in an inaugural match under the lights that were installed at Cadwalader Park and his partner was Bobby Riggs. A couple of years later we saw the Battle of the Sexes on TV with Bobby Riggs playing against Billie Jean King.”
Ann LoPrinzi, Mercer County’s pre-eminent local tennis writer and a member of the Hall of Fame committee, never saw Napolitano play but wrote enough about him to understand his hallowed status.
“I got to talk to him numerous times,” LoPrinzi said. “He was just a really good guy. Everybody knew him as a great player. I didn’t know him personally so I never saw him play. I heard about him and at that time he was teaching. A lot of people loved taking lessons from him, they thought he was great. I just know what I heard, and people loved him.”
Count Mountford as one of those people. Now living in Connecticut and serving as Senior Director of Racquets at Chelsea Piers Connecticut, Mountford had the privilege of working with Napolitano at Hopewell for eight years.
“It was the latter end of his career and he would only come in a couple hours a day or a couple days a week, but it was a delight to work with him and get to talk to him every day,” Mountford said. “He was certainly a very good coach. As a player, even as he was older he hit the ball beautifully and he moved well. He was only 5-8, 5-9, but he hit the ball really hard for a kind of smaller guy.”
His tennis playing put him in the public eye. But more than anything, Napolitano will be warmly remembered for the kind of man he was.
“He wasn’t a very over-the-top guy,” Mountford said. “He was very humble, sort of modest about his capabilities and results. He was really a wonderful man. He was certainly a good player and a real gentleman.”
Vecchiolla heartily agreed, stating “The biggest thing is the way he carried himself. He had such a respect for the history of the game. He was very, very knowledgeable about a lot of things but he had no ego whatsoever.
“As great as he was in tennis, the type of person he was is even more remarkable.”