Lee and Reilly Fitzgibbons lost the finals of the First Niagara Family Classic to Ruthanne and Jack Rothman of Old Saybrook Thursday at the New Haven Open, but they left the court feeling like winners.
“Regardless of the outcome, I’m lucky to have the chance to play tennis with Reilly,” said Lee, a Killingworth resident. “I never get mad at Reilly on the court and I tell her never to say ‘sorry’ because no one has a perfect game. You can only go out there and try your best.”
Lee and Reilly lost 8-1 to the Rothmans in the finals of the parent/child tournament, which was moved indoors to Yale’s Cullman courts due to rain.
Anchored by Jack Rothman, 14, a lanky incoming sophomore who played No. 1 singles for Old Saybrook High School last spring, the Rothmans took a quick lead and never let up, though the match featured some spirited baseline rallies between Reilly and Jack.
“Jack was tough,” Lee said. “He didn’t miss his shots and the spin on his ball was difficult to handle. But I’m glad we played a team like them who hit and played hard. We’ve got a lot to work on over the next several months, but we will be back next year.”
The road to the Family Classic began 40 years ago for Lee, now 45, a Branford native who began playing tennis at age five after her father took up the game when he quit smoking.
Her mother also played, making the game a family affair, but Lee said her main rival on the court was her father, who never let up playing against her.
She still smiles when she recalls beating him for the first time at age 14 -- a sweet day for her and a bittersweet one for him.
“My father always played his hardest against me and I don’t think he liked that I beat him one bit,” she said.
Lee was on the tennis team at Hamden Hall and played at Worcester State University, where she had the distinction of playing on both the women’s and men’s teams.
When the women’s team failed to get enough players during her junior year, she asked the athletic director if she could play on the men’s team. She played third and fourth singles that year, amassing a winning record against her male opponents.
“I’ve always played with men,” Lee said. “I’ve always loved playing with them and against them. I still do.”
When Lee decided to join a clinic at Guilford Racquet & Swim Club about 20 years ago, she was put in with one of the top hard-hitting men’s groups.
Today, she is still the only woman who regularly trains with men at the club, though she said it is much easier to find women who play at her level today.
Guilford club owner Sarah Boone said Lee has a comfort level playing with men that most women lack.
“A lot of women are intimidated by men, but she’s not,” Boone said.
Though she plays up to four times a week during the summer at Madison Racquet & Swim Club, Lee will scale back her play in the fall, when she returns as a second grade teacher at Mary R. Tisko School in Branford, where she has taught for 22 years.
Meanwhile, Reilly is gearing up to become a member of the varsity team at Haddam-Killingworth High School, where she will be a freshman along with her twin brother Patrick.
Reilly, who began playing tennis at age four, went to the Nationals in Arizona last fall with the Madison club, finishing with a 3-2 winning record.
Though she admits she suffers from “anxiety attacks” during warm-ups, she said she calms down once play begins. When she was younger, she often let up on opponents because she didn’t want to be too aggressive and she “wanted to make friends.”
Today, she plays every day and is working on both the mental and physical aspects of the game.
“Playing at Madison Racquet has given me a competitive edge because the kids on my team are so talented and work so hard,” Reilly said. “Playing with them wants me to take my game to the next level. It gives me the drive to improve.”
Reilly’s coach, Dawn Fagerquist of Clinton, said she’s not surprised that Lee and Reilly reached Thursday’s finals, noting their tennis game is a reflection of their relationship off the court.
“They’ve got great chemistry and a great bond and they share a love of the game,” Fagerquist said. “Lee is very supportive of Reilly, but she supports what I say to Reilly while coaching her. Reilly is such a great kid to coach. She’s very mature, disciplined and is like a mini adult. She’s got a great work ethic and always gives 110 percent. She’s very determined and will take a negative and turn it into a positive.”
The two also share a good sense of humor. When Lee observed that they get along so well because Reilly is not a rebellious teen-ager, Reilly quipped, “That’s what you think.”
The Rothmans are equally at ease on the court with each other, in part due to Jack’s laid-back personality, Ruthanne said.
“He’s so mellow and easy-going that it’s really nice to play with him,” said Ruthanne, who took up the game about 10 years ago when her children were young.
Today, she and Jack play out of Old Saybrook Racquet Club, where Ruthanne coaches the USTA junior tennis teams, which recently won the States in the 18-and-under Advanced division and the 14-and-nder Intermediate division.
She is also coach of the girls’ tennis team at Old Saybrook High School.
Jack, who had a 13-3 record at No. 1 singles last spring, said he leaves the pre-match jitters to his mother, but noted they are a strong team because they know each other so well.
It’s not hard to communicate with her and it’s nice to play with someone you live with under the same roof."