Service game: Tennis ace helps sick kids
Published 3:55 pm, Thursday, August 2, 2012
For the past week and a half, tennis standout Danny Hirschberg experienced a thrill he said exceeded winning any match.
And in this service game, he had no use for a racket.
The former Staples star and rising sophomore at Brown University finally was old enough to serve as a counselor at The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in rural northeastern Connecticut, where his father, Andy, has volunteered for the past seven years.
Founded in 1988 by the late Paul Newman, the camp in Ashford is a community that, according to its website, helps provide "a different type of healing" to children and their families coping with cancer, sickle cell anemia and other serious illnesses.
In addition to the summer sessions and family weekend programs in Ashford, the camp serves more than 20,000 children and family members annually with year-round outreach programs at hospitals and clinics in the Northeast.
"That was one of the best experiences I've ever had in my life," said Hirschberg, who plans to return next summer. "I wish I could have stayed longer."
The 2011 Connecticut high school singles champ cracked Brown's regular lineup as a freshman, but Hirschberg's summer has not been dominated by tennis. Before attending the camp, he put his Staples diploma to good use by working in New York for two months. In July, he was named an Intercollegiate Tennis Association scholar-athlete.
"Tennis is one of my focuses but not my only focus right now," he said.
Still, with the fall season less than two months away, Hirschberg is back to training on a daily basis. This weekend, he will be playing in a doubles tournament in New York involving former top professionals and high-level college players.
Next week, he will be participating in a men's open tournament in Fairfield. One of the players taking part is Harvard sophomore-to-be Alex Steinroeder. Before they went off to college, he and Hirschberg were ranked 1-2 in the under-18s in New England.
Hirschberg made Brown's starting lineup as a freshman, going 10-9 while playing at the fifth and sixth singles.
Fitting into a college program was a major adjustment after dominating at Staples, where he rarely lost a match, earned all-American honors and won two Class LL state singles championships.
He also had to get used to 2-1/2-hour practices at Brown and 7 p.m. weightlifting sessions. The Wreckers generally practiced about an hour a day and had no formal weight program.
"Division I tennis is totally different than high school," he said. "Every match is a battle. In high school I had maybe two or three tough matches."
Hirschberg instantly recalled the highlight of his freshman season at Brown. It came in the ECAC indoor championships in February when he won the deciding match in the semifinals as sixth-seeded Brown upset No. 2 Cornell, 4-3. Hirschberg's teammates got a little carried away celebrating the victory.
"When I won the match, my teammates rushed the court and tackled me before I could shake (the Cornell player's) hand," he said.
During the celebratory scrum, Hirschberg jammed his thumb and couldn't play in the final, which top seed Harvard won, 4-1.
According to Hirschberg, Brown coach David Schwarz wasn't too pleased.
Still, the Bears enjoyed a solid 17-7 season and finished 50th in the College Tennis Online ranking, not bad given that Brown and the other Ivies don't give athletic scholarships.
Hirschberg is excited about the upcoming season because the Bears graduated no seniors. Last year's team comprised mostly freshmen and sophomores.
Schwarz said it's too early to project where Hirschberg might fit into the lineup as a sophomore, though.
Hirschberg suspects it probably will be back at the No. 5 spot.
"He has to be able to raise his game to another level if he is going to beat these guys on the national level," Schwarz said in a telephone interview. "It's a strong program, and he's a major contributor. We hope he continues to improve."
While Hirschberg feels his forehand has gotten better, he will be spending the next month working on his serve.
"My serve is probably the weakest part of my game," he said. "It's something I can easily improve for the fall season in the next month."
The fall season, which focuses on individual tournaments, begins with the Brown Invitational on Sept. 16. But Hirschberg knows the results of a tennis match aren't life and death, not after his recent experience with sick children.
"It really puts things into perspective," he said.
Bob Birge is a freelance writer.