Ben Shapiro fell in love with college tennis during the recruiting process while he was at Scarsdale High School, so much so that he realized he could help make the Raiders more of a team on and off the court.
“It was a good preview of college tennis,” Shapiro said. “As I started looking at colleges and seeing what college tennis is about where you cheer on your teammates and how it’s high energy, I started to do that more in high school. I have good memories of that.”
After a successful four-year collegiate career in which he rose to No. 1 singles and doubles and won 116 total matches at University of Rochester, 24-year-old Shapiro, three years after graduating, remains involved in the sport he’s love since age 5.
After a part-time gig as an assistant — working full-time hours, of course — with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Shapiro was hired as the graduate assistant at Wesleyan, where he was the full-time men’s and women’s assistant to Mike Fried the last two years. He will return again this month, with the women’s team the defending Division III NCAA champions and the men’s team having made the quarterfinals.
The Wesleyan women finished 20-2, 8-1 NESCAC, and won the NESCAC tournament 5-2 over Middlebury. Wesleyan won the first three matches of the NCAA tournament, dropping only two matches, and took No. 1 Emory and No. 2 Claremont-Mudd-Scripps, the defending champs, 5-4 in the semifinals and finals. At fourth singles, Polna Kiseleva defeated Sydney Lee 6-2, 4-6, 6-2 to seal the narrow victory.
“I just tried to take it in and appreciate it,” Shapiro said. “For me I felt like it was two years of hard work to get there, so I can’t even imagine for Mike, who has been doing this much longer starting from scratch and all the players that have been working on their tennis a really long time. It’s cool to see the satisfaction everyone got and deserved.”
Fried called the women’s team’s build an “ever-changing recipe of ingredients that came together in just the right way.” It includes the right recruits, willingness to buy in and sacrifice toward a common goal, and good support from the college academically and athletically. “And a good chunk of luck,” he added.
While the head coach oversees the program, the assistant coach’s role really depends on the strengths of the assistant. It can be that they are great on the court, off the court, with the mental game, tactics, recruiting, motivation, you name it. “It’s always evolving,” Fried said.
With Shapiro he got the whole package.
“One of his biggest strengths is his versatility — he can do a little bit of everything,” Fried said, adding, “Long story short, Ben does all of those very well. He’s a well-rounded guy who impacts every aspect of the program.”
Once Shapiro developed relationships with the players, his confidence began to soar. There was mutual trust and respect.
“Ben was instrumental from the very beginning upon arrival in a lot of different ways,” Fried said. “No. 1, he has a general hunger to learn as much as possible about coaching. He wants to have an impact on every possible aspect of the program he can. He’s absolutely tireless in his willingness to take on the number of different hats we wear as coaches.”
For Shapiro, it’s been two falls and springs with the men and women, a long grind of a year, but an extremely rewarding one, certainly with the NCAA title.
“I feel ecstatic that it happened from my perspective in my seventh year,” Fried said. “It took every bit of those seven years to complete the process or to even be in a position to complete the process. So many things have to fall into place and it’s tough to quantify Ben’s impact over the last couple of years in that process, but it’s dramatic.”
The last two years weren’t all that different being coach vs. player because Shapiro was in school that whole time. The big adjustment was having a different type of impact.
“I’m always going to miss getting to play on match day,” he said. “I still get excited when we’re competing, but it’s never the same… Nothing that I have found replaces getting to go out there and compete in college tennis.”
Shapiro learned that being a college tennis coach is more than just coaching tennis. It’s a multifaceted job that includes recruiting, paperwork, scouting, psychology, on- and off-court training, fundraising and alumni relations.
“The work to make that happen started way before I got there,” Shapiro said. “I have to admit some of it is right place, right time. If I had a small impact, that’s awesome. It’s a really good group of players and a great head coach that contributed to making it happen.”
When Shapiro joined the program, Fried saw the opposite of what he normally encounters. Instead of coaching tennis to get a master’s, Shapiro was getting a master’s to coach tennis.
“From Day 1 it was very clear that Ben’s end goal is to be a college head coach,” Fried said. “His passion for both coaching and the team and learning as much as he can to prepare himself to be a college head coach really distinguishes him. It’s one of the coolest things about him and he’s going to be a really, really good college head coach one day, sooner rather than later.”
Scarsdale and Rochester
As a high schooler, Shapiro never rose past the No. 3 singles spot, but that was because he was behind classmates Austin Kaplan (UPenn) and Ben Fife (Amherst), who were New York State doubles finalists as sophomores, champs as junior. Senior year Kaplan made the state quarterfinals in singles and was an All-American.
It was a formidable singles lineup and the doubles was strong — the Raiders were undefeated in 2012 their senior year — in the years before there was a Section 1 championship, something Shapiro believes his team would have won.
“We were just deep,” Shapiro said. “We had a lot of players playing doubles who had tournament experience. That was before they had the team playoffs, but be were undefeated and we played all the good teams.”
Senior year, playing doubles with then-freshman Jonny Dorf, Shapiro lost in the second round of sectionals.
Not knowing what he wanted to study or pursue as a career, Shapiro enrolled at Rochester for both the academics and the tennis.
“I had no idea what I wanted to do. Still don’t,” he said. “It seemed like a good tennis fit, a level where I could play but I wouldn’t be way better than everyone else. The team I knew could get better and they had really nice facilities. I liked the city.”
On the court, Shapiro graduated seventh all-time for Rochester with 53 singles wins and 63 victories in doubles. The two-time captain helped the team to its first national ranking since 2006 as a sophomore.
“I enjoyed the daily grind of getting to work hard and get better at something,” Shapiro said. “I still had a lot of room to grow. It was about never getting complacent. That’s something I miss now because I’m no longer training for my own tennis.”
What Shapiro learned in college is what success really looks like. It wasn’t about winning every match individually or as a team, but knowing, “You can finish your career or whatever you’re doing having no regrets if you do everything you possibly can and leave no stone unturned. If you can do that, everything falls into place.”
Shapiro won some fall tournaments over the years and played in some of the team’s biggest matches in both singles and doubles.
“All the travel is as close as I’m ever going to get to being a pro athlete, so it was about that feeling of having all these resources that are trying to help you succeed and enjoying everything that comes with that,” he said.
Graduating with an English degree with a concentration in language media communication, Shapiro began looking for a new court to call home. “I thought there was still a lot I wanted to accomplish with college tennis and I still wanted to be involved,” he said.
Shapiro found a temporary home with men’s coach Jon Satkowski at RPI, in addition to teaching at a local club to make some money.
“I was lucky I was able to have someone willing to give me a lot of hands-on experience,” Shapiro said. “That year was really valuable for me and really enjoyable to see what it was like to be coaching instead of playing.”
Shapiro is finishing his two-year master’s in liberal studies this month. He’ll be getting paid enough for living expenses this upcoming year at Wesleyan while he searches for something more permanent and never having to use his “terribly impractical” degree.
He’s learned more from the coaches around him, and the players, too, so when that time comes for him to step into a lead role, Shapiro feels he’ll have all the tools he needs.
“In the fall they were great, but they had room to grow and they figured it out,” Shapiro said of the Wesleyan women. “Throughout the winter people matured, they stepped up, they came together and by the end of the year they were one collective unit. It was eight players willing to do absolutely anything for each other. It was cool to see them do that and then to be rewarded with a big trophy at the end was even better.”