“A History of Princeton Tennis”

Marjory Gengler, 1973.

A Comprehensive Book Looks Back

By Justin Feil | Images courtesy of David Benjamin, A History of Princeton Tennis

David Benjamin always had an appreciation for history.

Before he gained attention as men’s tennis coach at Princeton University and executive director of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA), Benjamin taught American studies at Harvard University and Princeton University. He recognized as an undergraduate opponent at Harvard the rich and respected history of the Princeton men’s tennis program and was thrilled to join the program as their 29-year-old men’s tennis coach in 1974.

“When I came, Princeton had a very special history,” said Benjamin. “I felt it was a shame there wasn’t any sort of story or record of Princeton tennis.”

Following his retirement from coaching and the ITA, Benjamin, in his increased spare time, pursued the project and encouraged the Princeton men’s and women’s programs to chronicle their years in a book. Commissioned by The Friends of Princeton Tennis, A History of Princeton Tennis, a 378-page leatherbound book by Rob Dinerman and co-edited by Benjamin and Cameron Stout, was released in April 2021.

“The feedback has been great,” said Benjamin. “It’s something that everyone is very, very happy about.”

A History of Princeton Tennis, available at the Princeton University Store or through its website (pustore.com), winds through the eras of Princeton tennis. Dinerman used The Daily Princetonian archives in particular for details about the men’s teams prior to World War II, and also found the school’s athletic website, GoPrincetonTigers.com, articles from the Princeton Alumni Weekly, and personal interviews very helpful in pulling together a complete history. Current PU coaches Billy Pate and Laura Granville were also informative sources.

“There were great stories,” said Dinerman. “It was wonderful covering all of it. There were so many little vignettes that stand out as I think back on it. There was a great editorial written when tennis first started proliferating on campus expressing concern that people would lose track of the important sports like football, that they were afraid that tennis would interfere with the concentration on football.”

Ellsworth Vines and Mercer Beasley.

Dinerman intertwines the players, teams, and stories along with adding historical context and follow-ups to significant figures beyond graduation. The book therefore includes the likes of former Secretary of State and Chief of Staff James A. Baker, who only played freshman tennis at Princeton but names it as one of the most important experiences of his life; Mercer Beasley, who coached the team in the 1930s and 1940s and essentially invented the ball machine; as well as current Boston Red Sox Executive Vice President and COO Jonathan Gilula. Gilula was planning on playing on the professional tour after graduation in 1998, but his plans shifted when he made a connection with Larry Lucchino, a former Princeton basketball teammate of Bill Bradley’s who rose prominently as a Major League Baseball executive. Gilula talked to Lucchino, then with the San Diego Padres, for his senior thesis on building professional sports venues.

“He so impressed with Gilula when he was working on the project that he offered him a job working for him after he graduated,” said Dinerman. “This is a Princeton connection. To my mind, those things are fascinating.”

The book includes tennis legend Stan Smith, who married former Princeton star – the first female star athlete at the school – Marjory Gengler. Their son, Trevor Smith, also attended Princeton, played first singles, and was the 2003 national winner of the ITA/Arthur Ashe Award for Leadership and Sportsmanship. It also mentions notorious figures like convicted murderer Lyle Menendez, a highly sought national high school recruit who started at and was expelled from Princeton, as well as O.J. Simpson, who once helped the Princeton men’s tennis team gain quick entry into an upscale Los Angeles restaurant in the late 1980s.

“There’s a big slice of Americana that is one way or another connected to the Princeton tennis program,” said Dinerman.

A professional squash player, Dinerman had only written books focused on the histories of squash programs at Harvard and Princeton and several preparatory schools prior to taking on Princeton’s tennis history. Benjamin, who also coached four years of squash at Princeton, liked A History of Princeton Squash, for which he was interviewed by Dinerman, so much that he suggested that Dinerman be considered to capture the tennis programs’ years. The book follows the men from their inception in the late 1800s and the women from their start in the 1970-71 season. He captures the programs right through the spring of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic ended promising seasons for both.

“It was a golden anniversary year for the women, and it might have been their best team ever and they might have had the best results ever in the NCAAs,” said Dinerman. “They were a lock to win the Ivy League. There was no question about that. It’s really that much more of a shame that season that never got to happen in view of its historical connections.”

The book dissects standout teams like the only two Ivy League men’s teams ever to finish ranked in the Top 10 nationally at the end of the year, which the Tiger men did in 1979 and 1980. Princeton also won seven straight Eastern Intercollegiate Tennis Association (EITA) titles in a row beginning in 1974 among their record 24 EITA crowns overall. The women’s 15 Ivy League championships are recounted, including their four won from 2015 to 2019.

Ted Farnsworth, 1984. Winner of the 1983 ITA National Intercollegiate Indoor Singles Championship.

It includes stories of former Princeton players like Jay Lapidas, who made it into the Top 35 in the world after graduation, and Leif Shiras, another highly ranked player on the professional tour who later drew acclaim televising the sport. Ted Farnsworth’s U.S. National College Indoor Championship as a Princeton junior is recounted along with his untimely death as a Top Gun Navy pilot. Farnsworth is one of five PU players to win a national singles title.

“What really struck me was the fact that they’ve had great coaches who had long tenures,” said Dinerman. “And they also had a whole bunch of very good players.”

The book goes into great depth on the whirlwind start for the women’s tennis program that began with a five-year plan to bring the sport up to varsity status after the school went coed. The plan transformed overnight when Marjory Gengler and Czech student Helena Novakova received permission and athletic department support to enter the Eastern Intercollegiate Tennis Championship in 1970 though Princeton did not yet have a women’s tennis program. They represented the school in Princeton T-shirts bought at the U-Store with their names hand-sewn on, and Gengler won the singles draw and the pair together won the doubles championship as well. The five-year plan ended then.

“By that spring of ’71 they actually had a varsity tennis team, and they went undefeated,” said Dinerman. “They were extremely popular.”

Princeton added other women’s sports the next year. Tennis was so popular, as Dinerman captures in another story about that 1970 spring, that then-men’s tennis coach John Conroy had to move the top women’s matches from the less visible courts at the far end of the Pagoda Tennis Courts to the ones more visible after he noticed fans leaving the hill that overlooked the top courts just to watch the women play on the lower courts. It was “a very graphic visible symbol of how quickly women’s tennis at Princeton was an entity, whereas five months earlier no one was even thinking about it,” said Dinerman.

Gengler’s sister, Louise, joined the program the next year and starred in her undergraduate years before coaching the program from 1979-2004. Gengler, whose passion for the Detroit Tigers was so well known that it earned her special seating from the ballclub’s management, is one of three Princeton coaches along with Conroy (1946-1971) and Benjamin (1974-2000) who coached for 25 years or more at Old Nassau. They were guiding lights to decades-long success. The book is more than a history book with its colorful accounts that personalize each era’s highlights thanks to Dinerman’s interviews with more than 100 alumni dating back as far as the Class of 1952.

“It’s important to give the nuts and bolts and the score and who won and describe the dual meets and when it comes down sometimes to the last doubles match on court and it’s 4-all, that’s very important and needs to be described. And all that was described,” said Dinerman. “In my mind what makes the histories that I’ve written first of all so enjoyable for me to write, and much more interesting and entertaining for the reader to read, are in fact the compelling personal stories.”

1949 Freshman Team Co-Captains James Baker and Gil Bogley, along with their teammate/classmate Chuck Defoe and Vice President George H.W. Bush. (Photo courtesy of Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy)

Benjamin and Louise Gengler were instrumental in helping to connect Dinerman to alumni and in compiling the hundreds of photos that augment the book’s stories. James Baker is pictured with President George H.W. Bush and Princeton alumni Gil Bogley and Chuck DeVoe at the White House courts in the mid-1980s. There’s a rare find of Arthur Ashe and Charlie Pasarell playing for UCLA at Princeton’s courts before they went on to greater fame. Benjamin supplied photos from three Marx Tours abroad that his teams took, and University photographer Robert Matthews had hundreds of candids from through the years that add a special joy to the collection. And of all the Princeton teams from over more than a century, only two team photos could not be found for the book. A History of Princeton Tennis is a thorough guide to hundreds of teams and thousands of players and people and their accomplishments and stories that enliven the school’s uniquely rich tennis program.

“Tennis is a big part of Princeton University and the Princeton University community,” said Benjamin. “When I came, the courts were right in the middle of the campus where Whitman College is. Princeton has had great teams in many sports, but tennis has a special place in Princeton sports. I’m glad we did it.”