Joe O’Connor may have the most unorthodox tennis game in Western New York.
Fred Hunt is a former top 10 local racquetball player who now plays tennis frequently in a doubles group with O’Connor that is affectionately called the “Slum Dogs.”
Hunt said, “Joe has the most unorthodox tennis game I have ever seen. He hits his forehand with a devastating slice and punches his backhand rather than swinging through when he hits it.
“However, it is his unusual two-handed drop shot that he can hit from anywhere on the court that drives his opponents crazy. And, if you are fortunate to retrieve his drop shots he throws up sky high lobs that virtually land 2 to 3 feet from the baseline every time.”
Dennis Behr, another player who has played against O’Connor numerous times, said, “Joe is a really great guy. His style of play is really irritating and difficult to play against. It’s unbelievably effective against players of different styles.”
Even though O’Connor is tough to play against because of his unorthodox style, he is constantly in demand as a doubles partner. It isn’t just because of his style of game. Ask anyone at the Village Glen or Miller Tennis Center and they will tell you that O’Connor is the epitome of good sportsmanship. Although he is a fierce competitor, win or lose, he always compliments his partners and opponents, and never has a mean word to say about anyone.
O’Connor attributes his style and outstanding sportsmanship to having played sports all of his life. He starred at quarterback at Bishop Timon High School and was an All-Catholic honorable mention. He played for his older brother, Gene, who was the coach of the football team.
“Gene was an extremely positive influence on me and was instrumental in teaching me the fundamentals of sports and good sportsmanship,” O’Connor said. “Equally important was the support of my sister Rosemary Lawley, who was involved in all of my athletic endeavors.”
After graduating high school, O’Connor attended and graduated from St. Bonaventure University. He played many intramural sports and missed the last varsity cut on the St. Bonaventure basketball team that starred Fred Crawford and Miles Aiken, two of the school’s all-time greats.
“I remember during one of the practices that the coach asked me to first guard Crawford and then Aiken. I thought he was kidding but he wasn’t. Needless to say it was an experience that I will never forget,” he said.
A few years after college, Joe took up the game of racquetball and played for almost 25 years. Racquetball became a game that was responsible for the unorthodox style of play that permeated Joe’s game. However, a devastating ACL injury ended his racquetball career. Once his injury healed, his daughter Erin convinced him to play tennis, and he said it was one of the best decisions he has ever made.
“I have always been a big family man and nothing has made me happier than playing and winning some doubles tournaments with Erin,” O’Connor said.
“A highlight of my tennis playing occurred when Gordon Sage, her future husband, proposed to Erin at Miller Tennis Center right on the tennis court.
“They will have a tennis-themed wedding at Miller this summer.”
Joe plays tennis at least five times a week. Although he plays mostly doubles, he still finds time to play singles once or twice a week. He has won or been in the finals of at least 25 3.5 doubles tournaments during the past few years and won the 3.0 singles in the City Open a couple of years ago.
“I have played with many different doubles partners, both in men’s and mixed doubles,” he said. “I try to compliment my partners as much as I can. I feel that it creates a positive attitude on the court for both of us. Even though I want to win at all costs I would never demean my partner or make them feel bad.”
O’Connor, who is an insurance broker for Lawley Insurance, is also impeccably dressed every time he plays. He says that he owes his selection of attire to Roy Manno, another member of the “Slum Dogs,” who is known for his sartorial splendor.
“Our style of dress is really deceptive. We actually look like we can play or deserve to win,” he said.