Dan DiPirro and Cheryl O’Connell are the dynamic duo of Western New York mixed doubles tennis teams.
Watching them play together reminds me of the 1961 hit song “Poetry in Motion” by Johnny Tillotson. They never seem to be out of position and have a great court presence. They first met five years ago at the Village Glen and have won 95 percent of their 8.0 USTA matches, notching an occasional 9.0 match win.
DiPirro, age 52, and O’Connell, 43, are in phenomenal shape and even have great success against the youngsters they play against.
When they first met five years ago they were playing in a recreational league. Dennis Behr, who runs a few USTA teams, had watched them play and was very impressed with their court chemistry and demeanor.
Watching them play, it wasn’t surprising to find that each had starred in other sports. DiPirro was all league in baseball, football and basketball at Clarence High and was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame.
He played football at Buffalo State as a running back and defensive player. He was also one of the stars of the legendary Plant Six softball teams that won many local and regional tournaments, playing upwards of 150 games in a four-month period, sometimes playing as many as 10 games on a weekend. He also played in some amateur football leagues and has always worked out 5-6 six times a week.
Without a doubt he is the fastest tennis player afoot among players in their 50s in Western New York.
O’Connell played tennis, soccer and basketball at Williamsville East and was All League in soccer. She starred at UB in soccer and was All Northeast in that sport as a midfielder. It is evident that soccer has had a big influence on her quickness, her ability to stop and start on a moment’s notice, and her powerful array of shots. Regardless of whether she is playing tennis or not, she tries to work out every day of the week.
“We have been very fortunate to have had a high level of success in our mixed doubles career,” DiPirro said. “When Cheryl and I first started playing mixed doubles in USTA matches, we didn’t even think about playing in tournaments.”
“Fortunately, Dan and I won most of our matches and decided to start playing in tournaments,” O’Connell said.
They feel that much of their success stems from having played together for so long. They have this amazing chemistry in knowing what each is going to do on every shot. They know which shots to take in certain situations and implicitly trust each other. They never berate or give each other an angry look.
“For instance, if either one of us double faults on an important point, we never berate each other,” DiPirro said. “Instead, we go on to the next point as if nothing had happened.”
“We also know who is going to take the shots at all times, even if a shot is hit down the middle,” O’Connell said. “It never makes a difference as to who will take the shot, as we have complete confidence in each other’s ability.”
They have been benefitted from practicing against high performance players and outstanding juniors. Also, they give credit to John Brunner and Tom LaPenna, the director of tennis and director of the High Performance Program at the Village Glen, for helping with their strokes and strategy.
“We greatly enjoy playing against younger players,” DiPirro said. “Although they may hit the ball harder than we do, we do well against them because of our court knowledge and variety of shots.”
“Dan and I strive to put pressure on them right from the start,” O’Connell said.
Both stress that players between ages 15 and 21 like to hit as hard as they can. If O’Connell and DiPirro are ahead 30-0 in a game, the younger players invariably will go for the big shot and will usually miss. One of their career highlights was winning the MUNY Mixed 8.0 Doubles two years ago over the highly rated team of Geoff Becker and Carolyn Bristol, both of whom were more than 20 years younger
DiPirro and O’Connell always seem to have fun when they are playing. This can be very disconcerting to a team that may be playing against them. “We always try to keep it light on the court,” DiPirro said. “Dan and I love to win, but we are also having fun at the same time,” O’Connell said.
They agree that mixed doubles isn’t for everyone. You have to trust your partner 100 percent. “Dan is the one who figures out the strategy we should use for all of our matches and how to play the other teams,”O’Connell said. “His quickness greatly disrupts other teams.”
“Cheryl’s ability to take her game to another level when we play is amazing,” DiPirro said. “In addition, she is the most competitive person I have ever known.”
Cheryl gets her competitiveness from her father, Fred, a well-known senior player. “My dad is the person who basically taught me how to play when I was younger,” O”Connell said. “I am sure that is where I get my competitive spirit from. My dad is our biggest fan when we play USTA matches or tournaments and watching each match intently. Even if we are fortunate to win 6-0, 6-0, he still has suggestions for us to improve our games.”
Presently, DiPirro and O’Connell are working hard to get ready for the USTA Team Regionals at the Village Glen on May 18. They and other team members hope to advance to the sectionals in Schenectady in late May, and then the nationals later in the summer. “We have a really good team, and I feel that we can win the regionals, the sectionals, and do well in the nationals if we advance that far,” DiPirro said.
Correction: In this column two weeks ago it was stated that Ken White’s playing partner was Darryl Acker. Instead, it is Derek Acker.