‘WNY’s Best Tennis Player’ Returning To Lakewood YMCA
Jimmy Arias is no doubt the best tennis player to come out of Western New York.
The Grand Island native peaked to No. 5 in the world in 1984 and had one of the greatest forehands in tennis. He is making his third trip to the Lakewood YMCA for a clinic and exhibition on July 10. Arias started tennis at 5 when his dad, Antonio, was playing tennis with a friend in Delaware Park.
“My dad and his friend weren’t that good, so I was the ball boy running around and picking up the balls for them,” Arias said. “Since they couldn’t hold a rally, my dad started to feed me balls and realized that he was going to have me play tennis.”
As a 5-year-old, using a Dunlop Maxply Fort adult wood tennis racquet, Arias began to take up the sport, playing 10 sets a day at Tonawanda High School with friends, really honing his skill. During the winter months in Buffalo, Jimmy began playing at the Buffalo Tennis Center, later known as the Buffalo Recreation Center.
This massive building was once an aircraft factory for Curtiss-Wright and then Bell Aircraft during the World War II era.
Arias was definitely a natural at the sport, and he had very few private lessons. Instead, his dad took it upon himself to teach him. They purchased the book, Ed Faulkner’s Tennis: How to Play it, How to Teach it. This book contained frame-by-frame photos of all the tennis strokes and this was how Arias formed the foundation of his game.
His dad, however, made an adjustment to the forehand that would change the stroke forever. Antonio Arias was a Cuban refugee who settled in Buffalo and worked as an electrical engineer. This scientific approach led him to develop Jimmy’s big forehand with an increased racquet-head speed.
“It was a little different than the book,” Arias said, “but he wanted me to hit it harder than everyone else.”
Arias also noted that it wasn’t just the book, or his dad, that helped achieve his goals, it was the community.
“The whole tennis community in Buffalo was amazing to me on so many levels,” Arias said. “When I was 8 or 9, the best players would still play with me even though they were better than me. It didn’t take me that long to catch up, but the fact that they were willing to do that was awesome.”
By the time Arias was 11, he had defeated Rev. Heatherington, the best player in Buffalo at the time, on red clay at the Buffalo Tennis Club. Arias mentioned that he felt a little bad because he knew Heatherington wasn’t playing well that day, but after this defeat there was no doubt of Arias’ ability.
A few years later, after playing at tournaments all around the tri-state area, including one he won at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center in Lakewood, Arias moved to Nick Bollettieri’s new tennis academy in Bradenton, Florida. Here Arias got to play with some of the greatest juniors of his time. All this play really grew his game and then, at 16, he turned pro.
During his pro career, Arias won five singles titles, reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open in 1983, and winning the French Open Mixed Doubles in 1981 with Andrea Jaeger. Once he retired, he did TV commentary for networks like ESPN, Rogers Sportsnet and Tennis Channel. He still works with Tennis Channel today where he broadcasts matches and gives pre- and post-match analysis.
Arias’s newest role, though, is the director of tennis at IMG Academy in Bradenton. IMG is the continuation of Bollettieri’s academy, so this new job in 2018 was really a homecoming for Arias. At IMG, he has been able to work with many up-and-coming players. Most are younger kids trying to get into a Division I college program. Arias also has the opportunity to work with tour players. One notable player with a local connection is Jessie Pegula. Jessie is the daughter of Terry and Kim Pegula, owner of the Buffalo Bills and Sabres and is currently ranked No. 26 in the world. Arias has really enjoyed working with her and said it’s possible she can win a major in today’s landscape. Arias also jokingly stated that he does worry that she might take his spot as the best player to ever come out of WNY.
All joking aside, though, that connection has been a welcome one for Arias as he stated that he misses Buffalo, especially the people and the food, and even though he now lives in Sarasota he has not been converted to a Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan.
“I still root for the Bills,” said Arias, who is definitely still a Western New Yorker at heart.
Arias will return to WNY on July 10 when he makes an appearance at the Lakewood YMCA.
There will be a kids clinic (8:30 a.m.), adult clinic (10:30 a.m.), lunch (12:15 p.m.), and finally an exhibition match, including Arias, Joe Demarco, Lee Nickell and Ethan Nittolo at 1:30 p.m. Call the Lakewood YMCA at 716-763-0303 for more information.