“I can’t remember not playing paddle,” says Mike Stulac. A two- time winner, finalist, and three- time semi-finalist of the Men’s Nationals, Stulac with his wife Kerri Delmonico has won a Mixed Doubles and three Husband-Wife Nationals as well.
Unlike the majority of Nationals champions who converted from tennis to paddle, Stulac is a rarity, a paddle player who didn’t grow up a tennis and squash guy. Introduced to platform tennis early on in his native Toronto, Stulac recalls how he grew up with it.
“We had a neighbor and friend, Don Fergusson, who built a court in his back yard and invited family friends to play. When it seemed that the Fergusson’s had trouble booking time on their own court, a small group of families banded together to found the Kingsway Platform Tennis Club. With support from the city’s Parks and Recreation department and a local lottery the families built a four court facility.”
During his high school years, many of his friends moved away from the sport. Not Stulac.
“When I was about fifteen, my friends did other stuff, other sports, but I continued practicing with older guys. I played men’s tournaments with generally guys from around Toronto. At eighteen, I played the 18-Under Junior Nationals with Chris Jackson. It was the only year I played the Juniors, and we won against my younger brother Dan and Jeff Tkachuk. It was the 1987-88 season, and we played at Short Hills, New Jersey. We had a whole bus load from Toronto, about 30 kids.”
It is clear Stulac loved the paddle tennis world that surrounded him. So much of the game for him was about family and community. “Parents were playing on one court and the kids were playing on another,” he says.
There were also numerous opportunities to play, particularly tournaments. APTA Region 4 included Rochester, NY and all of Canada (read Toronto). “The Odenbachs were promoting paddle in Rochester, and there were three big tournaments there and two in Toronto. When I was younger, I remember the biggest tournaments were in Rochester at Halloween and Christmas Chaos at our club that drew 64 teams.”
Through college and the 1990’s, Stulac pursued paddle by doing what he loved to do – playing the game and enjoying its camaraderie.
“We used to play tournaments all over – Rochester, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Cincinnati. Four or five of us would pack into a car and we would just go. There was way too much Burger King on those trips!” And probably way too little sleep as Stulac was working all that time, first in the container business and then in the financial arena with Price Waterhouse.
“I think I first realized I could be competitive when Davin Gibbins and I played the Kleinert brothers. It was a war and we didn’t win, but we had a great match. I got more serious about it and started playing with Fritz Odenbach. In 1999, we beat John Millbank and Scott Rogers and when we got back to the place we were staying I remember saying, ‘Do you believe we are in the semi’s of the Nationals?’”
Stulac with his partner, Bill Anderson, would reach the Nationals finals in 2003 losing to Chris Gambino and Dave Ohlmuller at Philadelphia. Two years later, Stulac and Anderson would break into the Nationals winner’s circle at Pittsburgh in 2005. They did it in dramatic fashion, losing their first nine games to Mike Cochrane and Mike Marino. Down a set at love and facing the very real possibility of not even getting a game, Stulac had to withstand an assault of his own doubt. The most lopsided defeat in the unofficial history of the Nationals finals was a 6-0, 6-1 Flip Goodspeed/Scott Mansager win in 1999.
That overpowering victory was on Stulac’s mind when he considered the huge hole he and Anderson had dug. “All I was thinking is ‘I’m breaking the record for a losing score and it will never be broken.’”
It hadn’t helped either that Stulac was working on slumber fumes as he battled through Saturday on two hours of sleep.
“I had to leave for Pittsburgh after work. I got there about 1:30 Saturday morning, but then I couldn’t get into the residence where other players were sleeping because the door was locked. I stayed in my car until about 5:30 or 6:00.” Stulac, reluctant to wake anyone, hunkered down in his vehicle. Aila Main (Kerri’s partner) finally rescued him from his plight practically just in time to go out on the court.
Despite sleep deprivation and a grueling draw that included a hard earned victory over the previous year’s champions Goodspeed and Mansager, Stulac and Anderson did not lose their focus or discipline against Cochrane and Marino.
“Although we came back from being way down, you would never see a big implosion by either Cochrane or Marino,” says Stulac. “Billy and I started switching in the backcourt. We got to 2-3 and then got broken again to make it 2-4. Then we won the next four games and never trailed.” The third set was very close with both teams zoned in, but Stulac and Anderson got the service break they needed for a 6-4 game-set- and- match Nationals triumph.
Stulac had plenty of time, maybe too much, to savor the victory. It would be another six years before he returned to the finals, let alone win the Nationals. Anderson’s bad back in 2007 offered a substantial roadblock to a rapid return.
“It seems as though I played with a ton of people,” Stulac says. “Good partnerships are hard to find. Just being on the same page, it’s hard to get that. The question is can you get a situation where you have a chance to win and you can have some fun? You can’t just pair up two good players and it will guarantee they will win. They have to be a team.”
Stulac more than made up for his hiatus from the Men’s National finals. He was called to a higher pairing. In 2002, he and Kerri Delmonico had begun dating and they were married in 2007. Delmonico, a talented athlete (“I loved to play basketball in high school”) from Johnston, RI had come to the game of paddle after a storied tennis career in high school and college.
At Emanuel College in Boston, she went undefeated in inter-league play throughout her four years there. “The Rhode Island Congress recognized her for this achievement and Emanuel retired her racquet,” Stulac said. She would provide all the tennis background the couple would ever need.
Delmonico was introduced to platform tennis in the late 1990’s. “Dan McCormick, a Prince rep told me my game would translate well to paddle,” she says. “The first tournament I ever played, Diane Tucker and Robin Fulton beat me and Shelley Morse, 0-and-0.”
The experience, far from discouraging Delmonico, inspired her. “Playing the sport was fun. It was intriguing,” she says. And she adapted quickly, having a 2001-2 banner season.
Meanwhile, her own life had undergone some change as in 1999, she moved from her home state RI to New York City. ”There were a lot more club players back then,” she says. She felt then as she does now that “This is a sport that’s a gentleman’s sport. It has that feel toward it.”
In 2005, she and her gentleman (boyfriend at the time) husband recorded a rare feat in recent paddle history. While Stulac busied himself winning the Men’s Nationals, Delmonico and her partner Main defeated Cindy Prendergast and Lauren Zink to win the Women’s.
While the twin championships provided a high watermark of sorts in their separate divisional play, it was just the beginning of their road to success as Mixed and Husband-Wife Doubles teams. In 2008, they won both the Mixed and the Husband-Wife Nationals in Fairfield, CT. They would go on to win two more Husband-Wife Nationals (2011,2013) and reach the finals of the Mixed (2013).
Their on court partnership is somewhat unusual in that Delmonico plays the Ad court, a position traditionally reserved for the male as “the stronger” player. “Kerri has a good forehand drive that is consistent, and I like to volley. She is comfortable playing in the Ad court and that makes us a better team,” Stulac says.
“I like controlling the ball and keeping it in play. I make my returns. And if someone hits an FYM, I can get out of the way and Mike can hit his backhand,” adds Kerri.
“I think in the beginning it was harder to play together,” she says. “Now, we don’t need to talk a lot on the court. But there was this time when we won the Mixed Doubles Nationals, our first one in 2008. We were playing Australian.”
“It was a huge point,” continues Mike. “I told Kerri ‘I’m going to stay.’ Instead I go and I miss the volley.”
“He came back on the next point and told me he was going to stay again,” laughs Kerri. “I asked him ‘Are you going to stay-stay or stay-go?’”
While Stulac found successful paddle partnership with his wife, he still was searching for a teammate who fit his specs for championship men’s play. He got it right when he joined up with Mark Parsons in 2010, though preliminary indications seemed pretty grim.
“It was a horrible year that first year,” says Parsons. “I knew it was going to be a learning experience. But two years with Mike was a Doctorate in paddle. He said at the beginning ‘We’re going to win Nationals.’ He is one of the best if not the best competitor I’ve ever played with.”
Parsons remembers vividly a match in 2010 where he was dragging in the finals. “We win the first set, lose the second and I’m done,” he recalls. “Mike tells me: ‘Did you play all weekend to lose the finals? Just one set – you win it and you’ll leave happy, lose it and you’ll leave sad. One set. That’s all.’ Mike taught me how to compete.”
“Mark allowed me to volley all over the place. I was still able to feel I was adding value. It was a good feeling to get back to the top of the game and be back in those big matches. The number of partners that are that talented that can give you the opportunity to succeed is alot less as you get older,” Stulac says.
As they continued to play together, Parsons and Stulac figured out how to be more effective as a team. “At first, I didn’t know my role,” says Parsons. “But Mike had a better volley so my goal was to set him up at net and he would set me up for my backhand. We went from unable to win a match to being the team to beat.”
“At the Lehigh Valley Tournament, we turned it around,” Stulac says. “We lost a lot of matches before that including a match in Chicago where we lost 0-and-0. The Nationals was amazing. We didn’t lose a set and Mark volleyed unbelievably. I don’t think he missed one backhand all weekend.”
Both Stulac and Delmonico have unique perspectives from which to view an important phase in the evolution of platform tennis. Each has played in the era before pros and has had to adjust to the influx of highly skilled national and international tennis players flooding the sport.
“The game has changed so much. There is power to the nth degree. I think I first became aware of it in 2006 at Short Hills, NJ when Aila Main and I played against Sue Avery and Gerry Viant. They were the consummate team, always on the same page and won so many Nationals. They had no answer for Aila’s forehand, and the whole match they had to stay back on their serves.”
“I definitely like the changes,” continues Delmonico. “The game’s faster, there’s more athleticism and there’s a lot of young blood in the game. Now, I don’t care about winning, I care about competing.” The joys of motherhood and tending to Kerri and Mike’s five-month old baby Riley, have not dampened Delmonico’s passion for the game. She and her partner Lauren Gebbia are currently the seventh ranked Women’s Doubles team in the country.
Mike Stulac has also seen changes in the game, changes he welcomes. As a ranked, highly accomplished player whose day job with JP Morgan Chase more than qualifies him as a “Weekend Warrior”, Stulac could feel threatened by this wave of youth, skill set and ability that are not his.
Instead, he reacts positively with a genuine enthusiasm that graces a competitive flame. “The athleticism in the game is unbelievable. Your first round now is against two guys who have incredible racquet skills you cannot take for granted or you will lose. There have been a lot of changes to the game, but I love that some things remain the same. Flip Goodspeed and Scott Mansager have adapted their games and are still playing at an elite level today.”
“But I am finding it hard to embrace the next step, losing early. I hate losing, especially losing early. That’s hard at the Nationals where I love fighting through the draw; and I love Sunday – love the rush and nerves of getting up Sunday morning with the chance to win.”
As Chairman of the APTA Rules Committee, Stulac has the future of the game constantly thrust at him in a very real way as he grapples with issues of how it will adapt to players or how players will adapt to the game.
“I’m old school,” he says. “I think the sport can do more to help the body, possibly looking at a new court surface. I worry about racquets having too much power. I worry that everybody will just play from the backcourt. I think technology could hurt the game. The ball has changed significantly, too. It used to be a rock. Using the “hot” ball in the Nationals does make it exciting. But with the speed out on the court it’s really tough to end points.”
You couldn’t find a better person than Mike Stulac to oversee a committee that potentially has so much influence over the game and its inner workings. His lifelong interest in and love of the sport, his competitiveness tempered by a respect for all things paddle and a reasonableness bred from compassion give him an insight that benefits those who play now and those who will play the game in years to come.
His wife gets this about him too, because she shares many of the same qualities. She also grew up playing tennis, so she has got him covered when it comes to traditional racquets.
“I can’t stress the camaraderie enough,” emphasizes Kerri Delmonico. “The same people we have met playing paddle are some of our closest friends. We’re fortunate we’ve played.”
“I’ve met so many amazing people and many of my best friends are from paddle – not to mention I met Kerri because of this sport,” Stulac says.
“Right now, I play league at Center Court in New Jersey. The team is a great group of guys. We all play hard, have a lot of funned then grab a beer. I love playing with them and will continue with the league until I can’t get on the court anymore.”