BLOOMFIELD, NJ — An on-again, off-again tennis tournament, started in the 1980s by a Bloomfield resident but discontinued for almost three decades, has been rejuvenated in recent years and is currently being played with a first-place trophy and bragging rights at stake.
The “Friendly Man Tennis Tournament,” the creation of James Street resident Alfred “Sonny” Piccoli, was jump-started once again this year after a four-year absence. Four weeks ago, 52 male players, including a good dozen from Bloomfield and Glen Ridge, began opening rounds. The games are played on North Jersey courts chosen by the competitors.
There will be six rounds, the championship to be played at a location which has not yet been determined.
“I do everything,” Piccoli said in a recent telephone interview about his commitment to the tourney. “I got some beautiful trophies. I’m a classy guy.”
The first tournament was in 1981. It had 32 players. For Piccoli, 67,the sport is a great way to socialize. Getting on a court and having a friendly match, he said, gives a person a positive outlook on life. Among the players this year is Bloomfield Mayor Michael Venezia.
As a player, Piccoli said was thrilled when he won at Flushing Meadows, at the U.S. Tennis Open site, in a sanctioned event. He currently plays four time a week, indoors and out.
“I wanted a tennis party but I didn’t have a court at my house,” Piccoli said of why he started the tournament in 1981. “I was playing tennis all the time. So I plunged into the deep end of the pool.”
Out of the shoot, the tournament was played for three consecutive years: ’81, ‘82, and ‘83. It skipped 1984 but was held the next two years. Then it stopped.
“I was raising my three kids as a single parent,” Piccoli said to explain the hiatus. “I’m the original ‘Mr. Mom.’”
Matches were held again in 2012 and 2013 and he decided to have it again this year. But Piccoli wanted to be sure everyone has a positive experience.
“People over the years kept asking me when I was going to have another tournament,” he said. “It’s a lot of work. You have to be a people’s person. The goal is not to get angry with anyone. Dealing with people is not easy. These guys don’t like to lose. There are a lot of things going on here.”
He said a hospitalized friend was an example of why he holds the event.
“He was almost dead a year ago,” Piccoli said of his friend. “There was a blizzard going on when I spoke to him. He wanted to play but was in bad shape. I told him to think about it. That snapped him out of his depression. He played the other night in the tournament. He didn’t win but he’s out there again.”
The players are mostly people Piccoli knows as tournament competitors. He does all the seeding but the players determine when and where the matches will be played. Unseeded player go head-to-head in the first round; seeded players join the fray in the second round.
“I know all the players personally,” he said. “I’ve played them; I screen them; I want friendly tennis players only.”
There is no entry fee. If there is any cost, it comes out of Piccoli’s pocket.
“A company wanted to be a sponsor,” he said. “I told them that if they wanted to buy T-shirts with the name of their company, that’s OK. But I don’t want a sponsor.”
Piccoli, who graduated from Barringer High School in 1967, made local newspapers last year by winning an essay contest sponsored by Essex County. He wrote about meeting Muhammad Ali as a teenager. He said the chance meeting was an inspiration to him, that a champion took the time out to speak with a kid on a Newark street.
Piccoli tries to make the tournament an uplifting experience, too, and will even send the players a message along with pertinent tournament information. For example, as a message he sent: “For those who have the ambition and competitiveness bubbling within, the tour sings a siren song. They have the compulsion to try and keep trying until they reach whatever level they see as success or until self-deception is no longer possiblel they see as success or until self-deception is no longer possible.”
Piccoli said tennis matches are like boxing matches.
“It’s one on one,” he said. “The only thing that gets hurt is your feelings. You don’t get beat up. Tennis players are gladiators. There’s strategy, footwork, weather, determination — everything comes into play.”
The competitors in the tourney this year range in age from 13 to 78. Piccoli also played and made a dramatic comeback in his most recent match.
“I hung in there and maybe had a little luck,” he said.
He does not yet know where the finals will be played. In 2012, they were played in Branch Brook Park; in 2013, in Pulaski Park, Bloomfield.
“The ‘Friendly Man Tournament’ is not about me,” he said. “It’s about tennis. I have grandchildren and as sure as the sun comes up, one of my grandkids will run this in the future. The tournament is a winner.”