When Henry Banaszak arrived in Columbus nearly 50 years ago on a tennis scholarship at Columbus College, he had absolutely no idea that this would be his lifetime home, much less spend 45 years with the same employer.
On Thursday, the native of Australia who has served as the tennis professional at Green Island Country Club since the mid-1970s will call it a day with a well-deserved retirement. In the process, Banaszak, 69, will have the club’s eight-court tennis center named in his honor.
Through the years, he has taught countless people to play tennis and is now teaching the grandchildren of some of his original students. He also runs the clubhouse, stringing rackets for those who share his love of the sport.
The Ledger-Enquirer spoke with Banaszak recently about his job and that decades-long ride he has taken. This interview is edited a bit for length and clarity.
Q. As a tennis pro, what are your duties?
A. I’m from the old school, so we sort of do everything, which includes day-to-day activities, events here at the club, social events. We just had the recent Everett Cup, which is a rivalry thing between the other country club in town, Columbus Country Club, and us. It’s a big social tennis event.
Q. Did you ever think you would be there 45 years?
A. Hell, no. (chuckles) It’s been a great run. You’re fortunate enough to be at one place and one job this long. A fellow tennis player in Columbus mentioned to me a few years ago, he said, ‘Henry, I think you might be the longest tennis pro that’s been in one facility in America.’ I know there are people that have been 35 years at one facility, but to be here for so long is basically unheard of these days.
Q. How did you end up in Columbus?
A. I’m originally from Australia, and the tennis pro here before me was from Australia. He got me to come over here, and I went to Columbus State back then for a couple of years on a tennis scholarship. I worked for my friend here during the summer and he left in 1974, and I took over. I was in the right place at the right time.
Q. As a tennis pro, you teach people?
A. Yeah, I teach lessons. I teach kids, 5, 6, 7 years old, and 67-year-olds, and in between. I’m in my third generation. I taught people when I first came here, then taught their children, and they’ve grown up in their 30s and 40s now, and I’m teaching some of their kids.
Q. Is tennis strong in Columbus?
A. It had taken off primarily with CORTA (Columbus Regional Tennis Association), because of (through CORTA) the availability for people to play at all levels, whether you start at 8, 9, 10 years old, all the way through seniors. Like I play in the senior division. There’s tennis at all levels for everybody, where you used to did not have that … Now, because of these leagues, we have a tremendous mixture. Our big growth has been through the children. Schools are participating in junior team tennis. That’s seen tremendous growth in the last five or six years. It’s like in any sport, if you get kids playing in baseball and all of that, they take it through high school.
Q. Do tennis pro duties take up most of your day, or are you running other things?
A. That’s about 70 percent of the work, like giving clinics and lessons and group clinics. But we also have functions for the members, more social, of course. We call it mixers and integrate all levels so everybody has a good time, and it’s not just for the top level or the middle to lower level. We try to mix it up a little bit.
Q. What does it take to be a good pro?
A. Patience. A lot of patience because not everybody is athletic and it’s not an easy game because you’ve got to be able to move and try to hit a moving object, and then you’ve got to make contact. And sometimes (the balls) go onto the court and sometimes they go all over the place. So it just takes a little practice and time. If one can do it at a relatively early age, it’s not too bad. Young kids pick it up relatively quicker and have fun with it. Whereas adults, if you start at an older age, it’s sometimes frustrating.
Q. You have some adults who start later in life and want to learn or get better?
A. Oh, yes. We have people who have played maybe at the junior high or high school level, say 20 or 30 years ago, and want to get back into it a little bit because it’s good exercise, and it doesn’t take a couple of hours. Whereas golf, you’ve got to play four or five hours, and there’s not much physical exercise. But people do start playing tennis at 40 or 45 and even 50 sometimes.
Q. It is a networking type of sport?
A. The big attraction is if you get into it, there are leagues where you can step up and play at your level throughout the whole city. And you meet a lot of people. It’s a great mixer for people, to meet people and compare yourself to them. We play at Cooper Creek Park and the Columbus Country Club, and their people play over here. It’s in a 40- to 50-mile radius of Columbus that people are on teams.
Q. Why did you think you wouldn’t be in Columbus this long?
A. The first two years I worked, I was more the summer help. I thought, yeah, I would like to get into tennis because I enjoyed it. Before here, I was in West Berlin in Germany teaching a little bit. I got the bug there. I worked for the British army. I enjoyed it and met a lot of people. They would say, well, you’re from Australia, you’ve got to play tennis and drink a few beers. I’d say, yeah, we do that. I came here and thought I’d stay about 5, 6 or 7 years at the most, and might go back home to Australia. Of course, that never happened. I met my wife, she’s from Columbus, and my two boys are from Columbus.
Q. What’s the most enjoyable thing about your job?
A. It’s like a teaching profession. Like a school teacher, if you can teach somebody something, that’s great. And tennis, it’s great to start off with a child about 8 or 9 years old, and after three years or so, bang, they’ve gotten a lot better and they enjoy it and go further with it. My two boys both played tennis growing up. They started when they were in diapers. As they started getting older, they started developing what we call motor skills, moving well, watching the ball well, and it was like, they’ve got it now. By the time they turned 10, they started playing in the junior tournaments, and they played through high school. When I see that in the children I teach here, yeah, there’s a certain reward that I showed them how to do it. Now some don’t do it as well, but you’ve got to give them credit for trying. And the same with adults, not everybody is going to be good. But, hey, if you enjoy it and have a good time with it and meet some people, that’s great.
Q. How does it feel that they’re going to put your name on the tennis center?
A. That’s very nice. You don’t see too many facilities being named after a tennis pro or a golf pro these days. That’s a great honor.
Q. What are you going to do with yourself after this?
A. (Laughs) People have asked me that. They say, ‘Look, Henry, you can have a great time because if you want to read the Wall Street Journal three times one morning and get up at 9 o’clock, you can do it. Or if you want to goof around, you can do it. But I’ve got other hobbies and things like that. My wife has been retired from the school system. She was assistant principal at Northside High School when it first started. She retired before me. One of my sons lives in Austin, Texas, so she wants to go there. So we’ll travel a little more.
The clubs also going to allow me to teach up here, but I’m not going to do it on a regular work week load. I’m going to do it Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and then if my wife and I want to go somewhere for a long weekend, I’ve got the option to do that. I will not be tied down … But I’ll still play tennis. Like the old saying, a body in motion stays in motion.
Q. So it has been a pretty good ride over the years?
A. It’s changed from when I first got into it. Longevity wise, you don’t see many tennis players stay at one place. Generally, five to eight years is a good length of time, and then something else crops up or you move somewhere else. For my run, I’ve been fortunate. It’s been a hell of a run for me. I would have never thought, you know. I have friends over the years who have come over from Australia, whether they were tennis buddies or just high school buddies, and they go, damn, you’ve got a gold mine here. I say, yeah, but it hasn’t been easy. You’ve got to work obviously ... But I’ve had a great relationship with most of the members, and they’ve enjoyed my company as much as I’ve enjoyed theirs.
Hometown: Perth, Western Australia
Current residence: Midland area of Harris County
Previous jobs: Tennis professional/instructor is his lifetime job
Education: Earned a business degree in Perth, Australia; studied business for two years while on a tennis scholarship at Columbus State University (then Columbus College)
Family: Wife, Ann, and two grown sons, John (wife Leigh and 1-year-old daughter Marion), who live in Austin, Texas, and son, Colin, who lives in Columbus
Leisure time: Enjoys gardening, particularly growing roses, and searching for antiques, old clocks in particular