Six-year-old Mali Cerease pivots, extends her racket and swings through a forehand, sending the ball back to Kela Simunyola.
There is no net and the two stand just 10 feet apart in a parking space in the garage at Garden Avenue and Sandford Boulevard in Mount Vernon.
This is what practice sometimes means for Simunyola’s students after his tennis center across the street at Memorial Field was shut down, the bubble deflated in the dead-of-night June 1 by a city contractor.
He has a $27 million lawsuit against the city and Mayor Richard Thomas, a legal battle at the center of the fight for Memorial Field’s future. The city has countered that it was Kela Tennis Inc. that broke the contract by failing to make payments to the city.
DOCUMENTS: Details of midnight bubble demolition
CONTRACT: $30,000 for bubble deflation
DAMAGE: Bubble tears worse than owner feared
Simunyola sees paralells to coaching in his current ordeal.
“The more skills you have the better to go through the challenges,” the 52-year-old Yonkers resident said. “We’re going through some struggles now but we have to be patient to get through it.”
Rebuilding his tennis operation could be the toughest challenge Simunyola faces in a life full of them. But the makeshift practices aren’t that far off from how he got his start in tennis more than 40 years ago in Zambia.
His father belonged to a tennis club and would take Simunyola along when he played. A match might turn into a few hours of hanging out with his friends, and the young Simunyola, then about eight years old, could get restless.
“It was a British colony. Wherever the British are there’s tennis,” Simunyola said. “I would be at the club for a long time, two or three hours, so I just started hitting against the wall. I got hooked.”
At 11, a hardscrabble childhood got tougher when Simunyola’s mother was murdered. His father remarried and had other children, eventually giving Simunyola 12 siblings.
Tennis as opportunity
He was the third oldest but the first to play tennis. He began playing tournaments to make money to help the family. His effort paid off at 17 when he was given a scholarship to attend school in Sweden.
Simunyola was ready to move there in the summer of 1983 when a new opportunity arose. He learned a scholarship was available to attend Concordia College in Bronxville.
“I chose to go to the place where I didn’t have to learn a new language,” he said.
Homesick at first, Simunyola stuck it out through studying and playing tennis. He took off a year during college to play satellite tournaments in Europe, which he also did each summer and after graduating in 1988.
He didn’t return to Zambia for more than five years and once he did it was only to visit. He has made Westchester home ever since, becoming a teaching pro, first at Concordia and then at Lake Isle in Eastchester, where he ran the tennis program from 1996 to 2011.
It was on the courts at Concordia that he met his wife, Ligaya. Her daughter, Kylene, became one of Simunyola’s best students, reaching the top 400 in the world during a brief playing career before turning to coaching with Simunyola. Now he’s coaching Kylene’s daughter, his wife’s namesake, Ligaya Murray, who is nationally ranked among Under 12 juniors.
Ligaya, 10, who also models, plays Under-12 and Under-14 tournaments regularly. She’s too young to have played in any Grand Slams yet, but did toss the coin before the U.S. Open semifinal match between Venus Williams and Sloane Stephens last year.
The extended Simunyola clan — Kela has three brothers who coach tennis in the region also — was honored as Family of the Year by the United States Tennis Association’s Eastern Section in 2014.
Simunyola’s top student was Louisa Chirico, from Harrison, who has reached as high as No. 58 in the world ranking, winning a first-round match at the French Open and reaching the semifinals of the Madrid Open in 2016.
He also coached Katrine Steffensen from Scarsdale, a top junior player who starred at Princeton University before graduating this spring.
Chirico, now 22, learned to play from Simunyola when her mother signed her up for one of his clinics at Lake Isle 15 years ago. And she stayed with him for the next several years.
“He taught me my technique, and movement, really the basics,” she said. “He was very into footwork and athleticism and what was really impressive was how hard he worked. Early morning, late night, he was always there.”
She was dismayed to learn the Mount Vernon club was closed.
“He runs it like a community, like a family,” she said. “Hopefully everything works out and he gets that back.”
Over the years, Simunyola also coached the Concordia women’s team and the girls’ varsity team at Bronxville High School.
Invariably his players at Bronxville matched up against other students of his. It was a conflict that sometimes became uncomfortable, and he gave up team coaching.
“Parents of the other girls didn’t like it,” he said. “I was their coach but I was coaching against them.”
Move to Mount Vernon
In 2011, he started Kela Indoor Tennis in a rented warehouse on Homestead Avenue in Mount Vernon, where the landlord let him install a pair of courts. One was only for singles because the space was so tight it didn’t allow for doubles lanes on both courts.
Kela Tennis inked a 15-year agreement with Mount Vernon in February 2015 to run the courts at the Memorial Field tennis center. The plans called for the company to install a bubble for the indoor season and the city to build a clubhouse that would include a lounge, restrooms, a fitness room and space for an after-school program for kids.
“This was a huge undertaking, and it was our focus,” Simunyola said, adding that the family eventually gave up the Homestead Avenue courts and sold a small tennis facility it had in Lake City, Florida.
By the end of 2015, work on the clubhouse had barely gotten underway. The city adjusted the licensing agreement, cutting the monthly payments in half. But Kela Tennis did not make payments, citing the unexpected expenses incurred because the clubhouse was never finished.
Simunyola said the family has been caught in the middle of the city’s divisive politics. They arrived at a time when they city wanted a tennis destination, fueled by then-Mayor Ernie Davis’ passion for the sport. And Kela Tennis strove to make that happen. That a new mayor has a different outlook shouldn’t negate the service they have provided, especially to hundreds of kids in the community, Simunyola said.
The bubble finally went up in December 2016, at the end of Thomas’ first year as mayor, three months into the indoor season. That was only after the city prevailed on Kela Tennis to pay for the completion of a wall that was needed to anchor the bubble.
The family had several meetings with city officials last year hoping to spur the completion of the project. Eventually Thomas began urging them to move the courts to make room for what was long expected to be the centerpiece of Memorial Field’s restoration, an 8-lane track.
Initially it was 15 or 20 feet, Kylene Murray said, then the city wanted three courts to be moved. That wasn’t possible because the bubble and the court hydration system had been designed for the existing configuration and they had already spent money for things the city was supposed to provide.
Kela Tennis claims the city’s failure to build the clubhouse has cost it more than $350,000, including $40,000 a year for a trailer with two bathrooms — more than the $265,000 the city claims it is owed.
“If they can’t finish this building, how are they going to do such a big job,” Simunyola said, pointing to the open shell of the clubhouse. “How can we trust that?”
Then in February, the city’s lawyer sent them a default letter citing the lack of payment. It caught the family by surprise, Simunyola said, because they claimed there were verbal assurances from city officials that the payments weren’t expected.
Simunyola’s lawyer challenged the letter. Almost immediately, the city’s reaction was to ask Kela Tennis to close for a few months — not because of the lack of payments but because the crumbling grandstands next door posed a safety threat.
Critics of the mayor suggested that he was looking for any opportunity to force the tennis center to either move or shut down so he could build the track.
The city told Simunyola in April that the contract was being canceled for nonpayment and they had to be out by June 1 or they would be forcibly removed.
Suing for breach of contract because of the unfinished work was always an option but something the family resisted, Murray said. “We had a long-term agreement. We put our faith and our trust into them,” she said.
That relationship became acrimonious as it became clear that the mayor was willing to sacrifice the tennis center.
Thomas’ spokeswoman said the mayor would not comment for this article because of the pending litigation.
Everything but lobs, overheads
Without the courts at Memorial Field, Simunyola’s regular members have had to find other places to play and Simunyola worries many may not come back if he ever reopens. He has also had to rent space at clubs in New Rochelle for some of his lessons.
For drills, the always empty second-floor of the Best Buy garage has been the next best thing.
“The kids themselves, who do not even know what’s going on, they’re just surprised they can’t play for the summer,” Simunyola said. “I try to make it fun for them even though we don’t have all our stuff.”
One student, 15-year-old Valaine Clarke, has played with Simunyola for six years. The garage seemed like a crazy idea when Simunyola first had her practice there a few weeks ago. But she’s made the most of it.
“It’s a drastic change but it does help me with my control,” said the Mount Vernon resident, who will attend A.B Davis School this fall. “It’s brought Kela and I closer. You have to do what you have to do to keep playing and get better.”
As 6-year-old Mali hits with Simunyola and then with Murray, her mom, Leah Watson, and younger sister look on. Watson said Mali started playing when she was 4 because she saw her older sister playing. Now Mali won’t stop, talking of making the Olympics one day.
They live just on the other side of Memorial Field.
“She was devastated when it was shut down,” Watson said of the tennis center. “We went to the City Council meeting and she wanted to get up and speak.”
Watson is a protective mother and her kids like having her with them. So for lessons at the tennis center, at first she would hover around the court. As time went by, she’d stand over near the entrance. Eventually, once they arrived, Mali would turn to her with a simple ‘Bye Mom.’
“She’s comfortable there. She loves them,” Watson said. “This is her family.”