While the men’s tennis team didn’t perform as well as they would have liked this season, nobody can complain about Steve Berke ’03 and what he brings to the table.
After taking a year off from Yale to play on the pro tennis tour, Berke has returned to the Eli courts and dominated the Ivy League this season. Last weekend for example, he trounced Cornell’s No. 1 player Mike Halperin, last year’s undefeated Ivy Player of the Year, 6-1, 6-1.
But like every great athlete, Berke’s talent didn’t develop overnight.
Berke picked up his first tennis racquet at age two, and by age three he was swinging away at tennis balls, sending them flying to the back fence.
Berke entered his first tournament when he was seven. He walked out onto the court carrying just one racquet and a small water bottle. His opponent, on the other hand, arrived with a full entourage and a bag full of racquets, and he called a foot fault against Berke on the first point. Berke lost the match 6-0, 6-1, but it would not be his last against the tough opponent.
Highlights in Berke’s junior career include being two-time national champion, winning both the 14-and-under Clay Court Championships and the U.S. Amateur Championships in mixed doubles, and making it to the quarterfinals at the Orange Bowl, the most prestigious junior tournament. At 14, he was ranked No.1 in the nation and was consistently ranked in the top 10 earning him a position on the junior national team. In fact, he was recently ranked the No. 54 U.S. junior player of all time.
The North Miami native spent his senior year of high school at the Bollettieri Tennis Academy where he was coached by Jimmy Bollettieri, mentored by Nick Bollettieri and befriended by Anna Kournikova.
Not following the path of his talented peers, who accepted full rides to play tennis at top nationally ranked colleges such as Georgia and UCLA, Berke chose to receive an Ivy League education because he wanted a balance between school and sports. But why Yale?
“Because Harvard sucks and Princeton doesn’t matter, right?” Berke said.
Berke came to Yale in the fall of 1998 as coach Alex Dorato’s top recruit. He played No. 3 singles for the Bulldogs behind Jonathan Beardsley ’99 and current captain Greg Royce ’01. He disappointed many Bulldog tennis fans, however, when he opted to leave Yale after his freshman year to pursue a career on the pro tour.
While on tour, endorsed by athletic companies such as Nike, Oakley and Prince, Berke played some of the world’s best tennis players, such as Lleyton Hewitt and Roger Federer, and even beat Andy Roddick, one of the top juniors internationally who just a few weeks ago defeated Pete Sampras.
Andre Agassi, who recognized Berke’s talent, even invited Berke to be his house guest and train with him and his coach, Brad Gilbert. The offer was quite an honor, but Berke instead chose to return to New Haven.
“I realized that I wasn’t physically strong enough to succeed on the tour,” Berke said. “So I decided to return to school to get my degree and at the same time build strength.”
This past fall, after regaining NCAA eligibility, Berke exchanged his Nike attire for the Bulldog uniform and rejoined the Eli squad.
“Steve is a great player to have on the team,” Royce said. “Not only can we always count on him to win, but he also adds a lot of character to the team.”
Berke, who is known for his crazy antics, acknowledges that he is the jester on the team.
“I serve to amuse,” Berke said. “I love to make people laugh.”
Even though he enjoys joking around off the court, on court he is nothing but serious.
Berke returned as a stronger and more developed player than when he left, and he aimed to be Ivy Player of the year and make it to the NCAA tournament. It appears as though he has already accomplished these goals. Berke is undefeated in Ivy matches and has already demolished all of his toughest League competitors. In fact, he’s never lost an Ivy singles match in his two years of playing for the Bulldogs.
So what now?
“I want to be the next Luke Smith,” said Berke, in reference to his new objective of being the first Bulldog to win the NCAA tournament. Smith, who played college tennis at UNLV, was the last unseeded player to win both the singles and doubles draws in the same year, back in 1997.
He also hopes to be the best tennis player ever to graduate from Yale. But this will not be an easy task. Donald Dell ’60, owner of Pro-Serve Management, once captained the U.S. Davis Cup team, and teammate Gene Scott ’60, publisher of Tennis Week magazine, made it to the finals of the U.S. Open in 1967.
After graduating, Berke, who is intending to major in American Studies, wants to return to the pro tour. While he harbors dreams of competing in all four Grand Slams, Berke’s biggest ambition is to win an Olympic medal at the 2004 games in Athens.