| Rockford Register Star
Tracy Fenelon lost a chance to be the NIC-10’s (then the Big Nine’s) first four-time singles champ because his freshman year in 1977 was the year Rockford schools didn’t have sports.
Still, he was ready to become Rockford’s second state tennis champ — and first three-time state medal winner as a Guilford senior in 1980.
He was already the first two-time state runner-up and a record six-time conference champ, also winning in doubles every year back when the conference allowed people to play in both singles and doubles.
But he woke up the morning of the district tournament with a viral infection in his throat, perhaps because he returned too early after having a tonsillectomy on March 5. He couldn’t even get out of bed, with the infection also affecting his trachea, esophagus and right ear.
“The doctor said I didn’t give it enough of a chance to heal after surgery,” Fenelon, who began feeling sick after winning conference singles and doubles titles, said at the time.
Fenelon had several health issues, including a knee injury in college and a tear in the flex muscle of his right forearm in the summer after his second state runner-up finish. As much as he did, he could have done even more, yet even with the what-might-have-beens, Tracy Fenelon ranks as the No. 2 greatest tennis player in Rockford-area history.
The winter of his junior season, Fenelon was the youngest player to reach the top eight in the under-21 nationals in Nashville. He seemed primed to go one step further than his sophomore season, when he lost 6-2, 6-1 in the state finals to Kreg Yingst of Libertyville.
“His ability to move on the court was what set him apart,” said Brent Bernardi, who teamed with Fenelon to win three straight conference doubles titles. “He was very quick, had great anticipation and he had some of the best hands of anybody that I have played with or against. Tracy had the closest set of hands to someone like John McEnroe, with the ability to place the ball in a specific place, with pace or without pace. It was a unique God-given gift. He had a lot of creativity in his shot production. He would make up shots unlike anybody else I played with in the Rockford area.”
Fenelon, who moved to Japan and became a club pro there after graduating from Hawaii and could not be reached for comment, had struggled often in the state tourney as a sophomore, most notably rallying back from match point at 2-5 in the third set to beat Scott Sommers of Aurora West 4-6, 6-2, 7-5 in the quarterfinals. As a junior, the No. 1 seed was on cruise control most of the way, losing only 16 games in five straight-sets victories after getting a first-round bye. That included a semifinal comeback; Fenelon was down 4-0 before winning the last 12 games to pound Michael Kures of Riverside-Brookfield 6-4, 6-0.
“I took control and kept control,” Fenelon said at the time.
But in the finals, Naperville North senior Ron Kowal served nine aces and upset Fenelon 7-6 (7-4), 6-2.
“How do you beat aces?” Fenelon told the Register Star. “He played the best he could possibly play. He just didn’t miss. I’d sit down and go over what had happened and my conclusion was the same every time — he hit winners.
“It’s so demoralizing when someone keep pounding and pounding at you and it never stops. And when he did make mistakes, they weren’t at the right time to help me.”
Fenelon wasn’t the only one who thought he just played the wrong man on the wrong day.
“The two finals he played in, he was favored in both of them,” Bernardi said. “But the two seniors he played, they literally played the match of their life. He did not lose. He got beat. They were battles.”
Pat Wikes, the brother of 1965 West High state champ Dan Wickes, coached Harlem during Fenelon’s years at Guilford and later became a Texas Hall of Fame coach at Odessa Permian, thinks Fenelon might have been tired after playing five matches in the last two days of the tourney.
“Tracy had an all-around game. And hit the ball hard, I will tell ya,” Wikse said with a laugh. “He could hit the ball.
“The only thing that maybe kept him from winning the championship was when you go to that tournament in Illinois you play seven matches in three days. It is really stressful. I think that had a lot to do with it. Out here in Texas, we don’t have it set up that way at all. We have our district, then regional, then go to state. We have eight boys at the state tournament and go two days. That makes a difference. Some players have better endurance than others. Tracy had good enough endurance most of the time, but that is a long haul.”
Fenelon also had a way of continuing to improve, no matter how good he was. John Torrence, a nine-time champ in the now-defunct Rockford City tournament who placed fifth in the state for West High in 1972, played often against Fenelon, who was eight years younger.
“I beat him a lot, and then all of a sudden he got really good,” Torrence said. “When he went to college, he was in another league. He developed feel and placement simultaneously with power. He was very aggressive all the time. He had an all-around game.
“He did all the right things. He went to Chicago. He played in the advanced groups in the Northern Illinois district. He went to all the tournaments. He played all the time. A lot of kids today just don’t play enough. You’ve got to play a lot of matches with different people. He would play with anybody. And he had good coaching. He did all the right things and he had the talent.”
He just didn’t have the health.
Fenelon, who would originally sign with LSU before transferring and lettering two years in college at Hawaii, wanted to play districts as a senior, but his doctor warned him that if he played he could “seriously jeopardize” his college career. He also had several other health issues. He was diagnosed with Osgood-Schlatter’s disease in his right knee as a freshman and came down with measles and pneumonia as a sophomore. Then he tore that muscle in his forearm while practicing the American Twist serve the summer before his senior season at Guilford. Then came tonsillitis and a staff infection, leading to major surgery in March.
“I get sick so much,” Fenelon told the Register Star 40 years ago. “Every time I get going and I am doing well, I get sick. I get infections and I don’t know why. It’s really a bummer. I get the kind that seem to be the hardest to get rid of — pneumonia, measles, viral infections. Sometimes it makes you wonder if someone is looking out for you.”
Still, before Fenelon left for college, he wrote a two and a half page letter thanking people in town for helping his tennis career, singling out, among others, Rusty Gates, Dick Johnson, Mark Saunders, Brett Sechler and John Ortberg.
“Tracy had classic strokes,” said Ron Balsam, a former coach at West High who has been part of the Rockford tennis scene for more than 50 years. “And he had quite a bit of power. Tracy Fenelon was one of the first ones around here with that much power. And he was a nice kid.”