How Tennis Saved a State Champion’s Life

It was a typical, cold and cloudy January morning on the United States Military Academy West Point campus in the Hudson Valley, New York as the Marist College men’s tennis team took to the courts for their match against the Army Black Knights, their first non-conference tennis match in just over two years, thanks to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic.

All eyes were on the six-foot six-inch frame of Dylan Friedman, the Red Foxes’ number one singles player, as he tossed the ball into the air, setting the 2022 Marist Men’s Tennis season underway.

This moment, was one that Friedman was hoping to have after years of struggles and trying to find the right fit with a Division I tennis program.

As a child, Friedman was diagnosed with severe epilepsy, suffering frequent grand mal seizures, involving violent muscle contractions and loss of consciousness throughout his childhood. Some seizures were so severe Friedman’s heart stopped and he had to be revived.

Because the doctors were unable to guarantee Friedman would ever outgrow his condition, his parents sought alternative treatments. The Friedmans came across a study at the New York-Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City, focusing on the combination of intense exercise along with traditional medications and supplements that was showing positive results for epilepsy patients. Friedman’s parents secured him a spot in the study and Friedman became a self-described “lab rat” for epileptic research. For the intense exercise portion of his treatment, Friedman’s mother, Melissa, decided Friedman would play tennis, signing Friedman up for six hours of tennis training each day. 

Within a year, Friedman’s epilepsy was gone. 

“Tennis actually saved my life,” Friedman said.

Tennis became Friedman’s passion. He joined the Juniors Tennis Circuit, which took him all over the world playing tournaments in Spain, France, and the Cayman Islands, as well as from coast to coast in the United States. Although neither his results nor his rankings on the junior circuit were notable, the hours of training and tournament experience proved invaluable as Friedman became a standout player once he hit the high school level. 

Friedman held the number one single’s spot on the Bay Ridge Prep high school tennis team in Brooklyn, New York, from his arrival on the team in seventh grade through the end of his senior season. He posted a 44-4 record in his high school career, with a state championship in his senior season. A banner honoring Friedman’s high school tennis career, specifically his state championship, currently hangs in the Bay Ridge Prep gymnasium. 

Friedman’s tennis success is a result of the crazy amount of time spent on the courts.  “Starting when I was about 16, I would arrange my schedule so that I could leave school at 12,” he said. “I would go play tennis and hit the gym for six to seven hours, go home to do homework, and do it all again the next day.” 

Part of Friedman’s intense training involved playing tennis at John McEnroe’s Tennis Academy in New York City. There, Friedman played against nine-time Grand Slam champion, John McEnroe, his brother Patrick McEnroe, and against the greatest women’s tennis player of all-time, 23-time Grand Slam Champion, Serena Williams. 

Friedman had the opportunity to play John McEnroe on multiple occasions. McEnroe is known for his fiery tirades at both the refs and his rackets on the court. Friedman recalls that McEnroe did not hold his temper back even when playing a high school student.

“He loves to talk trash,” Friedman said. “Even if it’s just practice, we will change sides of the court, and he would utter things like ‘This kid’s so lucky.’ He would just try to do anything to get under your skin. He is the same fiery competitor now that he was then.”

Friedman attributes his opportunity to play Williams as just being in the right place at the right time. Many top players train at McEnroe’s facility prior to the U.S. Open, and Friedman just happened to be there when Williams needed a partner. While playing against Williams was just a one-time experience, Friedmans notes it is a great memory and was lots of fun. 

Even with all his tennis success, and as the salutatorian of his high school class, Friedman struggled to find a college. Although he applied to about 25 different tennis programs, “Every school I applied to, but one, rejected me,” Friedman said.

Boston University even made the point of telling Friedman he was their eighth choice. The one school that did not reject Friedman, Binghamton University, only offered him a spot on the team as a recruited walk-on, specifying that Friedman would sit on the bench for his freshman year. Friedman recalls replying, “Coach, if I am coming there, with all due respect, I’m not sitting on the bench. I’m going to come start for you.” Friedman did exactly that, and even earned a scholarship for his sophomore year at Binghamton. However, in 2020, Friedman began to question his fit with the Binghamton program and decided to enter the transfer portal. 

Due to his success at Binghamton, in contrast to his freshman recruitment period, Friedman received a ton of interest in the transfer portal, including an offer from Texas Tech, a major power-five tennis program. However, wanting to stay closer to home, Friedman reached out to Marist College. 

“When you can get your hands on a big player who has tons of eligibility left, with an impressive UTR (the ranking system used to gauge players ability), sign me up,” said Marist tennis coach Gary Sussman.

Friedman arrived on the Marist campus right around the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which derailed his first season. Then, at the start of the 2021 tennis season, due to a rise in the number of positive COVID-19 cases in the area, Marist increased COVID-19 restrictions which resulted in sports teams not being allowed to practice or participate in games. 

Friedman and his teammates decided to take matters into their own hands and circumnavigate the restrictions. Since the campus tennis courts were still open for the student body, the team held independent practices, without their coach since Marist protocol prevented Sussman from being present. The team even worked together to shovel the outdoor courts three or four times to make practice possible in the winter weather.  

Friedman and his teammate’s dedication paid off. “We did not have a single formal practice,” Sussman said. “We ended up winning the only two matches we were able to play and we were awarded a spot in the conference tournament. It was crazy.”

Marist lost in the first round of the conference tournament to Monmouth University, which has won seven straight MAAC titles.

Friedman’s 2022 quest to end Monmouth’s reign as MAAC Champion began on that cold January morning at West Point. Although the Red Foxes suffered a loss against the Black Knights, don’t count Friedman or his Marist teammates out. “The polls [MAAC preseason polls] picked us to be fifth in the conference. Let them sleep on us, we are going to be ready to make some noise,” said Friedman.

After all he has overcome, it is clear, Friedman is no stranger to rising to a challenge.

Edited by Christian De Block and Mackenzie Meaney

Photo Courtesy of Stockton Photo

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