Proviso East tennis coach Peter Zak, District 200 Board President Theresa Kelly, Janet Buenrostro and Mel Phillips. | Photo submitted

On Oct. 13, Janet Buenrostro, 14, became the first Proviso East High School tennis player to qualify for the IHSA state tennis tournament in over 35 years and her coach, Peter Zak, and Mel Phillips, a volunteer coach with the team, could barely contain themselves.

“We’ve tried to keep each other calm,” said Phillips during an Oct. 15 phone interview. “I don’t know if it worked. It’s exciting. We’re happy for her and happy for the community. She’s a credit to the school, to the community, and to her race. There aren’t many Latino females who will be in the state tourney.”

On Oct. 19, Buenrostro lost 6-4, 6-1 to Sophie Davis of Providence Catholic in New Lenox in the tournament’s first round. The Proviso Math & Science freshman, however, showed resilience in the consolation bracket, soundly defeating Kayla McSweeney of Richards (Oak Lawn) 6-0, 6-1, before losing in the second round consolation bracket to Marta Krakowski of Elgin High School 6-0, 6-2.

For Phillips, though, Buenrostro’s presence was victory enough. He should know. As a senior at Proviso East in 1978, he qualified for the state tournament, eventually losing to the player who would win it all. 

“For her to qualify now is even more impressive than when I did,” Phillips said. “For someone to qualify from our area is even more phenomenal in this era, given how expensive it is to compete at a high level.”

Phillips, a well-known tennis advocate who has been coaching and holding clinics in the community for decades, said that, as far as he knows, Buenrostro is the first female Proviso East tennis player to qualify for the state tournament since at least 1980.

The financial barriers to grooming successful tennis players, he noted, can be substantial in working-class areas like Maywood and Melrose Park, where Buenrostro lives. Private tennis instruction can cost $100 an hour and finding an indoor tennis court to play on in the winter can be difficult and potentially costly.

And then there’s the competition. Some young tennis players, Phillips said, are home-schooled and train for hours a day, Monday through Friday. They compete in a range of tournaments across the Midwest.

What Buenrostro lacks in exposure and resources, however, she makes up for in deliberation and hard work. When asked how her game evolved to the level of state tournament qualifier, the freshman sounded older than her age.

“It was mostly being really patient and making time for all the practices and everything my dad has done to push me,” she said during an interview on Oct. 15. “I’ve been working on being smarter by just hitting more soft shots, coming to the net, really thinking about my moves, and not just hitting ground strokes back and forth.”

Coach Zak said he hopes Buenrostro’s success inspires more players to take up tennis, which he and Phillips agree can be a great leveler for kids, particularly minorities growing up in working-class communities.

“Hopefully we’ll start growing as a program, especially with someone like Janet,” Zak said. “More and more kids are talking about us now that she’s out there. They’re excited about hearing what she’s doing. I hope her success builds up our program.”

“The networking power of tennis and golf is just amazing,” said Phillips. “Most of my major professional contacts have been through tennis. Even when I’ve had job interviews. People would be more impressed to hear that I played tennis in high school than if I’d have said I played basketball or football. I’ve been able to rub shoulders with people I otherwise wouldn’t have.”

“Tennis does open doors,” said Zak. “A lot of business gets done on the tennis court. You meet and communicate with a lot people who are decision-makers.”

“I really enjoy tennis and the plan is to play until I can’t,” Buenrostro said.