28 Apr 2014

Individual championships unites eclectic bunch

News Article

By Sandra Harwitt

Photo: Susan MullaneRaj-Kumar Bonifacius (ISL)

After one week of exciting 2014 ITF Seniors World Team Championships action, the event came to a close on Saturday.

But the ITF Seniors World Party wasn’t over by any means — there is still more thrilling tennis to be played in the ITF Seniors World Individual Championships. The individual competition commenced on Sunday in singles and mixed doubles.

Similarly to the Team Championships, the Individual tournament brings together an eclectic group of players from all walks of life. And when the week is over there will have been an astonishing 1538 matches played and memories for a lifetime to take home.

Sunday’s opening day of action came with players clamoring around awaiting court assignments, bringing the best to their matches and watching fellow players play. There’s hardly a better description than the word 'vibrant' to describe the day that also featured an official opening ceremony at the nearby Palm Beach Gardens mall in which Venus Williams made an appearance.

A walk on the BallenIsles grounds early in the day found Dr. Earl Azimov, an optometrist from Montreal, Canada, who also owns the cutting edge Global Clean Energy company, watching his good friend Ernie Fink play. Fink, also from Montreal but a well-known teaching pro in the Orlando, Fla. area, was playing his Men’s 50 first-round match against American Rill Baxter.

As it turned out, Azimov lost in the qualifying rounds the day before, but will play doubles with Fink. Azimov, however, wasn’t at all upset about his loss to Carlos Garcia in the third round of qualifying, even admitting: “He slaughtered me. It was too hot for my Canadian blood.”

But there was another reason that Azimov was happy to just be playing in the Seniors World Championships. The last time he played the event was when it was in Mallorca, Spain five years ago. While he was in Mallorca he said he kept complaining his stomach hurt.

When he went home it was discovered he had non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. During his battle against cancer his mother, a Holocaust survivor, offered him these inspirational words of wisdom: “If I can survive Auschwitz you can survive cancer.” And she was right.

So for Azimov, who played college tennis for Coastal Carolina in the 80s, being back at the World Championships is already a major victory. As he puts it: “Every day is a good day, win or lose. If you’re breathing it’s a good day.”

And yes, in case you’re wondering, Azimov was a cousin of the late science fiction great Isaac Asimov.

As for Fink, he fell to Baxter, who posted a 63 61 win to move onto the second round. As most teaching pros will tell you they tend to hit a lot of tennis balls, but rarely get to play matches against contemporaries. But since this World Championships was close by to his home in Orlando Fink decided to take the challenge and play.

Baxter also didn’t have to travel very far to take part in the World Championships. Born and bred in Sarasota, Fla., on the west coast of the state, it was just a drive across the state.

Baxter comes from a strong tennis background. He played at Pepperdine University from 1980-1984 — was all-American for two years of his stay at Pepperdine - and then spent some time on the men’s tour where he achieved a No. 69 ranking in doubles.

He played in two tour doubles finals with Nduka Odizor in the Metz, France final in 1988, and then with his Pepperdine college roommate, Glenn Michibata, in the Wellington, New Zealand final in 1989.

Nowadays, Baxter, who made it to the round-of-16 when the Seniors World Championships was played in San Diego two years ago, plays whenever he can fit it in to his schedule. But tennis is not the way he makes his living. 

“I am a financial advisor for Morgan Stanley,” Baxter said. “I play once or twice a week and try to do a little gym work. I try to be consistent but don’t do anything heroic. I’m not full-time playing.”

Another player thrilled to be in the mix this week is Raj-Kumar Bonifacius, who would’ve played the team competition if only it was possible. But Bonifacius, a California native who learned to play tennis when he moved to Virginia as a teenager, couldn’t find other players to form a team.

That’s because in his adult life he’s become a transplant in Iceland having followed his Virginia Commonwealth University sweetheart to her native country. Eventually, he married another young lady from Iceland and the country became home.

“There’s about 1,200 people that play tennis in Iceland,” Bonifacius said. “I run a facility for tennis and baseball for kids in Reykjavik.”

Iceland is known as a country with many months of a cold weather and dark days as well as nights. But Bonifacius has no trouble dealing with that type of environment.

“We play a lot of indoor activities,” he said, and with a smile and wink added, “That’s why I have four kids.”