Many years ago at the Fairfield Beach Club in Connecticut, John Conroy taught a lesson.
But not a typical tennis lesson. It was at a tournament, and a player, 16 years old, threw his racquet. It was the second time, and he’d already been warned. So Conroy, then the tennis coach at Princeton, defaulted him.
The player’s father, who was on the club’s board of directors, fumed as he confronted Conroy.
“Conroy simply said, ‘Look, I warned him. He can’t do that. He’s not going to do that as long as I’m the pro here,’” remembered Sean Sloane, who was Conroy’s assistant pro at the time. “Wow.”
That was one of many lessons Sloane learned from Conroy. It resonated with him, and he instilled that in all his players over his next five decades as a coach.
It’s just one aspect of Sloane’s legacy. As is his most recent recognition, the George Bacso Lifetime Achievement Award.
“Tennis is a sport where you call your own lines. You have sole control over how honest you’re going to be,” said Jeff Monhait, who played for Sloane at Haverford College from 2005-09. “One of my most lasting memories of Sean was that he was always explicitly clear that if you were not 100% certain that a ball was out, it was in. That’s a very important life lesson because you can’t cut corners and you need to do things honestly or it doesn’t really matter.”
Sloane coached tennis and squash at Williams College for 17 years before coaching both sports at Haverford for 21 years. His teams were always known for their sportsmanship. And, well, their size.
It wasn’t uncommon for Sloane to carry 24 players on his roster. His promise was that if his players showed up every day and worked hard, he wouldn’t cut them. Haverford had 12 courts to split between men’s and women’s practices, so he’d put four players on a court and run drills with two balls at a time. That way, everyone got court time and everyone played together.
It was also important to Sloane that all his players got to experience a varsity match. He “was prepared to take a loss,” he said, to give everyone an opportunity to play, but always put his team in a position to win.
“What college coach would say, ‘it’s important for me that the guy who’s 15th on our ladder gets a chance to play in a varsity match,’” Monhait said. “Who does that?”
“The kids all believed it because at practice every day, everybody was there,” Sloane said.
Sloane also always prioritized academics. If there was a guest speaker somewhere during practice, or if they were behind on schoolwork, “You go do that, it’s alright,” Sloane would say calmly. His teams were consistently among the nation’s leaders, across Divisions I, II and III, in academic achievement.
Sloane’s contributions to the sport extend beyond his teams. He was instrumental in publishing the USPTA’s Tennis: A Professional Guide in 1983, and in 2005, the College Squash Association renamed its men’s team sportsmanship award after him.
But his proudest achievement, he says, “rests with the players that I coached because I think they learned from me the right way to play the game. They’ll continue to carry that forward.”
Just as the lessons he learned from Conroy all those years ago stick with him, so will those he imparted into his players.
He was about honesty. He was about integrity. Above all, he was about respect.
“I just felt, well, this is the way,” Sloane said “Respect the game. Respect your opponents. Respect yourself.”