Ethan Bershtein did not take the conventional route to becoming captain of the Tufts men’s tennis team.
At Amity Regional High School in Woodbridge, Conn., Bershtein was a standout singles player and a leader on one of the most dominant teams in the state — a team I played on with him. But despite his tennis ability, academics remained his main focus.
Heading into his first year at Tufts, Bershtein had his sights set on making the team as a walk-on.
“The summer before my [first] year, I worked really hard on improving parts of my game I hadn’t been able to focus on in high school, like fitness and conditioning,” Bershtein said. “But going in, I was really loose on the court because I felt like I had nothing to lose. I would have been devastated if I hadn’t made the team, but I knew I did everything I could.”
That proved to be enough. Bershtein earned his way onto the team as a walk-on and made three starts as a first-year, winning all three matches.
“I really took that year as a learning year and tried to take in as much college coaching as I could,” Bershtein said.
As a player who didn’t have a private coach growing up, as many NESCAC tennis recruits do, the exposure to college-level coaches and the development of a relationship with coach Karl Gregor was invaluable to his growth.
Bershtein made a major leap in his sophomore season, forming a dynamic pairing at doubles with then-first-year andcurrent two-time ITA national champion Boris Sorkin. The duo played well in the fall season, racking up a number of wins as Bershtein continued to hone his skills and his approach to the game.
“[Sorkin] and I meshed well,” Bershtein said. “I always felt like I was a stronger doubles player than singles player, and at the time [Sorkin] was relatively inexperienced at doubles.”
Bershtein, who played with Northwestern University standout Jason Seidmen during his time at Amity, was exposed to another elite-level player in Sorkin.
“He doesn’t blow you off the court, but he’s just so mentally tough and will never miss,” Bershtein said of Sorkin. “Being able to pick his brain was a big help for me.”
In the spring of his sophomore year, Bershtein kept up his momentum from the fall and solidified himself as a starting doubles player. What was more important to Bershtein, who has always placed the team above himself, was the culture change beginning to take shape.
“I always played team sports growing up,” Bershtein said, a unique trait for a college tennis player.
Bershtein’s team-first attitude, as well as his reputation as a hard worker — what tennis players call a “grinder" — was starting to rub off on teammates and coaches alike. By the time his junior year rolled around, this once-walk-on hopeful was elected co-captain. This was the same year I entered Tufts, and I remember how proud I felt knowing that my former captain was making such an impact at the school I was soon to enroll in.
“By my junior year, the team dynamic had changed so much,” Bershtein said. “When the [first-year] class came in that year, that’s when [Gregor's] vision was really complete.”
This was true not only on the court, where the Class of 2022 made an immediate impact, but also off the court where the team continued to gel. The spring 2019 season itself was a frustrating one, as the team fell in a number of tight matches against talented NESCAC competition. Despite going 8–9, the groundwork was laid for the program’s future success; it dominated in all of its NESCAC wins, while its losses were often decided by only a match or two.
Going into his senior year, Bershtein felt the team was the best it had been in his four years. Bershtein himself had some strong singles results during the fall tournament season, and the team as a whole had the most nationally ranked players in all four years of Bershtein’s tenure. It even started the spring season undefeated with two wins over Conn. College and Babson College. Yet just as the team was gearing up to go on its annual spring break trip and embark on the final season of Bershtein's journey, the world screeched to a halt.
Bershtein said the week leading up to school closing, and eventually hearing the fateful announcement, was something he would never forget.
“Before everything really broke, our worst case scenario was that our spring break trip would get cancelled and that there might be a break in the spring season,” Bershtein said.
When the email came signifying the beginning of the end, Bershtein and some teammates were out for food trying to take their mind off the situation.
"No one really said anything,” Bershtein said. “It felt like a punch in the gut.”
While he’s still processing the untimely end to his tennis career and his time at Tufts, the impact Bershtein has left on the program will stand the test of time. What started as a dream has culminated in a reshaping of team culture, a culture that speaks to Bershtein’s development as a tennis player and a person.
“The biggest thing I learned tennis wise, and this is something you can really apply to life, was the ability to respond to situations,” Bershtein said. “It’s all about taking a big point, a stressful situation, and asking yourself how you can respond to that tough situation in the best way possible. Sometimes it works out, and that feels great, and sometimes it doesn’t, which sucks. But if you put yourself in the best position you can, that’s really all you can do.”
To see my high school old captain speak with such maturity about his time, and to see that he’s had such a life-changing experience, was truly inspiring. Bershtein, who said he will go on to live with some teammates next year as he embarks on the next chapter of his journey, is an embodiment of all the good that can come out of college sports.
“These guys are gonna be my best friends for life,” Bershtein said. “When I came to college I didn’t even know I was gonna be on the team, and to have the bond we do now is the best part of it all.”