Getting a Second Chance at the Game He Loves

January 19, 2023



Eric D’Elia: Getting a Second Chance at the Game He Loves

Eric D’Elia, the 2005 Boys 18s Junior National Platform Tennis Champion (and 2006 Junior National finalist), was first captivated by tennis at the age of three and took up paddle tennis when he was 10. In the midst of a successful junior career in both tennis and paddle, D’Elia experienced a stroke in 2006, and again in 2007, sidelining him from racquet sports for 12 years. His good friend and paddle tennis partner from his Junior title, Marc Powers, went on to win the 2018 APTA Men’s National Championship. In 2019, at the age of 29, D’Elia was cleared by a neurologist to play competitive racquet sports again.



D’Elia was playing in Intersectionals, a tennis tournament where the top four players in New England compete against top players from other sections of the country. “Our team was playing Shreveport, Louisiana, and each of us was staying with a host family. Marc was a teammate, and in the small world of paddle and tennis, our coach was Jerry Albrikes. I was 16.

“The first night we were there, I lost coordination in my right arm and my right leg. I was sitting in a car next to my teammates drinking an old-fashioned Coca-Cola out of a bottle and I couldn't bring the bottle to my mouth. When I got out of the car, I couldn’t control my right leg either. I went to the hospital where Jerry met me and the doctors thought I was dehydrated. I was given fluids and sent back to the host family for the night. I woke up and tried to play tennis the next day although I couldn’t walk normally. I couldn’t hit the ball over the net. I went back to the hospital and that's when the doctors took an MRI and discovered that I had a stroke. I was immediately transferred to the ICU at LSU Medical Center. My parents flew from Maine to stay with me for a full week. All the tests came back normal.

“I went back home to Connecticut and saw specialists in New York. After several months, many doctor visits, and rehab to regain my coordination—they never figured out exactly why the stroke happened. The doctors said I could start playing paddle and tennis again,” D’Elia said. Powers and D’Elia made it to the finals of Junior Nationals that winter (2006) losing a tough match 7-6 in the third set. D’Elia competed in USTA Junior tennis again that spring and summer, qualifying for the USTA Junior Clay Court Championships in Maryland.

D’Elia recalled, “I was on the court playing a match and similar things happened as when I was in Louisiana. Dizziness struck me in the middle of a point and continued into the next point. We had to stop the match and an ambulance took me to the hospital. After more testing, they saw that I had mini strokes. It was another occurrence but not as extreme. It wasn’t until testing a few months later that they were able to diagnose this mystery. We all have two vertebral arteries going through our spines to the brain. My left vertebral artery was sort of small, tortuous, and wrapped around the bone in my neck area. Apparently, as I got stronger with tennis and serving, the neck movements had dissected that artery. That's what caused the clot and stroke at the end of the day.

“The doctors wanted to see what was going to happen with the left vertebral artery. The plan was to put a coil in the artery and block it because it was risky to have that artery open. When they went in during surgery, the doctors learned that the artery had actually occluded itself. It was kind of a best-case outcome because once that is closed on its own, it rarely reopens.”


D’Elia spent the rest of his high school years not allowed to play tennis. He helped coach his high school team and watched matches. He attended Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, where both his sisters played on the tennis team. He had dreamed of playing college tennis and held out hope. Many of his friends were on the team, so he spent time watching and helping coach there as well. The doctors thought tennis wasn’t worth the risk, due to the unknown of what could happen. The sideline was frustrating.

He said, “After my freshman year, the doctors thought that golf would be safe, so I joined the Bowdoin golf team. Getting cleared for golf was salvation for me. It let me get back into the arena in some capacity. I had a new focus and moved forward a little bit rather than watching everybody else play. I’m about a four handicap now.

“I had been to so many doctor appointments at that point and I think they were a little skittish when they first cleared me to play tennis in high school without knowing all the answers and the possibility of another stroke happening. It made me more cautious about going back to playing tennis. My doctors were thinking about the long term as well. It was a little bit of a roller coaster in terms of making those decisions.

“I had a great time playing golf at Bowdoin. It is a short season there—just September and October—but what a great outlet. There were a lot of good guys on the team and it gave me a head start on my game, which a lot of us end up playing later in life.”

After college, D’Elia was offered an internship at the PGA TOUR, in Ponte Vedra, Florida, working for the Director of Business Development of the Nationwide Tour. His boss was looking to bring the Development Tour or at least a tournament to Maine. D’Elia created connections with a few companies in the Portland area, which led to a job offer in Portland. He later migrated away from business sports marketing to digital advertising and is now the Vice President for Freestar.


“Two years ago, I met with a neurologist in Maine. We took a look at my films and everything in my neck looked the same as the MRIs from 10 years prior. That's really the goal—to make sure the artery is still blocked off and the bones aren’t encroaching. He had a mindset that people ought to be able to live their lives and not worry all the time about what's going to happen. We are in a good position to do that, so he cleared me to get back out and play paddle, which was great news.

“It’s such a fun sport and a great way to get outside in the winter, especially in a state where that isn’t always the easiest thing to do. I was very excited to play again. I’m not playing much tennis, just focused on playing paddle. Right now, I’m out there twice a week at the Portland Country Club.

“I have become re-addicted. I watch a lot of the Live Streaming, looking at the strategy and trying to figure it out. Obviously, I played with Marc in Juniors, but the guys are doing a lot of things that we didn't do at that time, like the spins. The game has evolved quite a bit.

“My mom knows Jim Kaufman, and she organized a group lesson with him for my brothers-in-law and me. It was very helpful to learn some of his strategies,” D’Elia said.

2023-how-Eric and Sam B-600
Eric and Sam


Once D’Elia realized he was able to play, it didn’t take him long to want to compete.

“It is hard to explain until you get out there. There is something about getting outside, how dynamic the points are, and the fun. It was great to be out there again but then I thought, ‘I should play one tournament.’

“In my first tournament back, in 2019, I played in a PTI tournament with my brother-in-law, Sam Bitetti, and it was eye-opening playing against that level for the first time. It made me kind of draw in and figure out what I need to do to increase my level. We played in the Boston Open a month later and I felt like I got a lot better just by getting out there and playing in that environment. Watching and playing against the pros in the Boston Open was super helpful.

“I did the same thing in golf. I played in the Maine amateur tournament last year. The qualifier tournament was in Brunswick on my college course. I may try to do that again this year.

“In paddle tournaments, I get that kind of fun, nervous anticipation. Something about me needs a goal to drive toward. I like to choose a tournament to have my eye on, to have something to achieve. I have a competitive itch that needs to be scratched. It’s kind of a trickle effect from there. I guess I get addicted to things and get competitive and want to start playing tournaments,” D’Elia said.

Even after two strokes at a very young age and sitting on the sidelines for 15 years, Eric D’Elia never lost his addiction to platform tennis, the will to compete, the desire to grow the game, and the love of being outside on a winter day hitting a green ball off the screen.

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