Yale Club Head Pro Servando Velez Honored At Retirement Party After 30 Years Of Service  
by Rob Dinerman

Dateline February 17th --- Well over 100 Yale Club Of New York squash players past and present filled the banquet room on the 22nd floor this past Monday evening to salute its long-time squash professional Servando Velez, who retired on January 31st, ending a tenure that began in 1986. Velez, 60, and Gilbert deLeon, who for the past three decades has worked as a waiter in the club’s spacious lounge and grill, were both recognized for their many years of dedicated service to the club. Velez’s wife of 36 years, Guadalupe, their children, Servando Jr. and Stephanie, and young grand-daughter, Leyla Luna Sanchez, were all present as well.

     It would be difficult to imagine a better example of someone who personified the American dream than Velez, who arrived in New York in 1976 from Mexico, having never either learned English or played a racquet sport, and who now, 40 years later, was honored by one of the most prominent institutions in the land. His uncle, Santiago, and father, Erasto, both of whom had jobs as maintenance workers at the newly-opened Uptown Racquet Club on 86th Street and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan’s upper east side, were able to get a similar position for Velez, who for several years worked the afternoon/evening shift from 3 to 11 PM and took English classes in the mornings from 10 AM till noon. During this late-1970’s time frame, Uptown, with its 14 squash courts (12 hardball and two softball) and under the dynamic ownership of Harry Saint, swiftly became known as the mecca of squash in New York, and top-tier WPSA pro Stu Goldstein, the winner of the 1978 WPSA Championship, was based there, along with a bevy of other high-level pros and top amateurs. Velez, who saw these excellent players in action while he cleaned and swept and mopped, was captivated enough by the quality of these games (and motivated as well when he learned how much more the pros made for giving lessons than his father and uncle were being paid for their work) that he started hitting the ball by himself on open courts during his spare time at the club.

  Eventually, and after taking a few unofficial lessons from Uptown pros Ted Gross and Danny Paris (and eagerly jumping on court with them for pointers whenever they had some free times between lessons), Velez got good enough to start playing with members and to offer them suggestions to improve their games. As time passed,,   the members looked to get on court with him with increasing frequency. By the early 1980’s, he began to give official lessons before his maintenance shift began, and one of the members he taught, Charles Stevenson,  the Chairman of the Yale Club Athletics Committee at the time, was so impressed that he arranged for Velez to give lessons during weekends at the Yale Club. In 1986, Velez became the assistant Yale Club pro under its head pro Jim Leddy, and when Leddy retired in 2000, Velez was named to succeed him in the head position, which he then held until his recent retirement. In addition to giving the lion’s share of the lessons at the club even while he was still the assistant pro, Velez also had a number of accomplishments on court, most notably when he played for the team in the Metropolitan A League and contributed a vital four-game win over Fred Bass to the team’s 3-2 win over the Lincoln Club in the final round of the 1990-91 playoffs, part of the three league championships that the Yale Club won during the four-year period from 1990-93.

     Known for the accuracy and effectiveness of his coaching tips, as well as the low-key and ingratiating manner in which he delivered them, Velez became one of the club’s most popular figures among its members, as was displayed by how many of them made sure to attend his retirement party to thank him for what he had done on their behalf and wish him well. He and his wife own a house in Morelos, near Cuernavaca and about a two-hour drive from Mexico City, and they plan, at least for the next few years, to spend two or three months at a time alternating between this house and the one they have owned for several decades in Queens. The Yale Club has had only two head pros, Leddy and Velez, during the 45-year period from 1972 to the present, and the current head pro, Charlie Johnson, therefore has inherited an impressive legacy of squash at the club.