Published: June 6, 2017
Many of us know Ralph DiSaia as one half of the Old Lyme, Conn., dealership Oriental Rugs, Ltd, and as the gregarious, unflappable facilities manager for half a dozen or so top antiques shows, stretching, chronologically speaking, from the Washington Winter Antiques Show in January to the ADA/Historic Deerfield Antiques Show in October. As it turns out, DiSaia is also a tennis ace whose talent and dedication was recently acknowledged by the Connecticut High School Coaches Association, which named him the state’s Coach of the Year for men’s tennis. We caught up with DiSaia, who lives in Waterford with his dealer and show manager wife, Karen, between matches.
Which came first, antiques or sports?
Sports. I grew up in North Kingston, R.I., and went to Providence College, where I was captain of the tennis team and the Friars’ number one player. Growing up, I also played basketball and was a place kicker on the football team.
What brought you and Karen together?
I was the tennis pro at Lyme Shores Racket Club in East Lyme, Conn. Karen was in one of the programs. We had a match one day and that was it. We’ve been married for 36 years. Karen introduced me to antiques soon after we met. I found it interesting and enjoyed the hands-on activity. I liked the personal interaction with buyers and sellers and found the pursuit of exceptional rugs, notable for their age, design, coloration and condition, very rewarding.
How long have you been coaching?
I’m finishing my 15th year at Waterford High School. I previously coached at Connecticut College in New London, and at St Bernard School in Uncasville, Conn. At Waterford High School, we’ve had 225 wins and 25 losses, a record that puts us in the top three in our division in the state. I’ve never won a point. The kids do all the work.
What’s the secret to coaching?
Structure. I’ve always had a very disciplined format. It’s no-nonsense and instills a sense of confidence. If a situation becomes difficult or stressful, players have that foundation to fall back upon. It’s almost Zen tennis. I encourage meditation. In the locker room before every match, we have quiet time. It’s a kind of mental cleansing. You put everything aside, then go out and play.
What else distinguishes you as a coach?
I have a no-cut policy. Any kid who comes out is a member of the team. I was one of the first 200 coaches in the country to institute such a policy. It’s been incredibly successful. It’s encouraged kids to try the sport who might not otherwise have done so. It’s a great outreach and helps build our feeder program.
Other keys to success?
All kids are different, so you have to understand the psyche of each one. This is amplified by the fact that tennis is a very individual sport. I’ve been blessed to work with really great kids. Many have gone on to do amazing things with their lives. Some have gravitated to careers in medicine, science and engineering. One just graduated from Harvard’s divinity school and is in Beijing studying Buddhism.
What do you do as facilities manager for several antiques and arts shows?
Everything, basically. I’m often working with folks, from fire marshals and electrical inspectors to labor unions, who don’t understand our goals or why their requirements may not be feasible. I deal with personalities and have to resolve situations with humor and creativity.
Most comical moment?
I don’t want to embarrass anyone, but one story I can tell involves the Wayside Inn Antiques Show, which was held in a huge tent. As usual, I was on duty 24/7. After a 3 am downpour, I went out to check for leaks. When I heard strange noises, I crept around the back of the tent, only to discover the field had, quite literally, become a duck pond. The pond disappeared the next day and, with it, the ducks.
Speaking of which, don’t you and Karen treat yourself to a snorkeling vacation each winter?
We like to relax in an active form. One of our regular haunts is the island of Roatan off Honduras. Karen loves to do underwater photography. I serve as her spotter. We can be in the water up to five hours a day.
And trips to Canada?
We go frequently to see our daughter, Rachel, and our grandchildren, Carter and Dylan. They are incredible little people. They provide us with a sense of unconditional love and admiration, in both directions. Watching them develop is gratifying and endlessly entertaining.
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