By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Gienna Gonnella was excited as she arrived at a Santa Rosa Junior College board meeting in May. Among other points of business, such as honoring SRJC’s state-champion men’s swim and dive team, Gonnella (her first name is pronounced like “Jenna”) would be recognized as a regional JC winner of the Arthur Ashe Award for Leadership and Sportsmanship.
When it came time for athletic director James Forkum to make the presentation, he got a coy look and told the room, “There’s something she knows, and something she doesn’t know.”
And then everyone knew. Gonnella wasn’t just a regional winner. She is the 2012 junior-college national Arthur Ashe Award winner, and will be presented Saturday during the U.S. Open tennis tournament, at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center in Flushing, N.Y.
“I was in shock,” Gonnella recalled. “My mouth dropped open a little bit.”
Each year the U.S. Tennis Association bestows several awards, such as Player of the Year, and Rookie of the Year, in each of four regions of the country, and each at five levels of intercollegiate play (Division 1, D2, D3, NAIA and junior college). The Arthur Ashe is the only one of the awards that goes beyond athletic performance. Some would call it the most prestigious of the four. Gonnella might be one of them.
“I was absolutely shocked that I won the regional,” the Ursuline graduate said. “It’s such an honor to be mentioned in the same sentence as Arthur Ashe. He was everything a humanitarian can be. … In my small way, here in my small town, I want to promote his values.”
Ashe was a great tennis player (he won the U.S. Open, Wimbledon and the Australian Open), but his legacy has more to do with opening up the sport to African-Americans and, after he contracted HIV, of raising AIDS awareness in the United States. He succumbed to the disease in 1993 at the age of 49.
Ashe was also known for his gentlemanly demeanor on the court, something that Gonnella can surely relate to.
Jay Samonte, her coach at SRJC, calls Gonnella’s sportsmanship “unmatched.” He talks about her patient work with younger players, her upbeat personality, her courteousness to opponents. In tennis, remember, it is frequently up to the players to police themselves and make in/out calls.
“Competition-wise, she’s always fair,” Samonte said. “She never made that gray-area call, where you want it so bad to be out that your eyes tell you it was out. She makes tough calls against herself.”
Gonnella is so relentlessly perky and happy and polite that people tend to think it’s an act until they get to know her. Then they discover it’s pretty much her only side.
When she isn’t playing tennis or working as a hostess/waitress/busser/pianist at the family restaurant — the famed Union Hotel in Occidental, first run by her great-grandparents in 1925 — Gonnella is likely to be immersed in some form of community service.
The Occidental native volunteers at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital and hosts tennis camps for kids, targeting those without the financial means to take private lessons. The camps started as a Senior Project at Ursuline.
“I just love coaching,” Gonnella said. “I want to inspire youth. I want everyone to know how instrumental sports can be in your life.”
Perhaps most dear to her heart is Bob Burke’s Kids, a Forestville-based nonprofit that provides recreational activities for children with severe learning disabilities and serious, often life-threatening illnesses. Gonnella has spent hours playing the piano and singing for the kids.
“These children have really complex issues,” she said. “And for just a couple hours, they can truly be kids. They love when I play Disney songs for them. We all just have a great time.”
The crowd favorite: “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” from “The Lion King.”
Samonte nominated Gonnella for the Arthur Ashe Award and asked her to submit a letter detailing these many activities. The USTA must have been impressed. The organization announced Gonnella as a regional winner in April, and the national recipient in May.
Her parents will accompany her to New York for the ceremony, as will Samonte.
Gonnella has fulfilled her two years of tennis eligibility at SRJC, but has one more semester of study at the school. She then plans to transfer to Sonoma State, where she will play tennis and work toward a master’s degree in counseling, with a credential in Pupil Personnel Services, which she said will allow her to work with high-school student-athletes.
“In my experience, everyone appreciates a compliment and a little positivity,” she said.
Gonnella passes along more positivity in a week than most of us do in a year, and for that she is about to get a huge compliment of her own.
You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or email@example.com.