ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — LAS VEGAS, N.M. – Santa Fe sophomore Warren Lee Fulgenzi, 15, a 2012 doubles state champion, is looking to break through this season with a title on singles side.
He is the son of a 1983 state doubles champion for Robertson, Warren Fulgenzi, 45, and the brother of eighth-grader Brandee Fulgenzi, 14, a Demonette, who is also considered a favorite for a state title.
Not a bad track record for most families. But this isn’t just any family.
The Fulgenzis, you see, are northern New Mexico’s unofficial first family of tennis.
In between Warren Lee and Warren, there’s Roman, 25 – a 2007 singles and 2005 doubles champ, who is also Robertson’s tennis coach.
Then you have Mario, 27, a two-time singles and doubles champ with brother Giorgio, 30, before you get to Robertson athletic director Juan Carlos, 34 – a three-time state singles and one-time doubles champ. Which leads us back to Warren, who, along with being a Western Athletic Conference doubles and team champion while playing for the University of New Mexico, won his state title with brother Garon, 47 – a state singles champion himself in 1983.
Six brothers, accounting for 13 titles. And when the branches of the Fulgenzi family tree spread further out, there’s Warren and Garon’s uncle, Dennis, 45, who won a state doubles title for St. Michael’s in 1985. Three generations of Fulgenzis in all, combining for 21 individual singles and doubles New Mexico prep state titles, dating back to the 1940s – and that doesn’t count many other members of the Fulgenzi clan who played in the state finals and semifinals, as well as on the USTA circuit.
And when you trace the branches towards the treetop, Fulgenzi tennis success began in Las Vegas, N.M., with Gene Fulgenzi, 83, and his brother LeRoy, 71.
LeRoy, however, is quick to point out that “Gene is the godfather.”
Before color televisions, space travel, commercial air travel or virtually any travel beyond what could be accomplished by foot, railroad, or – for the fortunate few – automobile, Gene’s world consisted of what he and his best friend, Bill Rapp, could dream up while growing up in the Meadow City.
“Bill was the one who played tennis – I never did until he got me into it,” Gene said. “So when we were running around, we’d play some tennis, too.”
But then, he said, a tennis coach, Bill Wurtz, took the pair under his wing and gave them a more formal training while they were in junior high school. Rapp then encouraged Gene and Bill to continue playing at the high school level, which they did. Gene and Bill ultimately formed one of the most dominant tennis tandems in the state, winning titles in 1948 and 1949 for Las Vegas High, with Gene claiming individual singles championships both those years as well.
“The last year I won it was the last year you could play both in both the (individual) singles and doubles tournaments – so we called it the Fulgenzi rule,” he said. “Why they did that, I don’t know. … And it was a lot different back then. We competed against everybody – Carlsbad, Albuquerque, everybody. At that time, there were no triple A’s, or quad A’s, or (Class) B’s or Z’s. Everybody played for the title – it was dog eat dog.”
And Gene, who was a standout basketball player as well, was able to translate his success on both courts into a scholarship to compete at New Mexico Highlands. Gene went on to win the Frontier Conference championships in 1950 and 1951, before taking two years off with the Air Force. He later returned to Highlands, winning the conference championship again in 1954 and 1955. And when his playing career was over, Gene went on to teach and coach at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe for the next 32 years.
Meanwhile Gene’s brother LeRoy, who is roughly 12 years younger, was also working hard at developing his game.
But with his brother serving overseas in the military during his formative years, he got his tutelage from his older sister, Dora Fulgenzi de Garcia.
“She was quite the player,” LeRoy said. “There were no girls sports back then so she didn’t get the opportunity to win any championships. But she was very good.”
‘No cookies and punch’
LeRoy grew up looking up to his older brothers, Gene and Charlie, a former state quarterfinalist who is now deceased. And following in those sizable shoes meant not only playing tennis, but excelling at it.
However, with both his brothers far from Las Vegas – Charlie served in the military, as well – LeRoy would get pointers from Dora, who despite being unable to play competitively at the high school level, did make a name for herself competing in community events.
“I started out playing with Dora and her lady friends,” LeRoy said. “Then as I went into junior high, one of my teachers, Mary Covington, worked with me. Gene and Charlie did play with me when they were home, but that wasn’t too often.
“I grew up with my sister – I give her the credit.”
And with his big sister helping him develop his game, making a name for himself beyond his brother’s sizable shadow became LeRoy’s main motivation. “Everyone used to call me ‘Little Gene,’ ” he said, laughing. “I didn’t really mind it. It just made me work harder to make a name for myself.”
While LeRoy would fall just short of a state title, finishing second in 1960, he made up for it at Highlands, where he won the Frontier Conference title in 1961. Then after college, LeRoy would teach at Robertson for 32 years and two years at West Las Vegas while coaching the Cardinals tennis team.
Eleven individual titles, two team championships and tennis courts dedicated to him in 2006 are just part of LeRoy’s legacy at Robertson. LeRoy was also nominated for National High School Tennis Coach of the Year two times in the 1980s. But his biggest mark for Robertson tennis came through the success of his six sons: Garon, Warren, Juan Carlos, Giorgio, Mario and Roman.
“I started them young,” he said. “I had my first two boys in my first marriage – I was divorced and kept the children – and they were with me everywhere I went.”
And where he went was to the tennis courts. “I was a tennis coach at the time, so that’s where I played with them,” LeRoy said. “During the summer they played Little League Baseball – they didn’t have YAFL at the time.
“As far as basketball, I played with them, too. But during tennis season, that was it. Tennis was the most important. That was what we were most successful in.”
One by one, LeRoy worked with each of his boys, which is how he developed the Fulgenzi trademark two-handed forehand and backhand.
“I started them in handball courts,” he said. “I would stand by the wall to pitch to them and they would hit, and hit, and hit.
“The reason I started them with two hands was because they were so small. And in those days you competed with anyone – kids with adults. So in order to get a little more power, they would hit with two hands – like in baseball. Two hands just stayed with us.”
Something else stuck with each and every one of his boys, he added. Asked if any his sons wanted to play something other than tennis, without hesitation, LeRoy said: “I never gave them a choice. Giving them a choice is like sending them to school and telling them they have choice in learning math. The teacher needs to set her foot down and the student needs to focus in order to learn.
“Tennis is fun. But the fun only comes after playing so much and learning how to compete and succeed. Kids don’t know how to work hard unless you work them hard. It was no cookies and punch day. Now they thank me for being stern and being disciplined.”
These days, LeRoy said he’s more content cheering on his grandchildren than trying to mold them into future champions – that’s the job of his boys, he said. And he has a feeling his grandkids are going to be just fine.
“I’ve only dealt with my boys so with Warren and Juan Carlos’ daughters, that’s something new,” LeRoy said. “They got them started young, so I expect them to carry on the tradition. … But you never know – with girls, maybe they will fall in love or something else will come up. If boyfriends are more important than tennis, what are you going to do? We can just hope, pray and keep working hard.”