The great Taupo tennis scandal
When the president of Taupo Tennis struck a secret deal to bring an American coach to town, she thought she'd pulled off a coup. Less than two months later the relationship had broken down so badly the town's mayor had to step in to negotiate a settlement. Tony Wall and Simon Plumb investigate the bizarre story of Mark Feinsod.
Taupo has big skies, big mountains and a big lake - but it was way too small for Mark Feinsod.
"If I'd known it had one traffic light, I would never have gone there," Feinsod says on the phone from New York.
"Taupo's like Gilligan's Island. If they see a new person, you know they are gonna be all over them, especially a good-looking New Yorker. I'd get pulled over by the police just because I stuck out. All the girls wanted to have sex with me."
How Feinsod came to be in Taupo, and what happened during his seven-week stay last summer, is still being talked about, despite the best efforts of Taupo Tennis to hush it up.
By the time Feinsod left on a bus in the middle of the night, he had been accused of being a hopeless coach and exaggerating his CV.
Tennis sources say the episode raises questions about why officials smoothed his path into the country, and why they seem intent on headhunting foreigners at the expense of qualified locals.
Feinsod says he was misled by club president Moira Peters, who made promises a small club like Taupo could never keep. He says he wasn't paid, and went hungry. "Those people did everything possible to try and screw me over," he says.
Peters says Feinsod was sacked because he wasn't up to it. "He didn't perform as the coach we thought we had employed, his ability was not up to standard. I do concede mistakes were made, I personally made mistakes. We've learned from that and moved on." She declined to comment further.
Taupo mayor Rick Cooper, who acted as mediator when the relationship turned sour, says there was fault on both sides. "I'm not sure if Mark's credentials were kosher, or whether he was what he said he was. It's a long way to bring somebody . . . a bit more due diligence and this might never have happened."
Cooper still doesn't quite know what to make of Feinsod. "He was a strange character, I didn't know how true his stories were. It was like his elevator was stuck between floors."
FEINSOD, 36, was surfing the internet last year when he came across coaching jobs in New Zealand, and sent out his CV. Leslie Wilkinson, the chief executive of Tennis Waikato-Bays, got in touch, and passed his name to Peters, who was looking for a coach.
His CV was impressive, saying he ran a tennis academy and had a masters of science in physical education from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he also taught. The university confirms this. He claimed to have trained world-ranked players and given 4000 lessons.
The website for the Mark Feinsod Tennis Academy features photos of him with tennis celebrities such as Jimmy Connors, although they look suspiciously like fan photos.
Feinsod's main coaching qualification appears to be a recreational certificate from the United States Professional Tennis Association, which sources say is the most basic course for teaching beginners, and would take about four or five hours.
The Star-Times found no evidence that Feinsod was not a tennis coach, although he appears to have embellished his job titles, describing himself as a "director of tennis" at several places when staff say he was only ever a coach.
Over several months last year, Feinsod emailed and Skyped Wilkinson and then Peters, negotiating his package. An offer was provided to enable him to get a work visa.
His contract said he would be paid a $1000 monthly retainer, $45 an hour to coach juniors, and have free use of the courts for private lessons. He would also be given free, billeted accommodation for the first two months.
It was an unusually generous package for a small club like Taupo, coming off a $9000 loss on income of $54,000 in the previous financial year.
Feinsod reckons he stood to make $80,000 over a couple of years, and, with the economy in the US in the doldrums, jumped at the chance to travel outside of the States for the first time.
His arrival in Taupo last November was greeted with an article in the Taupo Times describing him as an "internationally acclaimed tennis specialist".
The reporter, Libby O'Brien, says Feinsod invited her to take a private lesson, and sent her several texts. "He was on the verge of becoming a pest," she says.
Feinsod stayed with Peters on her farm about 10 minutes from Taupo, then boarded with a single mother in town. The woman, who doesn't want to be named, says she had concerns about him after a week, and moved to get rid of him after two.
She says Feinsod had the "gift of the gab", but it soon became apparent he had delusions of grandeur. He would rave about how fit he was, but was overweight, chain-smoked and would stay up all night and sleep until lunchtime.
The landlady says he gambled on American sports, and she found discarded prescription painkiller packets in his room. He had a habit of putting his hand down his pants during conversations.
Feinsod says he put his hands down his pants, like Al Bundy in Married With Children, because "that's a thing we do in New York to stay warm", that he was prescribed painkillers for a foot injury.
Feinsod says his former landlady's allegations are driven by bitterness because he would not sleep with her. He sent the Star-Times an email, purportedly from the woman, in which she apologised to him and admitted to having a "crush" on him.
The woman says the email is doctored. The spelling and grammatical errors it contains are consistent with Feinsod's other emails.
AFTER ABOUT a month, Peters began to have concerns about Feinsod's abilities, and started questioning his credentials.
"I was coaching some kids from behind the baseline . . . and she [Peters] came on court asking what I was doing, and embarrassed me," Feinsod says. "I said, ‘don't you ever do that to me again, don't you ever tell me how to coach'."
Wilkinson came down from Hamilton to watch Feinsod, and later wrote to him: "I have coached in the States as well as here and believe that the way you structured the lesson showed a lack of planning. The woman you coached is a beginner . . . and required basic technical help that I felt was not provided." Wilkinson added that "this has become a sad situation Mark, and I do feel for you coming out here and finding it not as you had hoped. Moira and I made sure we gave you a very true picture of the conditions and club".
Feinsod says he was presented with a new contract by club treasurer Irene Heydon. "What it came down to was, Moira never told the club committee what she told me she was paying me. What I believe happened is they found out . . . and Irene handed me a new contract."
He says he hadn't been paid, was barely eating, and had spent around $10,000 of his own money to survive. Out of desperation he went to see Cooper, who says he felt some sympathy for Feinsod, and gave him $200 to get something to eat.
"You can't have an American here with nothing to eat and nowhere to live, it wasn't a good look for the town." Cooper also convinced Heydon to reach a settlement with Feinsod, and pay him some money so he could return home.
Feinsod recorded the settlement meeting with Heydon and her husband, Chris Young. The couple tried to get Feinsod to sign a confidentiality agreement, but he refused.
On the tape, Heydon is critical of the contract Peters drew up, saying the $1000 monthly retainer was not sustainable. "I said ‘Moira, I understand why you've done this, but you had no right to do it by yourself, it needed to be a committee decision'." Young said Taupo was not big enough for a fulltime tennis coach.
"This is a cock-up from start to finish." At one point Heydon says: "Do you want to see the money?" Feinsod: "Don't insult yourself, I trust you." Heydon: "You sign this, take the money, then we're out of here." Feinsod was paid almost $4000. The couple assured him they "will not bag you with other people in New Zealand regarding coaching".
Wilkinson, too, was keen to help Feinsod find work elsewhere, giving him a number for the development manager for Wellington Tennis, and wishing him luck finding a job there.
Feinsod was offered a position in Wellington, but says he turned it down because it didn't pay well. Shortly after Christmas, he took a 2am bus to Auckland, and flew home.
Wilkinson refused to comment on her part in the incident.
Cheryl Sucher, an American living in Hawke's Bay who helped Feinsod, says he came to New Zealand with good intentions but "got himself into something he shouldn't have. Tennis is his whole life, he'd never been abroad before, and I think he's incredibly naive."
Feinsod's parents, New Yorkers Ben and Natalie, believe their son was treated "atrociously". They sat in on a Skype session with Peters, where she "promised him all the things in the world".
Natalie Feinsod: "They didn't like the way he taught tennis - he taught all the new methods, they wanted to teach their methods."
Mark Feinsod provided the Sunday Star-Times with references, including one from a Taupo pensioner who confirmed Feinsod "set me at ease and gave me valuable instruction" over three lessons. He also worked with autistic children for free.
"Am I a good coach? I'm a great coach," Feinsod says.
"It's what I love doing, it's my passion."
Sunday Star Times