Last year, Hannah Berner was added to the cast of Summer House, the reality television series on Bravo TV, which follows the lives of eight young adults as they work their jobs in New York City and spend weekends in the Hamptons.
But this was not the first foray out into the Hamptons for Berner, who spent many of her weekends and summers on the East End of Long Island while growing up.
“On the weekends my family would go to Shelter Island and I would watch my dad play his weekend doubles game,” recalls Berner. “And this doubles game was what he lived for. He talked about it all week, and they would talk trash to each other. It was just the center of his universe. I would sit there and make sand castles on the side with the clay while I watched. But eventually I was out on court playing with them, and I began getting tennis lessons when I was around seven-years-old.”
Berner would take lessons at what is now Prospect Park Tennis Center, and immediately had dreams of being a professional tennis player.
“The pro there said that I was starting too late to be a professional tennis player, and my parents, for whatever reason, thought they should tell me that,” said Berner. “I was crying all week; my dream was crushed. But as a tough, little girl who didn’t like to be told that I couldn’t do things, I became determined that day to become a professional tennis player.”
Her talent and work ethic were evident from the very beginning, and resulted in her shooting up the junior rankings to the point where, at 14-years-old, she was ranked inside the Top 15 in the country and had a sponsorship with Dunlop. It was then that she was told in order to continue pursuing this dream of being a professional, she needed to go down to Florida to train.
It was a hard experience for Berner who, despite getting better and achieving a higher junior ranking, started to become unhappy.
“It was tough. I was away from my family; I was traveling to play tournaments which I knew was expensive for my parents. And I was starting to not enjoy it,” she said. “I was feeling a little burnt out from it. And at 16, I said I wanted to go home. I was in a tough place. I was dealing with some depression and anxiety, and I just felt lost.”
Returning home to New York City helped Berner recapture her love for tennis, and began taking the steps to play in high school. She got into the Beacon School on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, but the school did not have a girls’ team. Berner tried out and made the boys’ team, which in turn put her at the center of controversy. Many other teams were not thrilled with a girl being allowed to compete on the boys’ team, especially a girl who was as good as Berner as she won NYC Player of the Year and helped lead her team to multiple PSAL titles.
“It was crazy, I remember the Daily News and New York Times coming to cover our matches. I remember getting so nervous about that,” she recalls. “The best part about all of this though was that after I graduated, PSAL granted Beacon funds to start a girls team, which my dad actually coached for a couple of years, and I got a scholarship to the University of Wisconsin.”
In Madison, Berner played the top singles spot for the Badgers and was on her way to finalizing that dream of turning professional.
“It was a great experience for me, and I got to the point where I really did want to play professional. And in my senior year, I remember thinking that if I don’t get all-Big 10, it’s probably a sign from the universe that I shouldn’t go pro,” Berner said. “And right before the Big 10 Championships, I got hit by a car while walking to one of our morning workouts. That put me out for about two months, and even though I got back on court in time for the conference championships, I ended up losing a few matches. And I had one of those moments where I thought the universe was telling me something, and I tried to be very logical in that moment.”
Berner weighed the decision to turn pro, and contemplated whether or not it was worth it.
“I can burn through my wallet and travel to play this sport that I’m feeling a bit burnt out with , and maybe make it into the top 700, top 600 in the world, or I could go back to New York City, and I really felt like there was something more to me,” she says. “And what I’ve told people who have asked me about transitioning into the real world is that if you are special in tennis and accomplished great things, you can and will be great at other things. You aren’t only successful because of your athletic ability, it’s because your mentally strong, and you don’t know what other things you can be successful at until you try.”
Her first job would be in sales, where she used the same competitive spirit that made her a good tennis player to become a good salesperson. But despite being successful at it, she knew there was something more to her. She thought back to college when she had worked on some video editing projects, and even dabbled in sports broadcasting for Wisconsin athletics. She was put in touch with a social media company that was looking for a producer, and before she knew it, she was helping them make funny videos and was doing some writing behind the scenes.
During this gig, she got the chance to interview some of the cast members of Summer House and got to know them, and when the show did some recasting, her name was brought up.
“I said to them, I only know how to be myself. This is who I am. If you want to show that women can be athletic, funny, leaders and more complex than just this hot mess, then I’m down to do the show,” said Berner. “They said they 100 percent support that. They actually have a tennis court at the house so throughout the season you can see me playing. What’s cool about the show is you get to see us working during the week, so you see me launching my podcast, ‘Berning in Hell’, and the on the weekend it shows more of the personal side.”
So for the last year, Berner has been a star on the hit Bravo TV series, and Season 4 is currently airing this spring. And through her podcast, Berner has been able to use her tennis experiences to connect with athletes, comedians, entertainers and other guests.
“I’ve been able to meet people who I had previously put on a pedestal. These athletes or people from television, we think they must have it all figured out. But through doing my podcast, I have figured out that we are all coping with the same confusing purpose in life. I’ve gotten to meet so many people who have helped me realize that we are all similar.”
Between her podcast, Summer House and her comedy career, Berner makes sure to keep herself busy. All of these projects require a certain level of dedication and work ethic, something she has had from a very young age thanks to tennis.
“Tennis to this day is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she says. “The first time I did standup comedy, I did 10 minutes in front of 300 people at Caroline’s on Broadway. Everybody asked, ‘are you a maniac?’ But talking on stage and expressing myself, making people laugh without the thought of a win-loss afterwards, that was just joyous for me. Tennis pushed me to so many limits both mentally and physically that I feel prepared for anything that comes my way.”
You can learn more about Berner by visiting her website HannahBerner.com, downloading her podcast, ‘Berning in Hell’, or following her on Instagram and Twitter at @beingbernz.
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at email@example.com