It is a cold, snowless January in New York, and the eyes of the tennis world are casting far glances to Australia, where the 2012 professional season is already underway and the Australian Open is on the horizon.
However, nestled under the RFK Triborough Bridge on Randall’s Island, those at Sportime New York and the John McEnroe Tennis Academy are having lots of warm thoughts of their own.
While the Academy’s namesake, Hall of Famer John McEnroe, hustles off to Oz for a few weeks of pro tennis commentary, the two-year-old Academy is bustling, and a pair of its youngest faces are already bearing the fruits of the their work with the staff.
In late December, Jamie Loeb, 16, of Ossining, N.Y., swept the girls 18s singles and doubles titles at the 2011 USTA 18s Winter National Championships, the last major national junior championships of 2011. Then this past weekend unseeded Noah Rubin, 15, of Rockville Centre, won the first singles title on the ITF World Junior Circuit at the 48th Copa Del Café tournament in San Jose, Costa Rica.
The wins for each are great signs that the Academy, with over 300 entrants filling the courts at Sportime New York, may be seeing the results sooner rather than later of their curriculum which mixes tennis with a steady diet of other activities, much in the manner of the way the McEnroe brothers were raised in and around The Big Apple.
Loeb, the No. 5 seed, defeated No. 2 seed Mayo Hibi of Irvine, Calif., 6-4, 2-6, 6-4, in the girls 18s final in Mesa, Ariz., and teamed with Madeline Lipp of Lake Forest, Ill., to win the doubles title. She dropped just two sets in seven matches en route to the title. It was her second USTA Winter National title in as many years after winning the girls’ 16s title in 2010.
Current professionals who own USTA Winter National titles include: Christina McHale (12s, 2004); Donald Young (14s, 2002); Alexa Glatch (14s, 2002); and Jack Sock (12s, 2004, and 16s, 2008).
Rubin, unseeded, upset the No. 2 seed in the first round and the No. 4 seed in the semifinals before beating No. 5 seed Connor Farren of Hillsborough, Calif., 4-6, 6-2, 6-3, in the final. It was his first in ITF competition. He also won the boys' 16s title at the 2011 USTA International Spring Championships.
Under the direction of Mark McEnroe, Gilad Bloom and a strong stable of veteran coaches led by Executive Director of Tennis Lawrence Kleger, the two-year-old academy is making its mark not just with the local kids who come to work out and train, but now on a national level as well.
“We have good balance and a wide range of kids who enjoy being here and have a willingness to improve under our system,” Kleger said recently. “The facilities, both here and at the other Sportime clubs are great, and our coaches share John’s philosophy for success, we are very excited about the possibilities.”
The $19.5 million Sportime Facility, which not only houses the Academy and is the home for the World Team Tennis Sportimes, also provides some of the best public access courts anywhere in the world.
It is a haven where those interested in playing recreationally can come any time, with a pass from the New York City Parks and Recreation Department, and play alongside club members and a growing cache of potential stars, along with an appearance by Johnny Mac himself on a pretty regular basis.
As far as the Academy goes, young people from as far away as the Philadelphia suburbs (Ventnor, New Jersey’s Shane Monroe is one) and Bucks County, Pennsylvania have come to work with the McEnroe team, along with a slew of talent from all five boroughs, New Jersey and Long Island.
The Academy even has its own Williams Sisters, fifth grader Chelsea and and eighth grader Brianna, who are also looking to follow in the footsteps of those other Williams,’ Venus and Serena.
“We have been lucky to find a great amount of young players from the area interested in improving their game,” Kleger said, “They don’t have to go far away to learn and work hard and leave their family and friends, and we provide a great alternative not just to find great professionals, but to find people who will use the life lessons that tennis provides to be successful in whatever they want to do.”
Some of that success may be in building a well-rounded future champion, with young talent like Loeb and Rubin being the first to succeed at a high level under McEnroe’s system of balancing life skills and tennis.
Other success may be measured in bringing a higher level of enjoyment or life success to hundreds or thousands of other young people who might not have given tennis a second thought were it not for the Academy and Sportime.
Either way, it seems like a cold winter for tennis fans is heating up, not just on the sun-baked courts of Melbourne and Sydney, but on the hard courts of New York as well.
Jerry Milani is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.