It is a stifling summer night on the east side of New York City, but Gabby Price isn’t worried.
The pixie-sized nine-year-old is belting returns to Martina Hingis, one after the next, as the near-sellout crowd of over 2,500 watches and cheers every shot. Off to the side, Serena Williams and John McEnroe watch attentively and cheer and high-five Gabby and some of the other young kids as they come off the court.
It is another step forward in the evolution of American tennis under the watchful eye of McEnroe, his brother Mark, club owner Claude Okin and the ever growing staff of the John McEnroe Tennis Academy.
The night is actually the culmination of the World Team Tennis regular season, a grueling month of July which saw the hometown Sportimes falter down the stretch and miss the playoffs, while the visiting Washington Kastles (with Williams on board) ran the table for an undefeated season and the league championship.
But the overall focus of the month, and the last year, has been on keeping an eye out for young tennis talent that can be cultivated under the watchful eye of McEnroe and his Academy, which opened in the gleaming new facility on Randall’s Island last September.
By all accounts, the first year of the Academy was a smashing success. Enrollment of several hundred far surpassed expectations, with students day tripping from as far away as Pennsylvania to be evaluated and trained by McEnroe, head pro Gilad Bloom and the other 20 or so pros.
Each finished a regular school day, then found their way to the Academy, using the computer facilities for homework assignments as they waited their time on court.
“I think what we are trying to do with the Academy is find the right balance for kids of tennis and other activities,” McEnroe said. “It is the way I learned growing up and it worked, so far I think it is early but we are doing OK.”
The Sportime facility is an interesting mix of public land and private money, and the courts reflect that diversity.
A certain amount of time is available to anyone who holds a pass to play the public courts of New York, while some is devoted to those kids of the Academy as well as adults who are taking to the facility from nearby Manhattan in droves.
On any given day, firemen from the nearby New York City Fire Training Facility may stop by for lunch, trading fruit and paninis with some of the great young talent that New York has to offer the game.
The $20 million facility is the crown jewel of the Sportime clubs, a chain of 14 throughout New York State. It is also a key cog in the continued redevelopment of Randall’s Island as a multi-tiered sports and recreation facility.
The Iand, in the East River and accessible only by the JFK Bridge, city bus or footbridge, had become an eyesore in the 1980s, with fields ridden with broken glass and debris. But the Randall’s Island Sports Foundation, working with the New York City Parks department, undertook a massive renovation of the island, a place where McEnroe himself once played soccer.
In addition to Sportime, the Island boasts Icahn Stadium, one of the best track and field facilities in the area, as well as countless fields dedicated to baseball, soccer, lacrosse and softball.
The Academy has called Sportime Randall's Island home since its doors opened last September, with the hope of drawing kids from the five boroughs to the Island in search of tennis as an elite or lifetime sport.
Thus far, things appear to be going according to plan.
“The system wasn’t working as it was set up, so we want to try something a little different and by the response we have gotten I think we are doing something right,” John McEnroe added. “No champions yet, but we have just started, and you can see the talent level and interest is there.”
The sport’s national governing body, the USTA, has its own training center just a few miles away on the grounds of the National Tennis Center. That elite program is run by John’s brother Patrick and has taken a more traditional role to developing the next American star.
Regardless of which “system” may end up being the right one, it is fair to say a McEnroe will again influence the future of American tennis. Not just with elite players but with young people who have now come to a game that was an afterthought before.
Those bright lights were not lost on Price or the other kids who took the courts to hit with pros during the WTT season this past July.
The infectious joy and interest of each was a very positive sign for American tennis, especially with the McEnroes at the helm.