It has been the warmest of winters in New York, one in which many golf courses in the area never actually closed, while area ski resorts suffered. So as spring now fully approaches, the many tennis bubbles above the city’s courts will be coming down, and fans and players alike will head back to outdoor play as the professional tours head back to the United States, starting with the Indian Wells event in a week.
But before all that transformation, New York, like it is at the end of the summer for the US Open, will come front and center for an American tennis kickoff. It will occur as part of the annual “Tennis Night In America” event on Monday night at Madison Square Garden, featuring exhibition matchups between Roger Federer and Andy Roddick, and Maria Sharapova vs. Caroline Wozniacki in the BNP Paribas Showdown at the newly refurbished “World’s Most Famous Arena.” The event has become an initial rite of spring for the tennis community, one to look forward to as winter turns the corner. But for the sport to turn the corner, its most vocal and influential spokesperson, John McEnroe, says more change is needed.
McEnroe, who hosted 40 New York Junior Tennis League kids for a clinic at Sportime Randall’s Island this week (he is this year’s spokesperson for the event), loves tennis in New York, and thinks that the inner city is still the place to find America’s next great star.
“I think one of the big mistakes the sport made was moving the ATP year-end event out of the Garden when I was playing,” he said. “Madison Square Garden is a big time venue, and the atmosphere for concerts, the Knicks, the Rangers, is amazing. I loved playing there last year (he took on Ivan Lendl despite an ankle injury) and think that Monday night will be very exciting for those players participating. We need more of those type of events.”
The draw of Gotham, the home of the Open, is what drove McEnroe to start his Academy last year at Sportime, in the shadow of Manhattan. The $19.5 million facility, built with private funds on public land, has courts available to the public year-round, while over 300 future stars-in-waiting also fill the facility after their schools days are done. The Academy has been built around McEnroe’s belief that a well-balanced life, one where kids participate in all sports, go to school, and then take up tennis, is what may work best. With millions of young people within an hour of the facility, he believes that finding that next star is a matter of exposure as much as selection.
“We have to find kids who are good all-around athletes and introduce them to tennis, and there is no better place than right here in what I believe is the greatest, most diverse city in the world,” he added, while gazing out at the multicultural mix of NYJTL kids hitting balls in the background.
The City has become energized in recent months with the play of the Super Bowl Champion Giants and the resurgent Knicks, both of whom had surprising stars. New Jersey’s Victor Cruz emerged from anonymity to be a key part of Eli Manning’s receiving corps, while Jeremy Lin came from the NBA D-League to energize the moribund Knicks. It is that type of buzz and potential that McEnroe thinks exists among the newer faces being introduced to the game at facilities like the McEnroe Academy and others run by the USTA.
“There is no secret that this is a business and it is an expensive sport, but it has always been that way,” he added. “My hope is that by being here and doing things this way we will identify that kid or kids who will take to the game like they do to basketball or soccer, and that they will bring others to the sport and eventually emerge. If nothing else, hopefully they see and use tennis for its great life skills and they become advocates. All of that is possible if we get the right amount of people playing.”
The buzz around big events also helps, and more will be created through Monday night’s matchups at a sold out MSG.
“I hope Andy and Roger enjoy playing at Madison Square Garden, I always have,” he concluded. “Hopefully there are also people in the seats who may see these guys playing and the great buzz generated, and that gets them excited about playing tennis. It all works together and that’s how it grows, and there is no better place than New York to get that done.”
Spoken like a true son of the City, a star of the courts, and supporter of the game.
Jerry Milani is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.