New York Trying to Develop the Next Tennis Superstars

Aspiring tennis players often head to training academies in warmer, year-round climates such as Florida or California to hone their talent. But now the United States Tennis Association is trying to keep local talent closer to home.

Deborah Goins is a tennis mom and a recent Saturday afternoon found her spending the entire day at the Fred Johnson tennis courts in Harlem, watching her son competing in a tournament.

“The minute he put a racquet in his hand, they made a bond,” she chuckles. “And he’s been playing tennis ever since."

Goins’ son, 15-year-old Courtney Murphy, started playing tennis eight years ago at the Harlem Armory Tennis and Education Program. (America’s top male African-American player, James Blake, is an alumnus.)

“This is something I want to do,” says Murphy. “It’s pretty enjoyable.”

Murphy’s pretty good. He’s currently ranked 39th in the city and 124th in the Eastern Region, which includes New Jersey and Long Island.

It's not going to be easy. As Courtney Murphy's experience shows, tennis is not the kind of sport that one picks up casually, like football or basketball. You need lessons. You need equipment. Parents have to provide those resources, which are expensive in New York City. They can't rely on school-based sports programs because often, they don't exist.

Goins has traveled with Courtney to places like Bermuda, Miami and Atlanta to build his resume. Goins says her son has been offered a scholarship to train at the prestigious Bollittieri Academy in Florida, which boasts alums like Maria Sharapova, Andre Agassi and Jim Courier. But she says it's not a simple decision.

“We need to sit down and work out a lot of stuff in terms of finances, school work, family stuff,” she says. “I’m a single parent and it’s not easy.”

Goins is not the only parent going through this. Dan Berner’s talented daughter, Hannah, made headlines last year when she played on the Beacon School’s boy’s tennis team — No. 1 in the city — because the alternative high school didn't have one for girls. Berner says Hannah’s training has come from a variety of sources: from him, private coaches, USTA-sponsored clinics, even mini “academies” created with other parents.

“Parents,” he says, “who got together and said, ‘Hey, let’s all get our kids together, we’ll form a group, we’ll find a good coach, we’ll find some courts and put a good program together.’ There’s a lot of initiative that needs to be taken to put your kid in the right situation.”

Some think this do-it-yourself, ad hoc path to the pro tour has led to the state of American tennis today, with no crop of identifiable teenage stars to replace Andy Roddick or Venus and Serena Williams.

Patrick McEnroe has noticed. The former player and TV commentator became general manager of the USTA’s player development program two years ago.

“I think we, in general, can do a better job of coaching [young players], of mentoring them, of really working them a little bit harder in terms of understanding how to play the game” says McEnroe, who’s stepping down as the captain of the men’s U.S. Davis Cup tennis team later this month to focus on player development. “I think we fell behind a lot of the European countries, and the South American countries, in developing our best kids.”

McEnroe has boosted player development funding by $3 million to $5 million, to $15 million a year. He’s partnered with private academies to create regional training centers. He even started a new one run by the USTA, right here, at the home of the U.S. Open, the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, Queens. Last spring’s inaugural class of 45 kids came from the city, Long Island, Connecticut and New Jersey. The USTA sponsors each kid fully, and Tim Mayotte, one of the coaches, says that frees up the program to attract — and keep — the most promising players.

“It's one of the benefits we have, not being tied to dollars,” says Mayotte. “Understandably, there are a lot of great programs out there, but they're also businesses, so it's very hard to ask a kid to move on.”

The program in Queens is in its infancy, and so is the USTA's renewed focus on developing top American players. For the near future, aspiring young players and their parents, like Deborah Goins and her son, Courtney, are still very much on their own, creating their own path to tennis success. 

“He even mentioned Spain once to me. He did!” Goins exclaims. Spain has six players in the Top 25 of the men’s pro tour, including world No. 1, Rafael Nadal.

“He’s a dreamer," Goins says, laughing. "What can I tell you?”