More Than a Tennis Club: Port Washington Tennis Academy

Photo credit: Miguel Cervantes III
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Anything that has been around for years probably has a pretty good story behind it. Well, Port Washington Tennis Academy (PWTA) has been around since 1966, and boy did I learn a thing or two recently about it. You probably know that they’ve had some great players pass through its doors in the past, including John McEnroe and Vitas Gerulaitis just to name a few, along with some great coaches, the most famous being Harry Hopman, but did you know that the Port Washington Tennis Academy is a non-profit organization? That was just the tip of the iceberg when I sat down with Dick Zausner.

 

 

My first question to Dick Zausner was, “How long have you owned the tennis club?” His response … ‘I don’t own it, the Academy does.’”

PWTA was founded as a non-profit organization that has education as it’s main focus. Established in 1966 by his father, a Boy Scout, PWTA was launched as a way to give the community youth an activity. The hope was that tennis would help them stay away from alcohol and drugs. Since then, numerous organizations have benefited from the lessons, matches and daily activity that help fund the PWTA’s philanthropic efforts. A visit to “Lion’s Field” just behind the PWTA reveals a new scoreboard. Just one of the latest examples of the Club’s raison d’etre. The humble Mr. Zausner didn’t want to go through all of their efforts, but they try to focus on youth activities and again, education.

Port Washington Tennis Academy didn’t always look the way it does today though. The club started out as just a few outdoor courts. Soon, those courts were bubbled. It took some time before a permanent structure was put in place, and in 1973-1974, the construction of the front building began and in 1977, the back building went up.

A tour of the facilities now would take some time. PWTA now has 17 courts (four hard courts and 13 clay courts), a full-service pro shop, a television lounge, locker rooms, meeting rooms, a quarter-mile track, and even lodging for some of the staff. PWTA proudly employs an international staff, a staff whose homelands include Jamaica, Zambia and Serbia. Having that sort of depth in staffing sometimes requires a time of transition. While pros are finding a place to stay or moving their family, they can use PWTA’s lodging, located just across the parking lot. This arrangement is especially advantageous for everyone in cases like this past winter where the weather played such a huge factor on Long Island. Some of PWTA’s more tenacious clients came in, despite the overwhelming snow, for their lessons. The Academy was able to accommodate them because their pros had only to walk a few hundred feet to work. I’m quick to learn that they don’t like to sit on their laurels though. PWTA is considering putting solar panels on the roof, and even though court lighting was done about 10 years ago, they are considering updating their lighting system as well.

PWTA is a club that likes to change with the times, but there are some things that they feel strongly about that cannot be compromised. Education is at the top of that list. This was the most fascinating and exciting topic of conversation shared with Mr. Zausner. I asked him to see if he thought they had any professional prospects in the ranks of their current junior players. “You can never tell,” he said. There is no formula anyone has to make a professional out of a junior player, and if anyone did they’d be making them every year. There are plenty of tennis academies out there. Juniors play tennis all day at these fancy academies. Zausner doesn’t feel that that type of environment is the best for children and after speaking to him at length, neither do I. Maybe one or two of them will become professionals, but the rest won’t. Others may earn scholarships to play in college, but getting a scholarship to go to college doesn’t necessitate going away to play tennis six hours a day. A junior can stay at home and play locally, focus on building relationships and developing their tennis game. That’s exactly what the PWTA does. They specialize in giving juniors the best opportunity at earning scholarships to play in college by developing their tennis and talking to college coaches. Opening doors and giving kids a chance to go to schools, they might not otherwise be able to go to, is one of the high points of Dick Zausner’s job. He is also quick to point out that players like John McEnroe are born, they’re not made. A great instructor brings out the best in you, but they cannot make you into something that you’re not.

Another thing PWTA doesn’t compromise on is the way they teach young children. QuickStart has fast taken over the 10 & Under scene in tennis, but you won’t see it at Port Washington. At PWTA, they develop kids according to each individual’s ability, if a seven-year-old can play the whole court, they play the whole court. If a five-year-old can only play half-court, they play half-court. The pros feed regular yellow tennis balls in a way that the player can make good contact. Being able to cater to each individual’s needs is one of PWTA’s greatest strengths.

Port Washington Tennis Academy is more than a tennis club and they have one heck of a story … a story rich with famous players, famous coaches, an amazing facility, alongside philanthropic endeavors with youth activities and educational achievement. Next time you stop by Port Washington Tennis Academy, look for the humble octogenarian behind it all. You’re sure to have a great conversation.