| By Brian Coleman
John McEnroe speaks to the crowd during the annual Johnny Mac Tennis Project Pro-Am earlier this summer.
Photo Credit: Samantha Deitch/BFA.com

 

Earlier this summer, SPORTIME Amagansett hosted the fifth annual Johnny Mac Tennis Project (JMTP) Pro-Am. The tournament brings together 128 players, including many former professional tennis players, for a day of fun and competitive tennis, with the goal of raising money for the JMTP.

“It’s just a ton of fun for a good cause,” said JMTP’s Executive Director Jordan Botjer of the event. “This year we had beautiful weather and the facility is stunning. The staff at Amagansett works so hard to make sure the courts are perfect and that everything operates smoothly. A lot of spectators came out to see an incredible group of tennis legends—John and Patrick McEnroe, Kim Clijsters, Mats Wilander, Mardy Fish, Willy Canas, Emilio Sanchez and Brad Gilbert, and I think it’s a fun event for them as well.”

 

This year, the tournament, which has become the foundation’s signature event, was won by SPORTIME CEO and Founder Claude Okin and Canas, who climbed to as high as ninth in the world rankings during his playing days.

Okin was quick to lend much of the credit Canas for the team’s victory.

“I would say that Willy Canas won the pro-am, and I got to help him a little,” said Okin. “I played Division III college tennis at Vassar and NYU, and did not win all that much, so I will take any title I can, for as long as I can still compete for one. Willy was a great, fun partner, and the whole event is just about as much fun as you can have playing tennis for a great cause.”

The tournament is followed by an after party, attended by a combination of those who played in the tournament, those who watched, and others from the Hamptons crowd. In all, the event raises hundreds of thousands of dollars of support towards the JMTP mission.

“From the moment that John and I began discussing the creation of the John McEnroe Tennis Academy in 2009, our foundational promise to each other was that access to JMTA programs would not be limited to a wealthy few,” said Okin. “We were committed to finding a way to build substantial access for those who could afford to pay very little, or nothing at all, and especially for NYC kids from the neighborhoods surrounding Randall’s Island, like East Harlem and the South Bronx. These are some of the country’s most under-resourced communities and we knew we had to build bridges, metaphorically, beyond the Triborough Bridge itself, with our neighbors. We wanted to offer tennis as a pathway to health, education and opportunity, to kids in those communities, and beyond, and JMTP was created to support that essential goal.”

With that goal set, JMTP was created in 2012, and has seen significant growth over the last eight years. In addition to the Pro-Am, the charity’s other annual fundraiser is a Comedy Night – You Cannot Be Serious, which is held each spring. This year, the event featured Andy Cohen, with past years’ talent having included Martin Short, Saturday Night Live stars Colin Jost and Michael Che, and many other notable comics.

JMTP provides free, weekly programming throughout the year, including summer camp, in addition to scholarships to the John McEnroe Tennis Academy (JMTA) for advancing students, and travel support and coaching to a smaller group of elite players.

 

“Our tagline is “Creating a Pathway to Success Through Tennis”, and that pathway really starts with our community programs,” explained Botjer. “The community programs happen at SPORTIME Randall’s Island every day of the week during the school year. We have partner schools and community-based organizations that bring groups of kids out to the facility for what is generally an introductory level tennis instruction experience.”

A lot of the community kids have never picked up a racket before, with the sport of tennis often seeming inaccessible to them. The weekly instruction is developmental and involves a lot of skills building, including hand-eye coordination, movement and more. Many of the organizations and schools don’t have their own rec spaces, gyms or playgrounds, so the weekly visit to SPORTIME provides much needed recreation to the kids. The opportunity to receive weekly tennis instruction throughout the school year also provides a foundation of skills that can allow those who wish to, to continue with the sport.

Botjer explains that, naturally, not every kid falls in love with tennis, but that all the participants still receive much benefit from the program, including improved health and fitness.

“It’s an amazing experience for all of the children, but we always look out for the students from each group who really connect with the sport and quickly develop a passion for it,” says Botjer. “At the end of each school year, we select the most interested and motivated kids from our community programs and invite them to participate in our Excellence Program, which meets after school and on the weekends. And so the pathway advances, with kids from our community programs moving on to receive more individualized attention and a higher level of training in Excellence.”

Outside of the transportation to the facility, both the community and excellence programs are provided completely free, and function to welcome and progress young players into the third stop of the JMTP pathway: scholarships to train at the John McEnroe Tennis Academy.

“JMTP players who continue to show passion for the sport and consistent hard work are offered scholarships to JMTA,” explains Botjer. “Our scholarship players are fully integrated into JMTA community and train here most days of the week, just like every other academy player. And all of our scholarship and excellence program members are means tested, so that JMTP is sure we are not funding any players who could otherwise afford their own training.

We have been doing this long enough now that we are beginning to see JMTP success stories, with kids who started in our community programs having followed the full pathway to JMTA scholarships. Many of those students will be able to attend college based on their tennis, and many will attend colleges or universities into which they would not otherwise be able to gain admission, or afford to attend.”

JMTP also holds scholarship tryouts throughout the year. One of JMTP’s scholarship recipients is Summer C., who shares that her tennis idols are John McEnroe and Serena Williams:

“JMTP has helped me pursue my tennis dream in a really organized way,” says Summer, “I love the access to the amazing courts, amazing trainers and really great coaches, and I always feel safe there.

One day, I hope to go pro and break Serena’s and Margaret Court’s records!”

A recent development at JMTP has been a partnership with BNP Paribas, who recently began funding a new program, BNP Mac 1, that will support the training and travel costs for a small team of JMTP’s most elite players. For young players with limited resources, the cost of tournament travel to national and international events can often stand in the way of progress. This new partnership will help eliminate that longstanding hurdle, among others.

In addition to BNP Paribas, Nike is also a JMTP corporate sponsor.  Corporate underwriting, individual donations, and the two signature events, provide the majority of JMTP funding.

John McEnroe explains, “I am very proud of JMTP. We are different from many other tennis charities that are more focused on recreational tennis. At JMTP, we offer every kid we meet a way to become a competitive tennis player and we’ve made a lot of really good players since 2012.  Of course, like any other ambitious project, we have made our mistakes and learned from them, but we keep getting better, and doing more, and from day one we have kept our commitments to our young players and we have improved and changed their lives.  The goal is to service and help more and more NYC kids, where tennis becomes a driving force in their lives, and gets them a college education, and hopefully even more.”

 

JMTP hopes to triple its community hours in the context of the planned expansion of the Randall’s Island facility, which will add 10 more courts for a total of 30. And it plans to take the show on the road, bringing portable nets and equipment to schools and parks in in East Harlem, the South Bronx and Queens, to offer programming during the school day.

“We want to disabuse people of the notion that tennis is an elitist sport,” said Botjer. “And demonstrate that kids can start to play in whatever space is available to them.”

With the expanding reach and resources of the organization, could the next great American player come from New York City?

Asked this question, John McEnroe shares, “I have not been shy to say that with a little luck, and continuing support of sponsors like BNP Paribas, I am hoping that at least a few of our JMTP kids will go on to serious pro careers and that one of them might win the US Open while I am still around to see that! The greatest city in the world deserves another US Open champion who is a New Yorker—like yours truly! And we will keep trying until we get that done.”

 

Brian Coleman

Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for Long Island Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at brianc@usptennis.com