Over the last couple of years, the sport of tennis has seen a rapid increase in participation across the United States. Here in New York, that growth is being felt in all sectors of the tennis industry. From community-based programs for beginners, all the way through competitive leagues, the number of people who play tennis continues to rise.
Suffice to say, we are in a tennis boom.
And helping to facilitate that boom and ensure tennis’ continued growth in our area is Neil Thakur of USTA Eastern. Thakur has worked with Eastern over the last several years, and currently serves as the Community Tennis Coordinator for the Long Island and Metro Regions, as well as the Schools Tennis Manager for the entire Section.
Thakur’s role has morphed over the years, first beginning as the Tennis Service Representative for the Long Island Region, and he now oversees much of the community-based programming in both the LI and Metro Regions, as well as organizing the ever-growing schools programs.
“The last year or so has been very exciting, both for myself but also for tennis as a whole in our Section,” said Thakur. “I loved developing relationships and getting to know the providers on Long Island when I first started, and being able to do the same in Metro has been a great experience. I’ve been getting to know them as well as the community organizations in New York City, and I look forward to continuing to grow those relationships and move tennis forward in our communities.”
Thakur came to the tennis industry after working in healthcare and sports medicine for two decades. While he had never worked in tennis, he had been an avid recreational tennis player and always loved the sport.
“I’ve been playing for a long time,” he said. “I love competing in the USTA leagues. Having a team sport where you are all playing for one another is a lot of fun and creates camaraderie. I’ve met so many new friends through tennis.”
Born in London, England, Thakur, whose father was an Indian diplomat, lived in many countries around the world growing up, including India. He moved to the United States when he was 19 to attend college, and after graduation, he began working at the United Nations.
“I moved into the healthcare field after that, primarily working in a pain management and sports medicine practice,” said Thakur. “I helped expand the practice into multiple locations on Long Island and Queens. I did that for about 15 years, and really had no intention of doing anything else - that was going to be my career.”
Despite never having worked in the tennis industry, the idea of bringing people closer together is something that has always been a part of Thakur. Connecting people from all walks of life is a natural instinct for him. While the global pandemic forced lockdowns and closures, Thakur and his colleagues at Eastern used that time to reach out to more tennis providers and worked on continuing expanding the sport’s reach, utilizing Zoom meetings to connect with more people in a shorter amount of time.
“I think the Zoom meetings actually helped us a lot because we were able to do a lot of virtual workshops, and reach a much bigger audience,” explained Thakur.
And as a result, tennis has come out of the pandemic in a much stronger and healthier place than it was before, especially here in our area. An example of that can be found in the ever-growing schools programs which Thakur leads.
In 2020, there were approximately 90 teachers that enrolled in the Net Generation program, which offers them free equipment, curriculum and training to introduce tennis in their PE classes. Last year, nearly 300 teachers were enrolled, and that number is expected to increase in 2022.
“We simplified the process, and I think that made it easier for them to sign-up and get acclimated,” said Thakur. “We had a great year in 2021, and so far in 2022 we already have over 160 teachers in the Section who have signed up. I’m very happy with how that has grown, and excited to be able to bring tennis to many more kids at an early age.”
The schools program is just one of many community outreach programs that Eastern is running to ensure that tennis players of all ages and levels have something they can participate in. With more people playing, there is a greater emphasis on ensuring those new players are having fun and continue to do so.
“We are experiencing a tennis boom, and Eastern is trying to offer more programming in the parks during the spring and summer,” said Thakur. “That’s really the easiest place where people can start playing, and then transition into taking lessons or programs at the clubs and facilities. With the amount of people playing, court time at the facilities has become scarce, and so we are trying to do a lot more things in the parks, especially here on Long Island. It’s important that we collaborate with our partners to run events there, and help create the bridge for new players to continue playing.”
May is National Tennis Month, and it comes at an exciting time for lovers of the sport here on Long Island. Eastern is teaming with the New York State Parent Teachers Association (NYSPTA) as well as Long Island Tennis Magazine to put on family days at the parks, with events scheduled for both Nassau and Suffolk.
Tennis is truly in a great place, and the sport has had such a positive impact on so many people, especially over the last couple of years. There is such a diverse amount of programming, leagues, events and more taking place on Long Island, and Thakur and his team are always working to ensure that the sport continues to progress.
“USTA Eastern’s role is to help grow and support tennis as a whole. We have grants and other funds available, so if someone has an innovative idea, or is interested in starting a new program, we’re happy to support that,” said Thakur. “We need to sustain and maintain our current growth. With so many more people out there playing, it’s imperative that we provide a pathway for them to keep their interest. We are all about partnering with our tennis providers to help them deliver the best possible tennis experience for everyone, and are excited for what is to come. At the end of the day, tennis is an amazing sport that offers many healthy and lifelong benefits but most of all, it should be fun!”
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for Long Island Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.