| By Brian Coleman
Photos courtesy of JMTP

 

Last year, as the global pandemic continued to wreak havoc on our normal everyday lives, organizations were forced to rethink how they planned their events, including ones that had been well-established.

For the Johnny Mac Tennis Project (JMTP) and its annual Pro-Am tennis tournament, this meant re-imaging an event that had been built around celebrities and tennis legends into a grass-roots effort without the star power. John and Patrick McEnroe, JMTP’s founder and President respectively, were both in the U.S. Open COVID bubble, preparing to broadcast the 2020 tournament, while other tennis greats did not make the trip to New York at all. In spite of these obstacles, JMTP was able to hold a successful event in 2020.

“It was challenging, but we went back to the drawing board and decided to really bring the focus of the event back to the work we are doing and the kids we are helping,” said Jordan Botjer, JMTP’s Executive Director. “We shared the kids’ stories with prospective participants at Sportime Amagansett where the event takes place, and emphasized what their support means for our players, and it really connected. Of course, we missed having John, Patrick and the other greats there, but it was really heartwarming to see the level of support, even without the legends.”

This summer, JMTP will use the lessons learned from last year’s events, and the tennis legends and celebrities will be back, including the McEnroe brothers. The Pro-Am is set for Saturday, August 21 at Sportime Amagansett, 320 Abrahams Path, in the Town of East Hampton. 

“My brother and I look forward to the Pro-Am all year, and we are so excited to be able to host it again this summer,” said John. “In spite of last year’s COVID-related challenges, the JMTP and Sportime Amagansett teams put on a successful, high-caliber event and I am so grateful to everyone who came out in support of JMTP in summer 2020, in the middle of the pandemic. We look forward to building on that momentum at this year’s event. Of course, Patrick and I will be back on court, and we will be joined by other legendary players of our sport who will be donating their time to the charity.”

Patrick added:

“Our kids have been training and working harder than ever this past year, and we are excited to showcase some of the great talent we have, as well as to raise money and awareness for the work we are doing. This will be the event of the summer in the Hamptons and we are looking forward to seeing everyone.”

The Pro-Am pairs tennis professionals and legends with “amateurs” for an afternoon of competitive doubles and other festivities. The kids from the JMTP programs get the chance to hit the courts as well, playing points and showcasing their talent and progression to the organization’s supporters in celebration of the work done by JMTP.

“We’ve been very lucky to have some incredible tennis legends support, both in terms of their talent and achievements and their humanity,” said Botjer. “They have been really wonderful with the kids, and it is a ton of fun for our kids to be out on the court with legends like Lindsay Davenport and James Blake, and equally important for JMTP supporters to see our kids in action.”

The first JMTP Pro-Am was held in 2015 and has become the flagship summer fundraiser for the organization. This summer will mark the seventh consecutive year of the event.

 

Prior to the Pro-Am, JMTP had committed itself to support racial and economic diversity at the John McEnroe Tennis Academy (JMTA), an initiative that both John McEnroe and Claude Okin, the President and CEO of Sportime Clubs, LLC, were passionate about when they founded JMTA back in 2010.

“To raise some seed money, John offered to host an evening “cultivation” event at his SoHo art gallery, which was attended by about 200 friends and their guests. John’s wife Patty Smyth sang, Saturday Night Live alum Darrel Hammond did some stand-up, we shared a great video about some of the kids that were already training at the Academy hoping to change their lives through tennis, surprise celebrity guests appeared, and a truly good and unique time was had by all,” said Okin. “We all still remember that night fondly, as the start of something special.”

With the organization now established and the clear mission in mind, JMTP began hosting annual Benefit Nights at Randall’s Island which featured exhibition matches from some of the game’s greats, including Bjorn Borg, Andre Agassi, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. That lasted for a few years until the next big idea arose.

“We realized that we had a great opportunity for a unique event at our club in Amagansett, in the Town of East Hampton, which features 33 clay courts spread across almost 25 park-like acres,” said Okin. “My friend and partner, Steve Hasker, also one of JMTP’s founding Board Members, and I set out to create the world’s largest pro-am, in the Hamptons, to benefit JMTP. It took a few years, and there have been some ups and downs, but I think we have done just that.”

The event has grown in each year of its existence, and now mirrors the draw sizes at Grand Slam events with 64 pro-am teams featuring 128 total players. “Even in the middle of COVID, the JMTP Pro-Am was still a sell-out, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for the charity,” added Okin. “So, it has been pretty cool, and the support of our SPORTIME community has been remarkable. We plan to keep making the event better, more fun, and more productive for JMTP.”

And so, the legends will return to the Amagansett courts this summer, joining the McEnroe Brothers for what is anticipated to be the biggest Pro-Am yet.

“In the end, it’s all about the kids. As excited as we are about summer 2021, JMTP is even more excited about the fall, when we hope that our school and community programs can restart at full capacity,” said Okin. “JMTP is a tennis charity that teaches kids to play tennis at a high level, and that supports our players in getting the best possible college educations through their tennis, in addition to receiving all the lifelong benefits of being tennis players. Some of those kids have never picked up a racket when they start in one of our schools programs, and a decade or so later they have earned a full scholarship to play at an excellent college or university. This is what JMTP does, and it is awesome.”

Events such as the Pro-Am help to provide the financial resources for JMTP to offer school and community programs throughout the City, providing tennis equipment, instruction and practice time for many kids who otherwise might never have the opportunity to hold a racket. Some of these NYC kids are able to join a JMTP pathway to success that allows them not only improve their tennis skills, but to obtain college scholarships, and, for some, careers as professional players and coaches.

“There are kids who truly light up when they first step on the court, and those are the kids we want to try to work with over the long-term,” said Botjer. “We’ll hear from teachers and parents that coming out to our program is, for some, the single highlight of their week, and that they are more focused when they return to the classroom because they have had a chance to release some of their energy while doing something they like. The hope is that a meaningful number of these kids are able to use tennis as the vehicle to change their lives. If we can do that, then we have succeeded.”

McEnroe and Okin have delivered on the promise they made to one another more than a decade ago, and have helped topple some racial and economic barriers that too often prevent many young kids from even beginning to play tennis. The 2021 JMTP Pro-Am will provide essential support as JMTP begins its second decade of existence.

“Looking back, it is actually astounding to me,” said John McEnroe. “We set out with an ambitious goal of growing the sport by removing barriers that many face. This sport has given me so much, and I’m passionate about the work we are doing to make it accessible to kids of every background and income level. We are proud of our accomplishments, particularly of having helped many of our player use tennis as a path to a college education. But I know we have only begun to scratch the surface of providing kids with life skills and experiences that they may not otherwise have.

Who knows? Maybe one of those kids will end up being a Grand Slam Champion!”

 

Brian Coleman

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