Categorized | Special Reports, Youth Sports

Searching for U.S. Tennis Stars

John McEnroe’s Academy is looking for talent

By: Suhrith Parthasarathy

It was just past noon on a sunny spring day in March, but Jamie Loeb and Harel Srugo were inside a big blue bubble, and were hard at work. They were standing together on the same side of one of the deco turf courts at the John McEnroe Tennis Academy on Randall’s Island.

“Do you have a jump rope?” Srugo, one of the coaches at the academy, asked Loeb.

“What is this fitness?” the 17-year-old Loeb, who was dressed in a pastel yellow tennis outfit, answered with a jocular grimace.

“Not fitness, this is tennis,” said Srugo even as he went behind the drapes at the back of the court to bring out a pair of steel rods. He placed them and the jump rope at a distance of four feet from each other, and soon Loeb was asked to clear the obstacles in a motion resembling the triple-jump, while raising her knees as high as possible.

Jamie Loeb steadies herself before playing an overhead (photo courtesy: Jamie Loeb)

A half an hour of more rigorous exercise routines followed — from sideways hops to a series of short sprints and backpedals. The focus for the day was on the “first step” — on the tennis court, the initial movement often makes or breaks a point.

“Alright, done with this nonsense, let’s play now,” said Srugo, after Loeb had completed the final running drill. But he was only being facetious. “This is actually the crucial bit. You need to be spending more time doing this than playing tennis,” he added.

Loeb, earlier this year, won both the singles and doubles titles in the 18-and-under division at the U.S.T.A. Winter Super National Championships in Mesa, Ariz. She is one of the brightest prospects at the academy according to its head coach, Gilad Bloom.

The academy was established at the SPORTIME facility on Randall’s Island, just across from Icahn Stadium in September 2010. The complex, which cost SPORTIME — a company that has 13 clubs in the city — $18 million to construct, has 10 deco turf courts and 10 clay courts. When SPORTIME teamed up with McEnroe to create the academy in 2010, its objective was to produce top quality American tennis players, but to do so by focusing on the holistic development of talent.

“John [McEnroe] wanted an academy that was not based on people having to relocate,” said Bloom, who was sitting in a wood-paneled cafeteria in the academy’s lobby, waiting for a 1 p.m. lesson that he had to give. “We don’t want this to be like a boot-camp. We want the kids to have fun.”

Bloom, 45, a former Israeli Davis Cup player, said the academy divides its talent into four banks wherein students can move up the “ladder system” depending upon their progress. Each academy member must take lessons at least twice a week, but the students are also encouraged to pursue other activities. The center prides itself on being distinct from others such as the famed Nick Bollettieri Academy in Bradenton, Fla, in that its not a residential facility in which tennis plays the predominant part in the students’ lives.

“We want quality not quantity,” said Bloom. “I believe in making every minute on the court count, and this is something I learned from Johnny Mac.”

Steven Wasserman feels the academy offers the perfect platform for his son, James Wasserman, who recently turned 15, and is one of the country’s best players in his age group. “Their attitude is very good in that they don’t want your kid to be playing tennis during every one of his waking hours. I think philosophically they offer a great tennis program.”

Yet, even though the academy encourages its students to lead a regular life, many of them are home-schooled and they spend most of their time focusing on tennis.  “John was always opposed to this idea,” said Bloom. “He wanted the kids to go to regular schools and have a normal childhood. But six or seven kids were already being home-schooled even without asking us. Their parents had just made the decision. John agreed with me that we couldn’t do anything about it. This is the trend in the tennis world.”

Loeb is one of those who recently decided to shift to an online schooling system. The decision she said wasn’t easy, but she felt she needed to give her utmost to the sport. “Tennis is my life. I’ve been playing since I was four years old. I feel I have the potential to be professional one day and to play at a top college. And I’m totally dedicated to it. The online schooling gives me greater flexibility with traveling to play tennis because the pressures and stress of regular school was difficult.”

Loeb’s mother, Susan Loeb who drives her to the academy from their home in Ossining in Westchester County, and travels with her to tournaments all around the country, said it was a very hard decision to give up on regular schooling, but one that was inevitable.

“The online schooling gives her the opportunity to play a lot many more [International Tennis Federation] events,” said Susan Loeb. “She clearly has the talent to perhaps go professional, so we want to help her in every which way we can.”

Even though Loeb is one of the few students on a scholarship at the academy, tennis is still an expensive sport to pursue.

“I’m middle-class, I can’t really afford a lot of the travelling. So we don’t go to international events,” said Susan Loeb, who quit her job as a high school math teacher a few years back to help Loeb with her tennis.  “The academy covers the expenses for some of the tournaments. It does make it very difficult. We are struggling. It puts a strain on us. But it’s a choice we’ve made.”

Watching Loeb play, however, it became clear why she chose the options that she did. Continuing to work on her first step, this time with a tennis racket in hand, Loeb played a series of rallies from the back of the court with Srugo. Balls were being pinged back and forth at remarkable pace. Already boasting a slight grunt when hitting her strokes, Loeb was hitting through the ball with heaps of topspin. Her forehand looked particularly graceful – she seemed to have the ability to play to any part of the court with differing angles, pace and spin.

Loeb had initially trained, for eight years, with Jay Devashetty, who was appointed as a full time woman’s tennis coach by the USTA last year. She continued to train with Devashetty at the center for a few months, but unable to get the personal attention that she once got, she shifted bases to McEnroe’s academy.

“I tried out here, played with John [McEnroe] and Gilad [Bloom] a few times, and I really liked it,” said Loeb. “I’ve really connected with the coaches here. They are all great, and they give me terrific tips on my game. Harel [Srugo] is my main coach. It’s quite hard to find competition at my level here, but playing against the coaches makes it a very good fit.”

Loeb plans to try and break into the WTA Tour in the next couple of years. The focus for now is on improving her game and playing as many ITF events as is feasible. Srugo believes Loeb has the talent to go professional, and considers her one of the country’s best prospects, but most players in the academy are younger.

“We have fewer players at her age-level, since we’re still a new academy,” he said. “But there are lots of kids in the 7 to 12 age category who are really talented. So I definitely think we are going to be very successful in the years to come.”

McEnroe, who visits and coaches at Randall’s Island every two weeks or so, and Bloom, believe in the development of all-court skills. Students are taught to play sliced backhand approach shots, and touch volleys from a very young age.

Bloom believes the failure to train youngsters holistically, such that they become equipped in different styles of play, is one of the main problems with American tennis. “John and I aren’t always on the same page with coaching methods,” Bloom said. “He prefers more game-play and I like to use more drills, but we both believe that all aspects of the game must be given equal importance.”

Seven-year-old Ethan Turkewitz, one of the younger prospects, had just finished his coaching session and was sitting with his father, Jordan, at the cafeteria sipping from a Snapple bottle. This is his second year at the academy, and he plays tennis three times a week.

“He plays for a baseball team too, but he really loves it here,” said Jordan Turkewitz. “The good thing is that they run the program with great integrity. A lot of parents can be very demanding, but they are steadfast, and they don’t bend the rules for anybody.”

Turkewitz has started playing in USTA events for his age-group, even though he has many years to go before he commits to one sport, if any. But as Chantay Pilipovic, the mother of another young player, six-year-old Astro Pilipovic, highlighted, tennis can be a huge strain on the pockets. Even playing three times a week can cost up to $15,000 a year – a huge investment to make for parents with kids of that age.

Astro is still not officially a member of the main academy program. He plays twice every week as part of what is known as the “JTK,” which stands for junior tennis kinetics. The focus is on teaching students the mechanics of every stroke and establishing their muscle memory. Every time Pilipovic take an hour’s lesson, it costs his parents $125.

“We aren’t even from a tennis family,” said Chantay Pilipovic. “He just happens to be really talented for his age somehow. He played at a smaller local center before, but they felt he is too good to be playing there and he needed more focused lessons.”

Pilipovic, a left-handed player, was practicing his baseline game on one of the clay courts. His talent was palpable – he was striking his forehands with significant fluidity for a 6-year-old. But most importantly he seemed to be really enjoying himself.

“There are some crazy, demanding parents here,” said Chantay Pilipovic. “The kids are just unhappy, they don’t want to be here, but are being forced into playing by their parents.”

There is still a long way to go for Turkewitz and Pilipovic to reach Loeb’s levels. But it’s clear that the academy, even if at comes at a heavy price, offers them a good chance at success.

Back on the courts, Srugo and Loeb were still exchanging a series of heavy-hitting rallies – Srugo was at the net and Loeb at the baseline. Every now and then, Srugo would bring her forward with a deft drop shot; Loeb struggled to reach the ball, and her initial attempts at passing him proved futile.

“Preparation is key,” screamed Srugo from across the net.

“When you’re coming forward, don’t start slowing down too early. And don’t run straight onto the ball. Make space for the put-away.”

Loeb is a fast learner. She was soon reaching drop shots with oodles of time to spare, and her positioning made it easy for her to place her passing shots with astonishing power.

“Bravo, Bravo, Bravo,” said Srugo.

 

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