There was a buzz in the air surrounding tennis on Wednesday night, and it wasn’t in Queens. It was close, about three miles away if you crossed the East River, and it did involve some of the game’s biggest names, but this event was a fundraiser to help bring the NEXT set of American stars into the mix.
It was the annual fundraiser for The Johnny Mac Tennis Project, held at Sportime on Randall’s Island just under the RFK Bridge. Several thousand fans turned out again for a night of fun tennis and fundraising for the John McEnroe Tennis Academy, which in less than half a decade has expanded to three locations (Randall’s Island, Long Island and Westchester) and boasts over 600 kids of all ages, with talent level running from 2015 NCAA Women’s Champion Jamie Loeb and Men’s runner-up Noah Rubin to several hundred young kids in upper Manhattan city schools who get lessons for free every day, all in the hope of not just building champions, but getting kids to love the game. That effort, led by McEnroe and a legion of coaches, was not lost on the pros who turned out in support on a beautiful Wednesday night, the biggest of which was Rafael Nadal, the rebounding and athletic Spaniard who will try to continue to regain his form when main draw play begins at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center Monday.
“The passion is still there, but I’ve been playing with lots of ups and downs this year,” said Nadal. “At the same time, I’m losing matches that I should be winning.” However if Wednesday was any indication, the passion is starting to move back into form, as Nadal edged former US Open Champion Lleyton Hewitt in one pro set before heading back to Manhattan. “If he wins the US Open remember it started on Randall’s Island,” joked McEnroe in a prematch press conference where he and co-founder Claude Okin talked about the growth of the program and its mission of raising money to get young people playing tennis in and around New York. The message was not lost on Nadal, who will be opening a similar academy later this year in Spain.
“What John is doing here with young kids is very special, and it is my pleasure to be able to come and help him give back to this game we play,” the insightful former number one said. “We have a responsibility to make sure we reach the kids, especially kids who may not have the money to play, and what he is doing here is what I want to do back in Spain.”
The past year has been a landmark year for The Academy, whose two brightest successes pulled off the rarest of doubles this past spring, with Loeb from Ossining taking the women’s title representing the University of North Carolina as a sophomore, and Rubin, from Long Island, coming within a few points of winning the men’s title on behalf of Wake Forest as just a freshman, something which his mentor, McEnroe, did at Stanford. “They both worked hard and got what they deserved, and if we can help get more kids to college and let them see where they can go after that, then I think we are doing a pretty good job,” McEnroe added.
However the majority of the night was about the next level and what can be done to help even younger kids get involved at a low cost with tennis. The Academy has raised thousands for scholarships already, and officials said that Wednesday night might have been the most successful to date, with a big help from a popular Spaniard who was more than willing to help further the cause.