“I want this to be the best place in the country,” said the former No. 1 tennis player in the world, John McEnroe, standing on a courtside balcony at his academy on Randall’s Island. “My aim is to bring tennis back to the forefront, to bring the buzz back. I’d like someone to make it and be the best player in the world, like I was.”

John McEnroe teaching a student at his academy on Randall's Island. Photo by Frederick Bernas/Northattan.

Opened in 2009, the facility boasts 20 courts -– 15 of which lie under temporary “bubble” roof structures that can be removed for outdoor play in the summer. The Sportime Corp. invested $18 million in the project before McEnroe became a partner and opened the John McEnroe Tennis Academy. But now trouble could be brewing as the company plans to expand into a nearby parking lot, building nine additional courts at an estimated cost of $7 million.

On Dec. 5, a small but noisy group of protesters accused McEnroe of “stealing public land” outside a fundraiser for “The Nation” magazine, where the sporting legend was a keynote speaker. They cited concerns about high prices and the resulting difficulties for community access, as well as a perceived lack of outreach by McEnroe’s academy into local schools.

“The parking lot is an open space that’s used by the public,” said Marina Ortiz, a community organizer who took part in the demonstration. “First and foremost, it’s city land and it should not be turned over to a private enterprise with rates that are not affordable to children and people in East Harlem and the South Bronx.”

Hourly prices for court rental vary from $40 to $105 depending on time of day and level of membership, which starts at $71 per month, with a joining fee of $500. Ben Schlansky, the chief legal officer for Sportime, said these rates are competitive by city standards and added that “50 percent of courts are reserved for parks permit holders from May 1 until Columbus Day.” That means anyone who holds a New York City public tennis permit can use the facilities at no extra cost.

Schlansky said a lack of transportation makes it hard for many public permit holders and locals to reach the island, and that Sportime and the McEnroe Academy were committed to widening outreach. “We already work with public schools to offer free community programs through the Randall’s Island Sport Foundation,” he said. “We’ve also discussed designating one of our employees to act as a liaison with the community, so we can branch out and establish more contacts.”

Mark McEnroe, a younger brother of John who is the academy’s general manager, described two such partnerships, with the DREAM Charter School in East Harlem and the Hyde Leadership Charter School in the South Bronx. “We also met Geoffrey Canada from the Harlem Children’s Zone and basically offered to take kids from schools in his purview and train them,” McEnroe said. “We haven’t been successful in making that happen, but not really because of lack of effort -– you’d be surprised how difficult it is to get schools to give you their kids to train for free.”

Sportime wants to convert this parking lot into nine new tennis courts. Photo by Frederick Bernas/Northattan

Sportime will submit its formal expansion bid to the city’s land use review procedure in the new year. Informational meetings have already been held with subgroups of Community Board 11, including the Parks and Recreation Committee. “We went there to listen, gather all the questions together, and get the board members the information they need to make an informed decision,” Schlansky said.

Frances Mastrota, who chairs the Parks and Recreation group, is taking a cautious approach. “I want to improve the land that right now is not worthy of a parking lot,” she said, “but I have to be sure that I get full value for what I’m giving.

“We hope to have a rain garden and we’re asking for lighting,” Mastrota continued. She added that the board would like to see greater equality in the way tennis scholarships are allocated: “We’d like to see scholarships that aren’t openly competitive, so children who have never held a racket in their hand can compete and then perhaps be offered one.”

Mastrota, who moved to East Harlem in 1959, says the community “felt robbed” when the tennis center originally opened without going through city land review procedures. “Parks activists were livid and frustrated by the inability to fight back,” she said. “We have been burned and the scars remain. There is a lack of trust in their word.”

Sportime’s current expansion plan includes a garden in an adjacent parking lot, as well as 45 new trees, but it recently drew criticism from elected officials that led to the postponement of a city hearing. On Dec. 15, DNAInfo.com reported that Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Comptroller John Liu and East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito all aired concerns about the tennis center pricing out locals.

“Based on what I’ve heard so far, it seems that Sportime’s current facility at Randall’s Island has not fully engaged with the local community,” DNAInfo quoted Mark-Viverito as saying. A spokesman for Scott Stringer said the borough president was concerned that Sportime had not been “sufficiently transparent with information about the existing 20 tennis courts and the extent to which they can be made more accessible to the surrounding community and general public.”

John McEnroe was adamant that part of his personal mission is promoting broader access to the sport he loves, and the expansion would aid that: “It’s an expensive game, and I’d like to make tennis available to every kid,” he said. “It would be nice to make it more affordable to as many people as possible – that would be my goal.

“Hopefully they’ll see the expansion is something that will be good for the city and good for kids, and if they decide not to do it, that’s just bad luck.”

Published @ Northattan.com, 12/20/11 – click here for original.