| By New York Tennis Magazine Staff
Photo credit: Barry Williams & Sal Mokhtari

New York Junior Tennis & Learning (NYJTL) launched its flagship facility, the Cary Leeds Center for Tennis & Learning, in Crotona Park in the South Bronx with a ribbon-cutting and celebration. The event drew hundreds of names from the worlds of tennis, fashion, government and civic engagement.

“It would be very difficult to find any other city in the world that has built a facility like this to give boys and girls an opportunity to get an education and improve their athletic skills,” said Hall of Fame Coach Nick Bollettieri.

The $26.5 million Cary Leeds Center for Tennis & Learning has been decades in the making, and a testament to the longstanding commitment of public and private partners to create a center that will touch the lives of an estimated 30,000 students in the South Bronx area.

Conceptually, the venue is designed as a series of platforms—both for viewing tennis, from beginner to professional level, and metaphorically a platform to encourage after-school learning—a project to create the opportunity for inner city kids to experience success on the tennis court as well as in life.

The Center is a tribute to Cary Leeds, a star on Yale’s tennis team who went on to become a world-ranked player (ranking 12th in doubles), competing in six U.S. Opens and five Wimbledon tournaments, where in 1981, he reached the semifinals in mixed-doubles. After retiring from professional tennis, he attended business school and then co-founded a software company, all while enthusiastically teaching tennis to gifted youngsters until he passed away in 2003.

“Cary Leeds loved teaching the sport, especially to young players,” said Cary’s father, Larry Leeds, who served as Project Campaign co-chair. “As a place where children of all backgrounds will access tennis and educational opportunities, the Center will be a fitting memorial to Cary’s life and will make the world a better place, because he was here.”

Designed and constructed by GLUCK+, with the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, the Cary Leeds Center will house a two-story, 12,000-square-foot clubhouse and educational facility, with two world-class exhibition courts and 20 outdoor courts, 10 of which will be indoors seasonally under air structures.

"This complex public-private tennis project in the heart of the South Bronx will positively impact so many young lives,” said Founder and Chairman Emeritus Lewis “Skip” Hartman. “That will quickly overshadow and make us forget the 15 long years it took to locate, fundraise, build and organize the operations of this fabulous facility.”

The building and stadium courts are partially buried as a strategy to minimize the impact of a large structure in the park and also to take advantage of natural geothermal heating and cooling of below ground surfaces. Courtside, the lower level opens directly onto the two sunken exhibition courts. It will serve as the flagship home for NYJTL coaches and tutors and provide free year-round instruction and play for young people, as well as regional facility for competition and recreational tennis.

"NYJTL’s new Cary Leeds Center is rooted in a great cause, promoting the love of tennis and healthy exercise in one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in our country,” said Billie Jean King. “NYJTL strives to build champions on and off the court, and I fully expect this new venue to not only foster a deep appreciation of tennis and education in this community, but to make a difference in the lives of so many.”

The Cary Leeds Center–located in the 127-acre Crotona Park—will serve children in one of the poorest Congressional districts in the United States, offering more than 6,000 free court hours for community use and providing space for educators to help young people improve their performance in school.

“This location dovetails with our mission to develop the character of young people through tennis and education for a lifetime of success on and off the court,” said NYJTL CEO and President Deborah Antoine. “We’re deeply committed to serving young people who would not otherwise have the opportunity to learn and play tennis, which is especially important in low-income communities.”

NYJTL is naming the new clubhouse after sports icon and social justice pioneer Billie Jean King. The clubhouse will contain classrooms, the youth lounge and fitness center, and a technology center, the Tennis Channel Learning Lab.

“Of the many ideas and projects that Skip Hartman has put forward to improve the lives and experiences of our city’s children, including the founding of the NYJTL, his perseverance in developing the Leeds Center over these long years, has got to be among the greatest things he has done,” said former New York City Mayor David Dinkins. "I am thrilled to have been part of this project's evolution and share in its opening day."

In addition to the 20 adjacent tennis courts (10 outdoor and 10 covered in winter for year-round play) and two-story clubhouse, the Cary Leeds Center will also be home to two exhibition courts donated by the Kiam and Ackman families, with stadium seating for 1,000 people. This final component will be completed during the project’s final phase in 2016.

The Cary Leeds Center will offer a variety of programs for adults throughout the indoor (October to April) and outdoor (April to October) seasons, such as cardio tennis, learn and play, private and group lessons, and league competition. Hourly court rentals also will be available and senior discounts will be offered.

Additionally, the Cary Leeds Center will bring new energy and financial vitality to the South Bronx, by featuring major local, national and international professional tennis tournaments that will draw visitors from around the world.

Asked how it feels to finally see the club ready to open after years of hard work, Skip Hartman said, "I never doubted that it would happen. We have such a wonderful group of people supporting the Cary Leeds Center. Every time we needed a little something extra, there was someone there to step up and get it done and this is still a work in progress, but we are off to a very good start … it’s a beautiful facility. We think that we will see a lot of events happening here, a lot of kids participating, I’d be surprised if there weren’t 1,000 children impacted by this facility per year, and it’s going to do a lot of good for a lot of people. With 22 tennis courts and a clubhouse as beautiful as this, I think it will attract a lot of people. This is not Manhattan, but it’s a wonderful place and a beautiful park. From the overlook [viewing bridge], you can see the five courts and two stadium courts. You are also going to be able to see the park and that should be ready inside another year.”

Credit all photos to Barry Williams and Sal Mokhtari