| By New York Tennis Magazine Staff

Claude Okin grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan during the dawn of tennis’ Open Era and the tennis boom that followed in the 1970s and early 1980s. He came from humble means, as both of his parents were teachers. His father was an avid tennis player, playing on outdoor courts across New York City.

“My dad was a parks player and would play all over the city, year-round,” recalls Okin. “He didn’t play indoor tennis because there weren’t many options at that time, and he couldn’t afford the options that were available. Sometimes, he would go to the armory in Harlem, which we called ‘Bill’s’ back then. But most of the time, he would play in the parks, including in January and February. When he would return home, the hair on his head was literally frozen solid.

“I wanted to be a player, but other than tagging along and sometimes getting to hit a few balls with my dad after he played, there weren’t a lot of options,” continued Okin. “It was hard to find courts and we couldn’t really afford lessons. When I was about 12-years-old, the tennis boom really hit, and they started building clubs everywhere: On top of parking garages, in vacant lots, on piers. I started hanging around a new instructional facility on 56th and Broadway called Manhattan Tennis Center. It had previously been a parking garage and was on top of a Toyota Dealership. There were structural columns or masonry walls just feet outside of the doubles alleys, and the ceilings were maybe 14-feet high, so no lobbing. A bunch of us kids hung around every day after school, and sometimes during school, picking up balls and doing odd jobs in exchange for court-time and the odd lesson. There was no formal junior programs back then–it was all about the adults, but we were like little tennis rascals.”

 

 

 

Claude Okin holds a press conference with tennis legend Martina Navratilova while head coach of the New York Sportimes of World TeamTennis

 

 

 

 

As his love for the sport continued, Okin sought opportunities to be around tennis and to earn money to support his love for the game. When he was 13, he began working for Mark Mason at the store that Mason had just opened around the corner from Manhattan Tennis Center, then called Mason’s Tennis Mart, one of New York City’s first tennis specialty stores.

“I loved working at Mason’s, even though I was probably too immature to be a truly great employee, but I was certainly an eager one, and I would have been happy to live at that store! I learned a lot from Mark, about business and life,” said Okin. “I worked for Mark through part of high school and then again for a time during college. I saw how the industry was growing and changing, and I learned what it meant to be an entrepreneur. I saw how hard Mark worked.”

Okin began teaching and coaching tennis during the summers, while he was still in high school and then throughout college, building a base of clients at a two-court club in Amagansett in the Hamptons.

“I was never a great player, though I did enjoy playing D3 tennis at Vassar, and later at NYU, but I was good talker, and I loved sharing my love for the game with others, especially with kids,” said Okin.

During his sophomore year in college, the club was put up for sale and Okin was able to buy it with his family, which marked the start of his journey as a club owner.

 

 

 

Claude Okin gives a lesson at his first tennis club in Amagansett, N.Y.

 

 

 

 

 

“I had developed a client base of 20-30 kids and adults who trained with me every summer during the weekdays,” said Okin. “And other groups of adults rented the courts on the weekends. That was my first tennis business. When we bought it, I was 19-years-old and had taken some time off college. I went back to school while running it, and after I finished college, I didn’t want to give it up.”

His desire to continue spending summers at his club at Amagansett, and to stay in the growing tennis industry, ultimately led Okin to take a job teaching eighth grade English and History at St. Luke’s School in Greenwich Village, where he eventually became dean of students.

“I did all kinds of things early on before I really found my way,” said Okin. “I drove a yellow cab, I was a paralegal, I was a waiter. I did anything I could do, often just so I could keep playing tennis until I could figure out what to do next.”

In 1989, Okin completed his first “real deal.” buying a portion of the property and tennis club that is now Sportime Amagansett, the first brick in the Sportime pillar. He relocated about 100 members and clients from his two-court club and was quickly servicing more than 300 members and program participants across 22 courts at his new location.

“What I did was combine the Amagansett club business with a teaching career in NYC,” said Claude. “For a few years, I was commuting back and forth from New York City to Amagansett like a maniac. Sometimes in the spring and fall, when I had to do both jobs, I would finish school at about 3:00 p.m., have staff meetings until about 4:00 p.m., then sit in the horrendous LIE traffic, get to Amagansett around 8:00 p.m., work there most of the night, drive back to the City as the sun came up, and, sometimes, do it all over again. I must have done that 50 times. Once, I was startled awake as I drove off Montauk Highway into a cornfield. Stupid and crazy, I know, but I was 26 at the time.”

In 1991, Okin was hired as principal of the Hampton Day School, allowing him to finally live in one place while he balanced two careers. When his contract at the school was not renewed in 1994, Okin was faced with the dilemma of heading back to New York City or elsewhere to take another school job, or focusing on the tennis business. At the same time, an old friend who was a commercial real estate broker approached him with the opportunity to purchase a chain of four indoor clubs on Long Island (Kings Park, Bethpage, Massapequa and Lynbrook). Okin’s decision was made.

“Ironically,” said Okin, “I ended up building one of the largest tennis club companies in the United States because, for the first and only time in my life, I lost my job. I really got very lucky. I was young enough to turn a humbling experience into an opportunity. I felt that the tennis business was, and always had been, for me. I found a wonderful business partner and mentor, who remains my friend and partner to this day, and who helped me to put together a group of partners and the necessary funding to acquire these four clubs, and to grow from there.”

With that purchase, in 1994, of the group of 1970s-built tennis clubs, then known as Tennis Time, Sportime was founded. In 1995, Sportime’s Quogue site was added to the group, and in 1998, Syosset, Roslyn and a large fitness facility in Syosset were acquired, and Amagansett was also incorporated and subsequently expanded. Another Bethpage facility was added in 1999, with the original Bethpage site converted to Long Island’s first stand-alone, multi-sport facility, and re-opened in 2000. Sportime’s first Westchester site, in Mamaroneck, was added in 2002, and the New York Sportimes franchise in the World TeamTennis league became a Sportime property in 2003, won a WTT Championship in 2005, and continued to play at Sportime clubs through the summer of 2013. Over its first decade, Sportime had grown to become a chain of 13 tennis, fitness and multi-sport clubs. Okin had built a successful and sustainable business around tennis, across Long Island and beyond.

 

 

 

 

Sportime Randall’s Island, home of the John McEnroe Tennis Academy

 

 

 

 

“I wish there was a simple answer, but there isn’t, and it is definitely a work in progress, and probably always will be,” Okin explained when asked for the key to Sportime’s success. “At some of our clubs, the business grew very quickly and has been mainly stable, but at others … not so much. Tennis is a very personal and market-driven business. Our business in Syosset isn’t the same as in Roslyn, and things are different in Kings Park than they are in Lynbrook. We try to do a good job of figuring out what our members want and value. And we have a clear viewpoint about what a modern tennis club ought to offer. It starts with great programming, committed customer service and five-star facilities. And when we are able to consistently achieve all three, which is certainly the goal, we usually do fine. But it comes down to finding and keeping great employees. I don’t think we have a special sauce. You have to have great facilities in good locations, and you have to care about your employees and members as if they were your family. The bigger you get, the harder that can be, but we just try to do the best job we can every day, and to correct ourselves when we do misstep.”

In 2009, Okin realized a goal that had been in process for more than five years, when Sportime, having been selected by the City in a public bidding process, opened its 20-court facility on Randall’s Island, Manhattan, beneath the RFK Bridge. It was Sportime’s first tennis project in Okin’s hometown of New York City, and required an investment of more than $18 million. A year later, in the fall of 2010, Sportime Randall’s Island became home to the John McEnroe Tennis Academy.

Okin and McEnroe had grown to know each other through World TeamTennis, as McEnroe had been the headliner for the Sportimes franchise since it was first owned by Patrick McEnroe, playing in the Hamptons at Sportime clubs in 2000-2002.

“John wanted to see the new facility before committing to anything. But he was ready to do something close to home, and it was clear that the club was going to be a success from the beginning. New York City had lost hundreds of courts in the preceding decade, and we had somehow managed to build a tennis mecca in an amazing public park. Adding John to the mix would allow us to do things together for NYC tennis players that we couldn’t do separately,” said Okin. “What we promised each other at the start was that, while we wanted to create a good business, our partnership would not be primarily profit-driven, but would, first, be about growing tennis in New York City, especially for kids.

“I remember sitting with John in his living room and we both agreed that we didn’t want the McEnroe Academy to be filled entirely with rich children of privilege,” described Okin. “We wanted diversity in our JMTA kids, and we broadly agreed on a mission to develop national and world-class players who could still live at home in New York City, where tennis could change their lives and get them into college and beyond.”

And that is where the Johnny Mac Tennis Project comes in.

“The Johnny Mac Tennis Project charity is about keeping the promise that John and I made to each other,” said Okin. “With every dollar we raise, the company contributes in kind, and in addition, so that we can reach out and involve more kids from the under-resourced communities around Randall’s Island–from East Harlem and the South Bronx. We can get them playing, get them into our programs at no cost, and change their lives. There is obviously a lot of athletic talent in neighborhoods where there have always been economic and social barriers to participation. Our goal is to have kids from those neighborhoods pick tennis, learn, excel, go to college and more, with tennis as their pathway.”

 

 

The John McEnroe Tennis Academy was launched in 2010 and John McEnroe spends a lot of his time at the Randall's Island facility to continue the club's mission

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sportime plans to add 10 more courts to Randall’s Island by 2020, and to make its NYC site the biggest indoor club in the world, with 30 indoor courts during the cold-weather months. The planned expansion, when realized, will also improve and expand the club’s social and training spaces, create more balanced use between adults and juniors, and potentially allow the club to host some larger-scale tournaments and events.

With his four-plus decades in the tennis industry in our area, Okin has seen all the ups and downs. He believes that it is essential that the tennis industry and his fellow club owners accept current challenges and adapt to the changing times. He believes that a major opportunity today is the full integration of 10 & Under Tennis, a concept that he says is important for everyone in the industry to embrace.

“The biggest investment we have made in resources and manpower recently is our total commitment to Sportime U10, our developmental pathway for our newest and youngest players.” Okin said. “We were pretty early adopters at using the kid-sized equipment, the low compression balls and blended lines, but to really get great at U10 we chose to work with Mike Barrel from Evolve 9. Mike is really a genius about U10 and he inspires us. But everybody in our industry really needs to be investing in 10 and under, and getting kids the opportunities to love and choose tennis. Our future as an industry depends on it, because we have to rebuild and seed future generations of players and consumers. Look, kids want to have fun. It’s the parents who worry about things like rankings and winning percentages before the kids do. If kids are having fun, and if they are getting better, they will stick with tennis. And the new technology, and its skilled application, makes that happen. We were a little late to the party in the USA overall, and we spent a little too much time fighting about it, but I think 10 & Under will end up being a positive turning point for us all—but we all have to be in it together.”

As he looks back on what he has built, Okin thinks about his humble beginnings. He is grateful to have been able to find work that has allowed him to keep playing tennis, and he is proud of the relationships he has built by following a dream that started on carpeted courts, glued down to the floors of a garage above a Toyota dealer in midtown Manhattan.

“Most of what I really care about are people. When I feel I’ve helped to change someone’s life for the better, or that I have been someone’s friend, or just that I have tried to be a decent person in an industry that can be isolating and competitive, then I feel that I know who I am,” said Okin. “I was a teaching pro for a long time. I needed the money. I was on the court 60 hours a week for years. So I have a lot of empathy for tennis coaches and pros. I always remind myself how tough it can be, and I know how competitive our industry has become. I wish it were less so. But, to be able to see Sportime grow to the point where it has provided good careers for a lot of people—that makes me proud.

“I’m also really proud of our Randall’s Island facility,” continued Okin. “I built Sportime by leaving New York City and going into business in resort areas and suburban markets on Long Island. So, to be able to come back to Manhattan almost 20 years later and pull that project off, to have the City pick us and share the scale of our vision, and then to bring in John to create JMTA, has been quite unexpected, challenging and amazing.”

Above all though, Okin feels a tremendous sense of loyalty to his partners and long-time colleagues, forging the relationships that are the foundation of his company’s success.

“The fact that I made a whole career out of this still amazes me,” said Okin. “I’m proud of our longevity, because ours is not an easy business. A lot of people think that there is big or easy money in tennis, but they do not know the business. The tennis club business is slow and steady, at best. The margins are narrow, the underlying real estate is expensive, and every court is 7,000-square feet to light, heat, cool and maintain. We have been able to keep the faith, and have great partners and great team members, many of whom are my family and closest friends. I like to think that the industry is stable and that brighter days are ahead. I plan to be doing what I do for at least another 20 years. At Sportime, we have a clear long-term plan, but we are ready to adapt to bumps in the road as quickly and effectively as we can, and we try to have some fun along the way.”