The majority of our area’s top tennis coaches and program directors are tennis lifers who picked the game up at a young age and took to it right away.
That isn’t exactly the case for Manhattan Tennis Academy’s Executive Director John Curtis.
“I grew up as a baseball player, which wasn’t too far of a stretch from tennis, a lot of similar mechanics,” said Curtis.
Curtis first started playing tennis after his parents were divorced when he was around 10-years-old. His father moved to New Jersey, and he, his brother and his sister would play there at the public parks on the weekend with their dad.
“One thing led to another, and I went on to make my high school team, wound up playing two years of junior college tennis and the rest is history as they say,” said Curtis.
Curtis’ love for tennis came one Christmas when he got his first graphite racket as a present, and he was hooked.
“It was the Wilson Sting, and I absolutely fell in love with it,” Curtis recalls. “There was something about the feeling of cracking a forehand with what were, at the time, revolutionary rackets. It was somewhat intoxicating. My brother and I had been bitten by the tennis bug. My dad is to thank for getting us all in the game. He is a great tennis enthusiast.”
He was left with the tough decision between trying out for either the baseball or tennis teams at Minisink Valley High School in Slate Hill, N.Y. … his first love or his new love.
Following his older brother’s lead, as he normally did throughout childhood, he decided to go out for the tennis team.
“Once he committed, I committed,” Curtis recalls. “And we were both tennis guys all of a sudden.”
After heading out west to play collegiate tennis at San Diego Mesa College, Curtis became the head coach at NYU, a position he would hold for 11 years, which is where he developed his understanding of the New York City tennis scene.
During his time at NYU, Curtis produced four All-Americans as well as the 2002 ITA Division III National Champion in Demetrios Leontis. In that span, he was also honored with the 2006 PTR Coach of the Year and the 2009 PTR Member of the Year Award.
“I think that is where I got my grasp and where I learned about the tennis landscape in New York City,” said Curtis. “NYU didn’t have its own indoor courts, so we had to find court time for us to practice, which was always an issue. That’s how I met Jennifer [Brown], Director of Midtown Tennis Club. We would practice at Midtown, from about 10:00 p.m.-Midnight. It’s such a great location. I’ve always loved the place. I think that position set me up as someone who was visible in New York City and sort of established my reputation.”
After more than a decade at the helm of the NYU tennis program, Curtis decided it was time to take his tennis career in a new direction. Because of a lack of facilities, organizing a match-schedule became a daunting task. That, in addition to recruiting, and all the travelling took its toll.
“I don’t have a bad word to say about my time there,” said Curtis. “But I was just burnt out, and ready to embark on a new adventure.”
That adventure would be entering the world of junior tennis, and if he were to do so, he knew he needed to do it in New York City, a place where he had made a name for himself and where he understood both the pros and cons of tennis.
There was no better place to start his program then at Midtown Tennis Club.
“To make the leap from a good job to an entrepreneurial endeavor, I wanted it to be in the area that I knew,: said Curtis. “I’ve always been a downtown guy; I didn’t want to go uptown. I know the area, the people and the mentality down here. I always had a very good working relationship with Jen Brown and she was willing to give me a shot. I couldn’t have been more grateful, and wanted to make it a success because of that. The ambiance of Midtown Tennis Club really sets it apart from the rest. The courts on top of the roof provide spectacular optics, with the Empire State Building in your toss line when you serve and a convenient location right near the heart of Manhattan.”
One of the main challenges Curtis faced when he launched the Manhattan Tennis Academy was adjusting from coaching college players to junior players, many of whom had never played tennis before.
“You can get a kid at four-years-old and introduce them to the red ball and the perfect technique, they’re extremely malleable at that age,” said Curtis, who lives in Bergen County, N.J. with his wife Lauren, and their two daughters Helena and Charlotte. “I loved the idea of that, being able to be the person that introduced them to proper technique and, above all else, the joy of the game. That was somewhat limited at the college level.”
Curtis is trained in the Van Der Meer standard method of tennis teaching, and is a big proponent of PTR. He goes back to the basics and the fundamentals of the sport, from grips to weight transfer, but is always open to changing things up depending on the player.
“I’m a big proponent of PTR for the beginners. As they get more advanced, we can introduce different things. I like to collaborate with my staff because they all bring a little something that they have learned along the way,” he added. “We like to combine all of our philosophies and teaching techniques.”
Curtis hopes to continue to build on the program he has established, developing top-level junior players, while also making sure his players are having fun and enjoying the game that has carved out a very satisfying life for him.
“We always focus on placing a premium on fun for the young kids … that’s what grabs them,” said Curtis. “If it’s a boot camp-type experience, you lose them right away. We’ll continue to foster a boutique experience, where it’s a big facility with a small-town feel. Our main goal is to create a family atmosphere where your kids can come when they are young and learn the game in a fun, friendly environment.”
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org