For the better part of two decades, Jeffrey Appel has been known as the Mayor of New York Tennis. Through his support, mentoring, and his passion for the game, he has helped countless tennis players maximize their opportunities on the court and off the court with their careers.
New York Tennis Magazine got a chance to catch up with Appel, who now heads up his own Investment Banking Boutique, JDA Funds Management, Inc., to discuss his success in both the worlds of business and tennis, and his continued dedication to helping others. Appel’s tennis ventures are often in partnership with his pal Bill Ackman, founder and CEO of Pershing Square Capital, together they have lent their resources to a number of college and professional tennis players throughout the years, establishing a knack for picking winners both on and off the court.
“We’re trying to make a difference in people’s lives, and contribute to improving American Tennis,” said Appel. “Bill and I like to give back, and helping kids and young adults comes natural to the both of us.”
His success in the business world has led to Appel establishing numerous connections as his brand is now a global one. Through this, he has created a network in which he and his friends help former professional tennis players and top college players land top jobs at some of the most prestigious Investment Banks, Private Equity Firms, and Hedge Funds in the world.
This year’s class of mentees include: Axel Geller (Citi), Tim Wang (The Jordan Company), Jackie Tang (TAP Advisors), Sameer Kumar (Thoma Bravo), Alex Rotsaert (Blackstone) David Volfson (Starwood Capital), Victor Pham (BAML), Assiya Dair (UBS), Kento Perera (Centerview), Alex Steinroeder (Ellington Capital), and Neel Rajesh (Goldman Sachs).
From left to right: Neel Rajesh, Tim Wang, Ian Arons, Jeff Appel, Jackie Tang, Victor Pham and Margo Bilokin.
Appel, a Great Neck, Long Island native, was a nationally-ranked junior player growing up before attending the University of Pennsylvania, from where he graduated in 1985. He was most recently ranked #1 in the East and 12th Nationally in the 45s. Appel made a name for himself as a successful Investment Banker, and just played matchmaker for an $800 million merger involving a public company. The target business was a portfolio company of a venture capital fund Appel and a group of his pals have been involved with since its start.
2021 U.S. Open Junior Girls' Singles and Doubles champion Robin Montgomery. (Photo Credit: Andrew Ong/USTA)
But when you speak to Appel, you can tell that his true passion is tennis, and that passion has helped lend support to many tennis players over the years. He and Ackman famously were behind American star Frances Tiafoe beginning when Tiafoe was 13-years-old, and then after Tiafoe turned pro, allocated those resources and that support to Robin Montgomery at age 11 , who just won the U.S. Open Junior Girls’ Singles and Doubles titles last month.
Jordi Arcanada & Frances Tiafoe at 13-years-old out in Southampton.
“Our goal is to help American Tennis and great kids,” said Appel.
Now their sights have been set on a 12-year-old player from Long Island, the highest-ranked player of his age in the world, according to UTR, Sebastian Bielen. Appel first saw Bielen on a video posted online where he was playing tennis with spoons at age 10, a remarkable display of hand-eye coordination, and Appel immediately knew that Bielen was special.
“I was so impressed, I reached out to his mother, Anna Bielen-Zarska, who herself was ranked 146th on the WTA Tour, and is Sebastian’s coach,” recalls Appel. “After we spoke a few times and I grew to like what I heard, I then invited them out to Randall’s Island where I brought my mentee and former Columbia star Victor Pham. The three of us hit on court together, and Sebastian, who is just 12-years-old, made his first 28 balls; his focus and discipline was so impressive. I’ve seen a lot of tennis in my life including playing against Jimmy Arias in the Eastern 12s Clay Court Championships 47 years ago when we were both 11. Arias went on to be ranked #5 in the world. I had never seen anyone with as much focus, discipline and flawless technique as Sebastian at his age.”
From left to right: Sebastian Bielen, Carl Icahn, Jeff Appel and Alex Rotsaert.
Jeff and Bill are now putting their support behind Bielen as they aim to help him reach his full potential. To help with that, they have brought on ESPN tennis analyst and coach Brad Gilbert to oversee his development. Gilbert was ranked as high as #4 in the world, and coached the likes of Andre Agassi and Andy Murray after his playing career.
Left to right: Jeff Appel. Brad Gilbert and Bill Ackman.
Appel’s help goes far beyond the wins and losses on court, and there are countless players from New York and beyond who have him to thank for positions they now hold in the business arena.
“What I best like to do is pick winners both in the business world and on the tennis court,” said Appel. “I had an original crew of guys about 20 years ago, and now those guys have become extremely successful, and are hiring the younger people from the current crew of players I mentor.”
An example of that is Stanford junior Neel Rajesh, a native of Oyster Bay who plays for Stanford and has a 3.9 GPA, who Appel has been involved with since his high school days. The former star at Syosset High School spent last summer (sophomore) working at The Jordan Company, a top private equity firm, and Marathon Asset Management, headed by tennis enthusiast and close friend of Appel Bruce Richards. He will be an analyst at Goldman Sachs on their Technology Investment Banking Team next summer. He was able to land that position at The Jordan Company, through Jordan Partner Ian Arons, another former highly-ranked junior player from Long Island who was part of Appel’s original crew with Kyle Kliegerman, and Jeff Sloves. The Jordan Company is considered by Appel to have the best corporate culture on Wall Street. They have many former college athletes on their team and focus on mentoring and developing their younger talent.
Jeff Appel, center, with Ludovic Walter (left) and Neel Rajesh (right).
Another former player that Appel currently mentors is Alex Steinroeder.
“I met Alex on the court in 2013 at the National Open Indoors, where Todd Paul and I lost to him and Mesa Mei in the quarterfinals. We lost 7-6 in the third set after a three-hour battle and Todd served for it in the third set tiebreaker,” recalls Appel. “At the time Alex was a sophomore playing #3 at Harvard, Mesa was #1 at Xavier, and I was 50-years-old. I had such a nice time in defeat and Alex was such a mensch I told him after the match I would help him. At the time he didn’t understand what I meant. We stayed in touch as he stayed in tennis, and we would speak at least once every six months. During the pandemic we spent some time together and decided it was time for him to move on from tennis. I then introduced him to my lifelong friend, high school teammate and US Mathematics Olympian Larry Penn, the president of Ellington Capital. I helped him prepare for his interviews and their aptitude tests. The rest is history.”
Appel’s brand and mentorship have extended well beyond New York. A lifelong New Yorker, Appel has recently moved to Boca Raton, Florida, where he plans to grow his network in Florida in a similar fashion to how he did in New York, as Appel calls South Florida the sixth borough.
His South Florida Tennis crew has grown to about 25 guys and continues to add members every day.
“My first hit as a Floridian was with David Volfson, a former #1 player at Cornell who had a 3.95 GPA. Volfson came to my office three years ago when he started to play on tour and I knew within 10 minutes of speaking to him that he was super smart and focused. I knew I liked him and wanted to help him,” said Appel. “He started to train out of Miami where my friend Barry Sternlicht moved his company Starwood Capital. I introduced them to first play tennis. Barry played tennis for Brown University and I knew he would see the same strengths in David that I did. After David finished his brief pro tennis career he joined Starwood seven months ago.”
Appel's mentorship has now branched down to Florida, where he continues to grow his crew each day, and includes Michael Redlicki (left) and David Volfson (right).
Appel’s now global brand is evidenced by his founding of the Finance Cup seven years ago, the annual tennis competition that features former professional and top college tennis players who work full-time in finance in the United States versus their Europe counterparts. Appel captains Team USA, and the event features some of the biggest finance titans such as Ackman, Christer Gardell, Robert Pohly, John Doran and Walter Dolhare. At the 2019 event, Carl Icahn served as Master of Ceremonies. This globally watched event has helped to build a global tennis community where the older guys collaborate to try to help the younger guys in the newly formed global tennis community. It’s a great opportunity for young, aspiring financiers to network with these titans, and furthers the intersection between tennis and business, illustrating how tennis can be a gateway into the finance world.
Business titan Carl Icahn was the Master of Ceremonies at the 2019 Finance Cup.
It is hard to truly pin down the magnitude of Appel’s impact on both the tennis and finance worlds. His mentorship spans decades and over a hundred former players have been enhanced through his altruism. He is now directing his financial support behind Bielen, who has all the makings of being America’s next Grand Slam contender. He has connected his business success to his passion for tennis, and the results of that have helped many with not only their on-court tennis success, but also opened a door to a successful life off the court.
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org