Since 2015, the Cary Leeds Center for Tennis & Learning has served as the flagship location of the New York Junior Tennis & Learning (NYJTL), and has used tennis and academics to help change the lives of many Bronx residents.
“Cary Leeds Center impacts our kids in different ways,” said Ahsha Rolle, the former WTA professional who now serves as Cary Leeds Center’s Director of Tennis. “For some, it’s a resource to keep them on the right path, and it’s a place they can call their second home. The kids know the coaches and staff by name and know their back stories. Some of our kids that have worked through our junior pathway starting in CTP, moving into ITP, and ending in Tournament Team were able to get full or partial tennis scholarships to colleges which is an amazing accomplishment. I have very realistic expectations when it comes to tennis and the reality is most kids playing tennis will not go pro but tennis does have the ability to open other doors in life for these kids.”
That idea is at the heart of all the programming NYJTL and Cary Leeds Center put out there, and in the last year, they have added to that development pathway with the launching of the Cary Leeds Center (CLC) Academy.
The CLC Academy is the latest addition to Cary Leeds Center and NYJTL’s wide array of programs, all of which are designed to create a well-rounded individual. These also include their Serve & Connect program, which is a community-police engagement program, and its SAT Prep program to help under-resourced children to prepare for the SATs.
“Tennis should be used as a tool to get an education and also provide a solid foundation,” said Rolle. “It teaches discipline, structure, respect and hard work, which can only help them achieve other things in life. Seeing our kids grow with the game and also learning important life skills is extremely rewarding. After retiring from the pro tour, and knowing firsthand the impact tennis can have on the life of a child, I knew I wanted to find a way of giving back to the community. I wanted to make an impact in these young people’s lives, and help them achieve their goals on and off the court.”
The Academy was the realization of Jay Devashetty’s vision when he joined the Cary Leeds Center last year after a decade of working as a National Coach for USTA Player Development.
“When I came here there was a need, I felt, for an academy-type setting where you could have a lot of players who wanted to train, some who were home schooled, and also bring in some of the professional players I work with to continue their training,” said Devashetty. “I started putting the idea together, with the goal of providing players in the New York and Tri-State area the opportunity to become professional players or college players, or achieve whatever their dreams and goals might be.”
And thus the CLC Academy was born, and has taken some of the most promising players from the Cary Leeds Center’s programs and produced that type of academy setting that Devashetty envisioned.
“The goal is to produce great players. And great players doesn’t mean they have to be pros, great players can mean they go to college, or it can means they are just great people,” he explained. “And that’s the mission of Cary Leeds Center and NYJTL as a whole, and hopefully everybody learns to take the steps necessary to move through the stages, feed off each other and get better together.”
One of the most unique aspects of the academy is that it includes both top junior players as well as professionals who have made Cary Leeds Center their training bases when they are home and not traveling to tournaments, including Kristie Ahn, Louisa Chirico and Christina McHale. The junior players and pros are on courts next to each other while training, and even get onto the same courts together, something that has a positive impact on all involved.
“I’ve done this before when I was with the USTA where we had juniors training next to the pros and even with them sometimes,” said Devashetty. “They’ll get on court and hit with them a lot of times. They do a lot of drills together. It helps the juniors feel like their goals aren’t too far away, and that has a big impact. They see the pros are doing the same drills, and hearing the same sort of instruction as them. That motivation and comfort level is really important as players try to get to the next level. It definitely has an impact and that was part of the play. I could easily bring the players in at different times, but I don’t because I know what it can do. And the pros love the energy that the juniors bring to the sessions. Everyone feeds off of each other and it creates a great environment for development.”
That impact is felt by the kids in the program, who have the chance to play with and learn from players who were once in their shoes.
“It helps me realize that they’re just like us, we’re just not at that level yet,” said Chantajah Mills. “It helps knowing that they make mistakes too, so you know you don’t have to be perfect all the time. You can see the intensity in their training and it shows what it takes to get to that level.”
In talking about the program overall, Mills added:
“It’s very individualized. There are less kids here than in other programs so the coaches can spend more time with you. The training is very rigorous, we do a lot of work on technical things and footwork. And they really emphasize the intensity you need to have while training.”
In all, the CLC Academy has about two dozen players, but they don’t all train on the same days and times. With many of them traveling for tournaments at different times, another support system that NYTJL and Cary Leeds Center provides, it allows the players at the facility on a particular day to get that personalized training from the coaches.
One of those coaches is Anna Tatishvili, the Associate Director of High Performance and Adult Programming, who just finished up her first year of coaching at Cary Leeds Center. Tatishvili is a former Top 50 ranked player in the world in both singles and doubles, and uses her experience on the tours to help prepare her students.
“I try to share everything I know in different ways. I give examples from when I played and try to explain my experiences,” said Tatishvili. “I help prepare them for matches, go through practice sets, and talk them through what they are feeling. It’s not one specific thing, it’s a little bit of everything, and I just try to convey the things I learned throughout my career. I retired last year, so this is my first official job as a coach, and it has been great. I get to work with all different levels, from our strongest level at the Academy to the tournament team to working with adults. It’s a combination of everything, and I absolutely love it.”
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org