| By Brian Coleman
Photo courtesy of Getty Images

 

For more than a decade, Ognen Nikolovski has called CourtSense Tennis Training Center in New Jersey home. In that time, Nikolovski has helped grow CourtSense into a thriving program that produces some of the country’s top junior players, using his vast experience as both a coach and player to create an environment for players to thrive in.

He first came to the United States in his senior year of high school, when the wars broke out in the former Yugoslavia, and he landed in Memphis, Tennessee. Following his senior year of high school, Nikolovski took his talents to Rollins College, one of the top Division II tennis programs in the nation, where he excelled. He would be a team captain and an all-American, and it was also the place where he would meet Gordon Uehling, the founder and owner of CourtSense.

“We were college roommates and played on the team together,” said Nikolovski. “We would play on the tour together for a couple of years after college, travelling across Europe and competing in Futures and Challenger events. By this time, Macedonia had separated from Yugoslavia, and so I was also playing in the Davis Cup representing Macedonia. It’s funny; I came to the United States with a Yugoslavian passport and left with a Macedonian one.” 

While remaining in contact with Uehling and maintaining their friendship, Nikolovski went back to Macedonia and built his own tennis facility, along with the help of family and friends. 

“It was a special place. We had about four courts, a bar and restaurant; it was your typical small European club, and we had a lot of passionate people there,” he recalls. “All the while, I remained in touch with Gordon, and I knew about his idea and desire to have his own place in New Jersey. He started his own small program on the property where he lived, and we would always bounce ideas off of each other.”

It was around this time that Uehling purchased Tenafly Racquet Club, which would become the first location of what is now the vast CourtSense network.

“After a couple of years, he started convincing me to move to the U.S. and help him out with his business,” said Nikolovski. “My family was willing to do it, and we agreed to go there for about six months to a year and see where it went. 12 or 13 years later, and we’re still here.”

The close relationship between Uehling and Nikolovski was critical to growing CourtSense into what it is today. What started as a two-court program with a few employees has blossomed into a five-location business (six in the summer) with more than 60 employees.

“When I first came here, the idea was just to help Gordon structure the business and help organize the team,” Uehling recalls. “That is sort of my strength, picking the right people and putting them together so they are all focused in the same direction. We feel a responsibility to our staff and customers here; we are both very passionate about tennis, and see ourselves doing this for a long time, probably until we both have canes in our hands.”

In all of Nikolovski’s years in tennis, 2020 may have been the most challenging when you consider the global pandemic that affected all businesses, and CourtSense was no different. As the cases of COVID-19 swept through New Jersey, they were forced to shut down temporarily, which presented a number of challenges and problems.

But after weathering the storm and helping to flatten the curve of the virus’ spread, CourtSense re-opened in the summer and put in the proper safety precautions and protocols to ensure the health of its customers and staff members.

“The biggest challenge comes from the uncertainty, more so than the things you have to do,” Nikolovski said. “As far as the safety guidelines and protocols, once you establish them and have the right people to implement them, our people are disciplined in following them. When we closed up our locations, it was a shock at first. Going day-by-day and thinking to yourself, ‘how are we going to keep this alive?’, and you start doubting. We were lucky that the government provided unemployment checks and the PPP loans, which helped us stay afloat just enough so we could open up at the right time. And the summer went great; we manage a couple of outdoor country clubs, and that was a big help. The camps went great as well, it was probably the best two summer months we’ve had in the last 12 years. People wanted to be outside and remain active.

That uncertainty is back again as you hear on the news about all the cases going up. But we just have to take it day-by-day, and I think overall we have a positive outlook and a strong team effort to help us keep it going.”

The High Performance program continues to thrive at CourtSense as they produce some of the area’s top juniors, as indicated by the most recent USTA junior rankings that features many CourtSense players atop the rankings and throughout the Top 50. Nikolovski says the reason for this is the result of many different factors.

“I think it’s a combination of a lot of things; high performance development is an up-and-down business,” he says. “Players and parents tend to live by their results, so for two weeks everything is unbelievable, but then the next two weeks, if the results aren’t what they expected, suddenly the world is falling apart. To counter that, you need a stable foundation and the right coaches and team in place to lead the process. I think that’s our biggest strength...And we’ve been lucky to work with some very talented kids and dedicated parents that understand this process. Stephanie Yakoff is from Fort Lee which is 10 minutes away, and Christina McHale who trained here for many years is from Englewood Cliffs. So we’ve been fortunate to have great players in our region who were talented to begin with, and when people see that they see the stability we provide.”

Looking back on his decades-plus time at CourtSense, Nikolovski knows he made the right decision to move the United States and help his friend grow their dream together. As the General Manager of CourtSense, he is tasked with running the business and therefore doesn’t spend as much time on court as he used to, but he does find time to get back on court, which is almost a therapeutic process.

“I love being on court and I miss it; it keeps me sane,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll leave my office for a couple of hours and observe what’s going on on the court. It reminds me of my purpose and what we are trying to accomplish here, and that’s providing a service to help people enjoy tennis and reach their goals, no matter who they are: the adults who are there to exercise and clear their mind from work, or the juniors who want to be great tennis players. I love being able to see the impact you can have on a player. When you teach something to a kid and he or she applies it on the court, and they look at you with that smile because they know they figured it out. Or when a former player graduates from college and sends you a text message thanking you for teaching them something along the way. There’s no bigger reward than that, and that’s what I’m in it for.”

 

Brian Coleman

 Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at brianc@usptennis.com