The former world number one opened a tennis academy in 2010, at the intersection of several New York neighborhoods. And his approach is fairly unique, naturally.
John McEnroe discovered Randall’s Island in the 1970s. It came as a shock for this kid from an upmarket neighbourhood of Queens, whose Manhattan Classification: Internal private school used sports fields on the island, wedged between Harlem River to the west, East River to the east and the Bronx just to the north. “It was a bit of a slum at the time. It was old, in a sorry state,” he says, frowning at the memory of the run-down tennis centre. He didn’t play there much, preferring his parents’ private club nearby, and instead remembers frenetic football matches on local pitches, set against a backdrop of factory chimneys and railway lines, or highways leading to bridges, including Hell Gate Bridge... just along the river from the red light districts, especially at that time. But when the opportunity came along to build his academy there, the tireless champion of a different form of tennis training jumped at the chance.
The John McEnroe Tennis Academy was born in 2010, with an approach that is fairly unique, like its founder: “We wanted to do something different from traditional academies. Encouraging children to stay in school, for example. That's not a completely crazy idea is it? Or letting them play other sports, for their physical and mental development,” suggests the boss, still shocked that for a long time the traditional approach, for the most talented students, was a form of exile in another state, like Florida, from a very young age and with no family present. This also meant specializing in a sport very early on, which he sees as harmful. So we arrive at this 7.5 acre site, with a pro shop at the entrance, with a stringing machine, and a cafeteria, leading on to various physical – and visual – preparation rooms, featuring a wide range of equipment, changing rooms and relaxation areas, such as a table tennis table where the kids call out the points as they would in tennis: “15-0, 30-0”. The corridors are filled with posters, photos, magazine covers and trophies marking the career of the seven-times Grand Slam champion.
We finally reach the courts. Five covered, 15 outdoor. Ten hard, 10 clay. Thirty-seven coaches are responsible for training the 900 young players. Between 10 and 15 of them earn more than $100,000 a year, without counting the maintenance, equipment, etc.
“Most kids still can’t afford to play tennis in the United States. I will always fight to make this sport moreaccessible”
- John McEnroe
Membership therefore comes at a price: between $96 and $149 per month per student. “Most kids still can’t afford to play tennis in the United States. I will always fight to make this sport more accessible”. A charity, attached to the academy, was therefore founded to raise funds. Depending on their parents’ income, children can receive three group lessons and one private lesson per week.
BNP Paribas, and more specifically the bank's American branch, has also launched a project: Team BNP Paribas Mac 1. Since 2019, young athletes have received financial support to help them take more lessons and play in high-level competitions, along with the corresponding travel costs. The funding amounts to half a million dollars for 10 students. Josef Oyebog from Cameroon, already a giant at 1.80m by 13 years old, says in French: “My dad really wanted to meet John McEnroe, so when I heard there were trials, my mum also agreed… and I was selected!” His team-mate Theadora Rabman will be taking part in the Indian Wells tournament in a few weeks: “I'm a little nervous, but so excited!”
“Obviously, we dream of a child from the academy winning the US Open or Wimbledon... but we know this won’t be the case for 99% of our students, so we focus on what we can offer them and give a chance to some young people who wouldn't otherwise have it,” says McEnroe.
His office is on the second floor, from where he can easily keep an eye on all the courts. His brother Patrick, who was one of the best of his generation (28th in the world in 1995), has his office downstairs, right next to the courts. "Patrick was the last high-level New York player, we haven’t had any since... Despite this being where the US Open is played and New York is the best city in the world, in my opinion. That's another reason we created Classification: Internal this academy,” explains John McEnroe. The older brother for the vision, the younger to make it a reality. With them, it is also a game of doubles.
A very tennis-oriented bank
BNP Paribas has been involved in tennis for almost half a century, since the French Tennis Federation (FFT) asked the French bank to fund the construction of boxes on centre court at Roland-Garros in 1973. The company’s visual presence continues on tarpaulins around the French Open and has grown, driven by its status as official sponsor of the twoweek tournament. Other partnerships followed during the 1980s, in France and then abroad. In the United States, for instance, the Californian Masters 1000 tournament – sometimes referred to as the fifth Grand Slam – has been renamed the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells.
The bank's American branch couldn’t refuse the request for a partnership with an academy in New York (where BNP Paribas is involved in the CityParks programme which provides free tennis lessons to kids), according to its CEO, Jean-Yves Fillion. The proposal came in 2019 from the McEnroe brothers, who the Franco-American boss meets frequently. “For us, doing something here in New York, and with young people, is important. It’s a way of making tennis more accessible,” explains the tennis fan. Several programmes to support young hopefuls aspiring to turn professional have been launched in France, including “Team BNP Paribas Jeunes Talents”, in association with the FFT, along with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and the “Fête Le Mur Kids Team”, to support young people from disadvantaged areas, with Yannick Noah.