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Center of Attention

By Jonathan Whitbourne

For three weeks every summer, the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center hosts the world’s greatest tennis players during US Open Qualifying and the Open itself. During that time, the world’s sporting spotlight is focused on this place. But even after
the stars depart, there’s plenty of tennis that remains. During the other 49 weeks of the year, the NTC is alive with activity, as players of all ages and abilities showcase their games on the same courts where the game’s biggest names make their mark.

Recognized as the world’s largest public tennis facility, the NTC is a year-round hotbed of tennis activity, offering a wealth of tennis programming for recreational players. Open to the public 11 months each year, seven days a week (from 6 a.m. to midnight), the 46.5-acre venue features 33 outdoor courts and 12 new indoor courts for public play, lessons, clinics, leagues, tournaments and other activities.

“I always say this place is the best-kept secret in public tennis,” says Tina Taps, the NTC’s manager of tennis programs. “I think people are always surprised that they can come out and play on the very same courts as their idols. Sampras, Agassi, Federer, the Williams Sisters. ... they’ve all played here—and you can too!”

The NTC: A Brief History

By the mid-1970s, it was becoming increasingly clear that the US Open was outgrowing the cozy confines of the charming but small West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills. Enter W.E. “Slew” Hester. A gregarious Mississippi oilman and USTA President from 1977 to 1979, Hester saw the need to move the rapidly growing event to a larger venue. Hester was on a New York-bound flight, just minutes from landing at LaGuardia Airport, when he looked out the window and spotted a small snow-covered stadium sitting vacant in a large public park. What he saw was Louis Armstrong Stadium, a 20,000-seat relic left over from the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Convinced that this spot would be the perfect home for the US Open, Hester and the USTA struck a deal with the City of New York to create the USTA National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens. Ground was broken in 1977, and remarkably, the facility opened a mere 10 months later, just in time for the 1978 US Open.

Since then, the NTC has undergone several renovations and upgrades—the largest being the construction of Arthur Ashe Stadium, which was completed in 1997. The $285 million project was paid for entirely by the USTA, with no cost to the city or taxpayers.
In 2006, the entire facility was rechristened the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, in honor of the champion who herself had first picked up a racquet in a public park. And late last year, the NTC opened its new Indoor Tennis Facility, a 12-court, 265,000-square-foot masterpiece (see “The Great Indoors,” on Page 26). Still, amid all of these changes and improvements, the NTC has remained a public facility.

For the People, By the People

No matter your age or skill level, the NTC has something for you. In addition to open court time, the NTC boasts more than 400 programs, including activities for kids as young as 4. QuickStart Tennis—a format in which the racquets, courts, nets and balls  have been scaled down to better suit a young child’s budding abilities—is particularly popular at the NTC. In fact, three of the courts inside the new Indoor Tennis Facility have been outfitted with permanent QuickStart lines. In addition, there are three other QuickStart Tennis courts on the rooftop deck of the new Indoor Tennis Facility.

“We’re really proud of those courts because they symbolize our strong commitment to the QuickStart Tennis format and to getting more young kids excited about tennis,” says Whitney Kraft, the director of tennis programs at the NTC, who oversees a staff of 20 full-time and part-time teaching pros. “Plus, these courts are overlooking the entire [NTC] and you have a beautiful view of the Unisphere (a 12-story stainless steel sculpture of the Earth that was constructed for the 1964 World’s Fair). You can’t beat that.”

For adults and seniors, there are literally hundreds of options—including USA Tennis 1-2-3 (a six-week introductory program), group or one-on-one lessons, summer adult tennis camps, USTA Leagues and the increasingly popular Cardio Tennis, which combines an aerobic workout with various tennis drills.

“Without a doubt, the largest participation increases [at the NTC] have been in Cardio Tennis,” Kraft says. “It’s great because we get lots of people out here that may not have considered tennis before. But once they’re here, they see everything else we offer and try new things. And that’s what [the NTC] is all about. We have something for everyone.”

Tennis’ Melting Pot

It’s only fitting that the NTC resides in New York, as it mirrors its host city’s abundance of diversity. The NTC, for instance, hosts more than 25 tournaments annually—including the Mayor’s Cup (featuring New York City’s top high school players) and the USTA National Men’s, Women’s and Mixed Indoor Championships. More than 70 high schools and colleges practice or compete at the NTC annually, and teaching pros from all over the country travel here to take classes and earn certification.

The NTC also is a huge supporter of wheelchair tennis, a sport it has promoted since the early 1980s when it played host to the Eastern Wheelchair Tennis Association Championships. Today the NTC is home to the Jana Hunsaker Memorial Wheelchair Tennis Tournament, an annual event featuring more than 50 of the world’s best wheelchair players. Entering its 10th year, the tournament is open to the public and includes a free tennis clinic for children with disabilities.

“I love introducing people to wheelchair tennis, because they quickly see just how incredible and inspirational wheelchair athletes are,” says Taps, whose staff helps organize and run the tournament. “I think wheelchair tennis also shows the diversity of [the NTC]. We offer and promote tennis in all its forms. It doesn’t matter how old you are, it doesn’t matter how good you are, it doesn’t matter if you play every day or if you haven’t picked up a racquet in 20 years. Just come down and see us; we’ve got lots for you to enjoy.”
 
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