2020 USTA Eastern Organization of the Year Recipient: Empire Tennis Academy
The Empire Tennis Academy, led by Jason Speirs in Rochester N.Y., has been named USTA Eastern’s 2020 Member Organization of the Year for its eclectic variety of programming and overall commitment to service within the Rochester community.
The organization—which consists of eight courts (three indoor, five outdoor) and is located on the campus of the Harley School in Rochester—has been owned and operated by Speirs (above, far right) since 2016. It was a homecoming of sorts for Speirs. The Rochester native grew up playing tennis at the very same facility, when it was known as the Dave Strebel Tennis Academy; then-owner Strebel became a great, lifelong mentor and was instrumental in helping Speirs gain admission to the private school that shared an address with his business. Speirs eventually left Rochester to attend Assumption University in Massachusetts, and then upon graduation moved down to New York City, where he found a job as a hitter at the Roosevelt Island Racquet Club. He spent 12 years moving up the ranks at Roosevelt, eventually ascending to its Director of Tennis. Then, just when he was starting to think about the future, he received an offer he ultimately couldn’t refuse.
“I was looking at what I wanted to do next,” Speirs says. “I was sort of in line to become the general manager at Roosevelt, and it was either that or go and become a club owner somewhere else in the country. I happened to be at Dave’s daughter’s wedding. And Dave came up and asked me if I would be interested in buying the business. I told him, ‘Dave, I’m a tennis director at a New York City tennis club. I appreciate the offer, but no thanks!’”
Still, after turning Strebel down, Speirs started contemplating the possibility. If he did decide to leave Roosevelt to run a club, where else would he better know the tennis landscape than his own hometown?
“So I came back and said, ‘Dave, I think I’m in,’” he recalls.
The rest is history. Under the stewardship of Speirs, the Empire Tennis Academy and its USPTA-certified staff offer a full range of programming for players of all ages, including a competitive pathway for juniors and the 10-and-under set, as well as social events, classes, Cardio Tennis and USTA Leagues for adults. The organization places a special emphasis on attracting those who are just entering the sport or are at an intermediate level. This is partially due to its location in a school, partially due to the number of indoor courts and partially due to the incredibly quick speed of the court surfaces, which aren’t ideal for elite competitors.
“One of our most popular programs is [the one for] 11 to 17-year-old entry-level kids,” Speirs says. “We get a lot of teenagers who have tried the mainstream sports and it didn’t work out for whatever reason, so now they’re playing tennis. It’s really about capturing their interest. Our competition is cell phones and iPads.”
To that end, Speirs notes that the Empire curriculum particularly emphasizes fun.
“It’s not the traditional six people waiting in one line to hit like two, three, four balls,” he says. “We use a lot of the [USTA] Net Generation lesson plans, and we’ve had a high level of success. We’re really trying to get a lot of kids playing tennis, and if they love it, great, here’s the awesome competitive pathway we have. We’re not trying to get the number one kid in Rochester. It’s great that our advanced kids are making their presence felt in the competitive tournaments in the area, but that’s not the essence of our program. We don’t have that chip on our shoulder about having the best kids. We have the best kids for different reasons: Because of who they are.”
Another unique aspect of Empire is its dedication to the community. Before he left New York City, Speirs had created a non-profit, Tennis Saves, to raise awareness for gastrointestinal esophageal cancer—an illness from which his father passed away in 2009. (The organization raised over $36,000 for related charities.) When Speirs returned to Rochester, he learned that the Rochester Junior Grand Prix—a series of local junior summer tennis tournaments with very affordable registration fees—would not be held for the first time since 1990. These tournaments were a tennis staple in Rochester, and their signature low cost was particularly significant for underserved, low-income families in the area. Plus, “the top eight players are invited to a tournament at the end of the summer where there are four-foot trophies, and as a kid growing up you’re like, ‘This is the coolest thing!’” says Speirs, who, having played in the Grand Prix as a kid growing up, has firsthand knowledge of this feeling.
Speirs decided to focus Tennis Saves’s philanthropic efforts toward reviving this affordable opportunity. As a result of his persistence, the new version debuted in 2017 with around 60 players, and that number has grown substantially every year. In 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, an astounding 200 kids participated in these events throughout the summer, and Speirs is now working on creating a winter counterpart. Empire staffers routinely donate time and resources to help make each tournament within the Grand Prix a great experience for all the kids involved.
“My staff actually all grew up playing in Grand Prix tournaments,” he notes. “If you played even semi-competitively in Rochester, you knew about the Grand Prix. So it’s personal to them as well.”
But their willingness to volunteer is also just a testament to the tone Speirs sets at Empire. And that tone, no doubt, is also what has made the facility so successful.
“I’m very fortunate, and I’ve been given a lot of opportunities,” Speirs says. “So I just want to make sure that everyone around me [also] gets good opportunities. I want my staff and the kids [we serve] to do well...and I’m interested in their personal growth. If they get complacent, I get complacent. The better they do, the better I do.”
Read more about our 2020 award recipients:
Lifetime Achievement: Ingrid Rehwinkel
Tennis Man of the Year: Daniel Burgess
Tennis Woman of the Year: Adrienne Alteri
Tennis Family of the Year: The Perry Family
Junior Courage Award: Gavin Vander Schaaf
Adult Courage Award: Mary-Margaret Sohns