2022 USTA Eastern Organization of the Year Recipient: CourtSense
New Jersey’s CourtSense Tennis Training Center has been named USTA Eastern’s 2022 Member Organization of the Year for its two decades of dedication to the local tennis community and extraordinary record of developing junior athletes for success.
The organization—which is based out of the Tenafly Racquet Club and the Bogota Racquet Club in Bergen County—was founded in 2002 by Gordon Uehling, an Alpine, N.J. native and former professional player. Throughout his playing career, Uehling worked with a variety of mentors, including the renowned Jose Higueras, who coached both Michael Chang and Jim Courier to Grand Slam titles, and Dr. Jim Loehr, a leader in the sports psychology field. In founding CourtSense, Uehling hoped to share his experiences with a new generation of players from his own home state.
“I always loved the game and felt it would teach so much to anybody involved in it,” Uehling says.
CourtSense began on just one indoor court and over the last 20 years has blossomed into a robust operation that spans five facilities. They run over 50 USTA tournaments a year, and 450 juniors currently participate in its programming; around 50 or so of those are high-performance players. But the athletes are more than just a number: The organization maintains a ratio of three kids for every one coach in all of its offerings, and Uehling—who grew up dyslexic—feels strongly that each participant receives the attention they specifically need.
“I really wanted to create a program that I would want if I were dyslexic in sport,” he says. “Because I’m a very compassionate person, empathetic and patient as can be, and it doesn’t matter who’s in front of me. My whole philosophy was, ‘Let’s create something that’s replicable.’ Let’s go from A to B, not A to M. Some might stay in A longer. If somebody is really athletic, they’ll just go through the systems quicker, but they won’t leave a stone unturned. They’ll really have a deep understanding of the fundamentals.”
The highly personalized instruction is a hallmark of the collaborative, welcoming culture CourtSense strives to create.
“We’re really thinking about the person first versus the tennis player,” Uehling says. “The heartbeat of our facility is caring deeply about everybody. We’re a community.”
To that end, the organization invests a great deal of time seeking out the right team members to enhance that community. Before a coach can join the staff, he or she must undergo a rigorous hiring process to ensure they are the right fit, says longtime general manager Ognen Nikolovski, who also notes that it isn’t out of the question for prospective employees to be interviewed five or six times prior to donning the CourtSense uniform. The most important criteria for candidates to meet? That they have good character, are passionate about the sport and want to work as part of a collective unit. At CourtSense, there’s no room for ego.
“It’s great that you can hit a big forehand and you played at the US Open, but how are you going to make all of that available to everybody else?” Nikolovski explains. “And are you really willing to learn from others? You might be a great player, but for somebody who has worked for ten years with progression balls, they’ll know more about working with younger kids than you do. Do you have that humbleness, that open-mindness to accept that?”
The scrupulous methodology has paid off—not just for program participants, but for the clinicians themselves. Those who do come aboard tend to stay aboard, as Nikolovski says that the 22 coaches currently on staff have spent an average of eight-and-a-half years at CourtSense.
“We care a lot about coach education,” Uehling adds. “If somebody works for us, they’re going to be one hell of a coach, a lot stronger than when they arrived. And we will be stronger too, because they’ll share their information too. It becomes a collaboration.”
Beyond specialization and staffing, another critical facet of the CourtSense ethos is a willingness to invest in technology. Instructors use monitors to measure players’ heart rate and brain speed while training, and they also rely on video analysis. Uehling notes they have the ability to look at a player’s movement slowed down to a one-thousandth of a second to see “possible injuries coming before a player even knows they have an injury.”
“There’s a quote we created many years ago: The art of coaching plus sport science equals magic,” he says. “It’s really when you allow the coach the ability to use their artistry and their understanding of the player, but then also talk about nutrition and psychology and look at video to analyze movement. There’s a lot of science that really excites us.”
One of the most famous products of this magical formula is recently-retired pro player Christina McHale, who captured one singles title on the WTA tour and reached a career high of world No. 24. McHale came to the organization as a pre-teen and worked extensively with Carlos Cano, the former head of development for the Mexican Tennis Federation who has served as a coach for CourtSense since Day 1.
“Her goal was to play for Stanford, and she ultimately outgrew that goal,” Uehling says. “She wanted to always be the best that she could be. She had a lot of gifts, but gifts are obviously relative. She really was able to fulfill a lot of the dreams that many have had because of her dedication. And I think we played a nice role in that, to give her a foundation on understanding the fundamentals of the game and how to approach it.”
Of course, while McHale is no doubt the most successful CourtSense graduate within professional tennis, Uehling and Nikolovski are proud of all the many players that have passed through their ranks. Some of these individuals have played professionally, some have obtained scholarships to great schools, and some have won major USTA tournaments. Whatever their accomplishment or milestone, Uehling and Nikolovski are sure to celebrate it. That’s the CourtSense way.
“I remember we had a kid who had trouble skipping,” Uehling says. “He just didn’t have the coordination to skip, and it was one of the most fulfilling things getting him to skip. And people said, ‘There’s not a chance he’s going to play competitively.’ He actually ended up playing varsity high school tennis. Those are big victories too. Some of the achievements we’re proud of are the ones nobody knows about.”