Executive Director Jenny Schnitzer celebrates 30 years at USTA Eastern
30 years and she’s not finished yet. On March 1, 2022, USTA Eastern Executive Director Jenny Schnitzer celebrated a major milestone: three full decades with the organization. Fresh out of college, Schnitzer—a former junior in the section who grew up playing in New York City parks—joined the Eastern team to help build its schools program, and she hasn’t left since. “It’s my passion,” she says. “I have lived and breathed Eastern tennis since I was a junior. It’s rooted in me.” We talked to Schnitzer about her journey to leading the organization, the many people who have helped her along the way—and why thinking locally about the sport is so personal to her.
Congratulations on 30 years with USTA Eastern! Does it feel like you’ve been here 30 years—or does it feel just like yesterday?
SCHNITZER: It definitely doesn’t feel like 30 years. But now that I’m hitting [the milestone] I’ve been looking back. It’s amazing to think about how far we’ve come since I started. To be able to work in tennis, a sport I love, and do it for 30 years…to have made so many great friendships and to be able to help so many people grow the game in their local communities—I mean, it’s amazing. It’s exactly what I wanted to do.
In our previous interview, you talked about discovering a love of tennis as a kid in your local park in the Inwood neighborhood of Manhattan. How much does it mean to you that your entire career has really been focused on helping other kids discover that love?
SCHNITZER: Well I think [the work] means so much to me because I was that kid, right? I grew up playing in the parks. I went out and played with my family. We all loved it. I knew nothing about the USTA. But then one day one person came up to me while I was playing and said ‘Hey, you’re pretty good! Do you know about USTA tournaments?’ She just talked to me about it, and then I signed up, and then I got hooked. And that one person was Arvelia Myers.
Wait. Arvelia Myers is an Eastern legend (and hall of famer) who ran a major tennis program for kids out of upper Manhattan and was known as the “mother of Harlem tennis”. She just happened to see you playing in the park one day?
SCHNITZER: Yeah. She didn’t know me or my family from a hole in the wall. But she saw that I loved tennis, and that my family loved tennis, so she came over and started to chat us up. She opened the door for me. It takes one person to make a difference. I was a blue collar kid. I learned about USTA tournaments from Arvelia and started playing in them. I got better the more tournaments I played. And because I got better, I got a scholarship to St. John’s University. That was my first lesson in how important it is to build a pathway in your local community. Again, I’m a model of it.
Wow. So how did you end up going from junior player to employee at Eastern?
SCHNITZER: It’s all full circle. As I was graduating, I got a message from Arvelia who told me that there was this USTA position open. What I had been thinking about [in terms of a career] was “How do I give back? How do I share what I went through?” I even thought, “How do I get involved in the USTA Schools program?” And then Arvelia called, and that’s what the position turned out to be. That’s crazy, right? It even shocks me! You never know when you’re going to do something that’s going to make an impact in somebody’s life. That was my relationship with Arvelia. Just talking to her and continuing that relationship over the years opened all these doors.
Take me back to your first few weeks and months on the job. What was it like? What was your first big project?
SCHNITZER: My first project was to get more schools involved, to get districts to do tennis in their P.E. programs. We would go to a lot of school assemblies to get kids interested in tennis. I’d never done a school assembly in my life and there would be 300 kids in a gym! It was sink or swim, and luckily I swam. [Laughs]. We also were about connecting the dots and making sure the kids from those schools would have after school programs and local programs to go to [once their tennis unit ended]. We wanted to make sure we were creating community pathways. And that was another big project I had, developing Community Tennis Associations (CTAs). We brought in some really great volunteers that have been around a long time and have really helped bring more kids to the sport.
What’s a lesson you learned back then that still informs how you approach your job today?
SCHNITZER: It’s about relationships. We can’t do it alone from the section office. It’s the relationships we form locally that make a big difference. The local volunteers, the local club owner, the local park person. Without them, we couldn’t do what we do to grow tennis. It’s about their work. They are the boots on the ground. We’re here to support them—with training, with guidance, with grants. And friendship.
You started in Schools Tennis and now serve as executive director of the entire organization. How did your managers support you or mentor you as you rose through the ranks?
SCHNITZER: I think they all taught me something different. Doris Herrick, who was executive director of Eastern when I started, validated for me the importance of relationships—and also, just remaining calm when dealing with any situation. Dave Goodman hired me and really taught me the history of the USTA and why it was important. The two of us always had laughs. And D.A. Abrams [who served as executive director from 2006-2012] made me push myself to gain an understanding of the organization as a whole…which I think helped me on my path to becoming ED.
You were promoted into the ED role in 2015. After so many years with the organization, how did that feel? What were your goals as the incoming leader?
SCHNITZER: I think it was maybe a little overwhelming, but also exciting. I was pumped to take on the position. My goal, and I don’t think it’s surprising, was about trying to get all of our departments to work together to connect the dots. So if there is a school program, we also have an after school program [for those kids] and then we can also send them to a local community program where they can start playing Junior Team Tennis (JTT) and join the [USTA] pathway. That is always a work in progress. It takes years to develop. I try to let the staff know, we’re not chasing numbers. We’re about building relationships and building communities, and it’s going to take a long time. Quality over quantity. I think I’ve said that before. [Laughs]. And the other thing is making everyone feel part of the Eastern family. If you have a problem, call us, we’ll figure it out. Let’s talk it through. We have an amazing staff that goes above and beyond to help people as much as they can.
When you look back at your time here, is there a particular moment—whether it be teaching a kid to play tennis, or watching a community program come to life—that encapsulates your USTA Eastern experience?
SCHNITZER: I don’t think there’s one. I think [moments like that] are why I’ve been here this long. Every year, there’s another story where you go, “That’s amazing.” For instance, every time I go to USTA Eastern League Sectionals, I end up crying. Somebody will come up and tell me how important his or her League team has been to them. A husband passed away, and she was devastated, but her team helped her through it, and they’re all wearing t-shirts with his name. Or there’s a team raising money for breast cancer research to support one of their players who was just diagnosed. Everything is about relationships. It’s in those times when you go, “This is what’s all about.” It’s not about who wins, who’s the No. 1 ranked player. It’s about developing those bonds, it’s about everything that’s happening in a person’s process to becoming a tennis player.
Looking forward: What are your goals for the future of the organization?
SCHNITZER: We want to continue to build on our growth. Again, not looking at numbers, but we want to continue to strengthen our communities. There’s always more we can do to help, whether it's more training or assisting to improve facilities. That’s what I’m going to continue to focus on. And that’s in everything, from grassroots to competitive tennis.
You talk a lot about Eastern being a family. After all these years, what does this community mean to you?
SCHNITZER: I just want to say I’m so thankful for our amazing staff and our amazing volunteer base. It not only makes the job easier, it’s a job well done. Both go way above and beyond. They just make a huge impact, both at the grassroots and section level.