Organizer of the Month
November 21, 2019
Each month, USTA Eastern selects a passionate advocate who has made exceptional contributions within the community through tennis. This month we honor a club owner whose innovative, inclusive programming helps the visually impaired play the sport in New York City.
“Relentlessly Focused on Tomorrow”
As a Senior Global Lifestyle Marketing Manager at PUMA, Anthony Evrard maintained a jet-setting lifestyle. He traveled all over the world multiple times a month and worked in concert with some of the biggest sporting events on the planet, including the Olympics and the World Cup. Then, around ten years ago, he learned that the USTA was adapting a new method for introducing kids to tennis—including using tinier 36' and 60' courts , smaller racquets and modified balls with less compression—and Evrard's entrepreneurial spirit took over. ADVERTISEMENT He had a great deal of familiarity with the USTA's new plan because it had already existed in some form in his native Belgium, where he had been a standout junior. He began to envision a tennis club in the heart of Brooklyn that catered to children, designed specifically with these modifications in mind.
“I just became really intrigued with creating a fully integrated experience for young families,” he says. “A lot of people would tell me, ‘Oh, the market... you're going to miss on too many other demographics once the kids outgrow the 60-foot court,’ or ‘Nobody will pay a membership to come and play at a club with red an orange balls.’ But I was really driven by it.”
Driven is perhaps an understatement. Evrard left his corporate job and “lived on rice and potatoes for two years” until he had developed a robust business plan to present to investors. He also leaned on USTA Eastern for support. “I showed up to the offices with my backpack and idea,” he says now. “I met with [Executive Director] Jenny [Schnitzer] who was always a believer. It was very instrumental for someone like me, who didn't grow up in the U.S., to really have local support to understand the system and how things are run here. Because I'd only played college tennis in the states [at Loyola Marymount], so I didn't know all the intricacies at the club level.”
Evrard opened Court 16—named after the numbered court he played on as a child at his family's club in Brussels, Belgium—in a small space in Gowanus, Brooklyn. He eventually took over the building next door, and a little over a year ago, a second location opened in Long Island City, Queens. Evrard attributes the growth to community engagement—he and his team work hard to understand the neighborhoods surrounding the clubs—and innovation.
"We wanted to create a space that's a hybrid between a tennis academy, an activation/experiential center, and a community destination," he says.
Some innovations are technological: The LIC location features customizable LED tennis courts on a glass surface. Others are a unique way of reimagining what tennis is and who tennis is for, like Court 16's Sound of Tennis program, which helps the visually impaired to play the game.
The Sound of Tennis program sprung from conversations Evrard had with his mother-in-law, who has glaucoma. “She described to me the realities of being visually impaired in New York and the need to create communities around people who have similar challenges,” he explains. “That was the starting point: Is there a way we could adapt the game for those who are visually impaired so that they can experience tennis?”
Evrard conducted some online research and discovered that a group in Japan used a foam ball with a bell inside it to teach the sport to the visually impaired. He also reached out to some local organizations, including the Catholic Guild for the Blind, looking for recommendations on how he could make the Court 16 facilities more accommodating. Among advice about various building modifications and playing formats, he received one unexpected suggestion: Hire a visually impaired intern to help. Evrard promptly developed an internship program at the club, and the move “really changed the substance of what we do,” he notes. “[The interns] really inspired a lot of our employees. Bringing different people together—with tennis being the common denominator—really stimulated a lot of great conversations.”
Evrard and his team have immersed themselves in creating an ideal environment for the community; in addition to creating markers on the floors within the facility to help ease navigation, they’re currently partnering with the city to make transportation via ferry easier for the participants. Every step of the way, visually-impaired interns and employees have informed their decisions. “Having an attitude of ‘We don’t know it all’ is instrumental,” Evrard says. “We certainly don’t know what it’s like to be blind in New York City. So it’s important to listen to people. We started this very small, almost like grassroots relationship-building, so we could understand what we could do.”
The collaborative approach has helped the Sound of Tennis to prosper. Today a group of nearly 40 visually impaired players travel to Court 16’s Brooklyn location to learn the game, and the team just began offering the program at the Long Island City branch. (In Long Island City specifically, Court 16 has actually partnered with Helen Keller Services and BNP Paribas to provide complimentary classes to qualifying participants.) And how does Evrard feel to see the Sound of Tennis in action? How does he feel when he sees the routinely underserved group—a group that might not have had the opportunity to play tennis were it not for conversations he had with his mother-in-law—take the court? “It makes me feel like we need to develop a better ball,” he says bluntly. “We’ve had some amazing events recently with very high-level engineers, and right now I’m out on the battlefield trying to get funding to create a smarter ball that’s going to make our players’ lives a lot easier.”
It's a mentality that has guided Evrard from his rice-and-potato days through the opening of a second facility. “There’s certainly a sense of accomplishment in bringing people together,” he says of Court 16 becoming a reality. “And I'm very, very grateful to the people who believed in this idea and gave us a chance to give it a shot. But certainly I’m always relentlessly focused on tomorrow.”