NEW YORK—Over the course of 11 days in late May and early June, the 30th annual NYJTL (New York Junior Tennis & Learning) Mayor's Cup—the largest interscholastic tennis competition in the United States—took place in the south Bronx.
The tournament features students from all five boroughs of New York City, from bustling Manhattan to leafy Staten Island and all streets and avenues in between. And while the Bronx isn't necessarily considered a tennis hotbed, there are legitimate reasons to believe that the area will be a big part of growing the game in the near future.
One thing is for sure: the facilities in the Bronx will not be an excuse for players not reaching their highest possible level.
The NYJTL Mayor's Cup is hosted at the Cary Leeds Center for Tennis and Learning, a venue one might be surprised to see in sprawling Crotona Park. Built in 2015, the center is the result of a 26.5-million dollar project that was funded both publicly and privately to create a home for NYJTL, whose mission is "to develop the character of young people through tennis and education for a lifetime of success on and off the court."
The center features a two-story, 12,000 square foot clubhouse, 22 tennis courts (10 of which are bubbled for winter play) and a variety of educational spaces. Two of the courts are stadium courts, which opened in 2017 and are where the Mayor's Cup hosts its championship matches and hands out its post-tournament awards.
Joe Ceriello, Senior Director of Marketing and Communications for NYJTL, says he hopes that the Cary Leeds Center joins the New York Botanical Garden, Yankee Stadium and the Bronx Zoo as one of the borough's landmarks. After having spent a couple of hours there this past Thursday, I wouldn't be surprised if it did.
Nine-hundred players registered for this year's Mayor's Cup in singles, doubles and team events at the elementary, middle school and varsity levels, a result of a partnership between the NYJTL and USTA Eastern. One of the most notable tournaments is the varsity team division, which features local high-school teams.
This year in the varsity boys' division, Beacon High School, a public school in Hell's Kitchen, beat Horace Mann, a private school in the Bronx that is a member of the Ivy Preparatory School League. This is the beauty of the Mayor's Cup and the Cary Leeds Center: the tournament is free to enter for students that live in New York City, pits students and schools against one another that might not normally do so, and provides many players a chance to play in a tournament setting for the first time.
"A lot of kids who play tennis don't come from money, so they don't get to have much tournament experience," says Ceriello. "So for those players who play in our network, we want to really take their games to the next level. This is tournament opportunity tennis and what we ultimately believe is character and integrity development."
This isn't to say that the Mayor's Cup lacks for talented players. One of the participating students happens to be ranked in the Top 20 in the nation for his age. His name is Ethan Leon, and he won the boys' varsity division without dropping a set. Leon was the top seed in his division two years in a row, and is a product of both the NYJTL and the Cary Leeds Center.
A 17-year-old high school junior, Leon attends Beacon High School in Manhattan and heads all the way up to the Bronx for his training. His brother, Cesar, is the NYJTL Mayor's Cup Tournament Manager—and a former Mayor's Cup competitor himself.
Leon can best be described as a fighter on the court. He's not the biggest player for his age, but he knows how to grind out wins. Everything about his game is advanced for his level. Not every player can be a giant on the court, but Leon has done everything he can to refine his skills, and the NYJTL and the Cary Leeds Center have a lot to do with that.
"It’s all his skill," Cesar says about his brother. "Because he’s shorter than everyone, he’s smaller than everyone. But he’s more skilled, more prepared."
Leon's ability to play at such a high level speaks to the competitiveness of the Mayor's Cup. As it is exclusive to New York, the event doesn't carry USTA standing. It does, however, have a partnership with UTR—Universal Tennis Rating.
In previous years, the tournament didn't provide much upside for some of the area's top players from a ranking perspective. That is no longer the case. These students now know that Mayor's Cup wins are going to help improve their UTR standing.
"With UTR ratings, the best players know that when they play this will count towards their score, which helps us get some of the better players," says Ceriello. "But it also really helped the players, which is also great."
The partnership also happens to help tournament organizers, like Cesar Leon and tournament director Pamela Glick, with the seeding of the event.
One might think that organizing a junior tournament is a relatively easy task, but that couldn't be further from the truth.
"I'll tell you something, I ran a Challenger [tournament] for around 15 years and nothing was harder than organizing this tournament," says Glick. "There are just so many entries."
Leon is but one example of the Cary Leeds Center's ability to improve lives. For this year's Mayor's Cup, the NYJTL—with the help of Monica Puig—made an effort to bring in players from Puerto Rico, the island nation still recovering from a brutal hurricane season in 2017.
Seven-time Grand Slam doubles champion and former top-ranked doubles player Liezel Huber, who is the Executive Director of Tennis at the Cary Leeds Center, pointed out that one of the Puerto Rican players happened to be an exceptional young talent. That was eight-year-old Paola Muniz, who won both of her matches in the elementary division before she headed back to Puerto Rico earlier in the week.
"I would love for this girl to train here full-time," says Huber. "She's eight years old, but she plays with the yellow ball already, which you don't see very often."
Huber added that it was very likely Muniz would have gone on to win the event. She believes Muniz had both the talent and fighting spirit to do big things in the future, and she hopes Muniz is able to continue getting the high-level training she deserves, and more opportunities to showcase her talent.
The goal of the Cary Leeds Center is to offer students the means to better themselves both on and off the court. The statistics, as you'll find on the NYJTL website, show that this goal is being met:
—4,000 children participated in on-court and off-court activities at the center during its first year of operation.
—6,000 hours of free tennis court time are provided annually to underserved youth.
—100 percent of the students in the Advanced Training Program attend college.
—22 tennis courts are available for year-round instruction and play.
The Cary Leeds Center would not have educational spaces if the NYJTL wasn't serious about teaching underserved children. Nothing proved that more than the 20,000 books that were handed out to students as part of this year's Mayor's Cup. Disney, First Book and NYJTL all worked together to provide this free distribution to local administrators, children and families of need.
Providing children and young adults with a way to play tennis for free is meaningful, but helping them improve their reading comprehension and ability to perform in school goes above and beyond a typical tennis tournament. With the Mayor's Cup, 30 years and counting, the NYJTL is continuing a tradition unlike any other.