Tennis has returned to the South Bronx as a new $26.5 million complex with a glass clubhouse, 20 courts and two stadiums opens next week in Crotona Park -- and supporters hope to once again attract national and international tournaments to the site.
The new Cary Leeds Center for Tennis Learning will offer year-round, free tennis classes to about 30,000 children, as well as learning and recreational space for after-school programs.
"Look over there," said Jacqueline Hernandez, pointing to the housing developments across from the park. "Gangs . . . all that is gang related," said the mother of two, whose children play tennis for the New York Junior Tennis Learning program, which built the complex. The facility will open Tuesday.
"This tennis complex is a blessing," she said. "I grew up here and we never had tennis. A lot of the kids around here don't think that playing tennis is possible. It's going to get them off the streets and away from guns and violence."
The junior tennis program raised $11 million through private donations in a 10-year fundraising effort, and the city kicked in the rest. "It will be a safe and inspiring place where there will be excitement from the children and will engage their parents," said Deborah Antoine, junior tennis president and CEO.
Antoine said tennis is a sport that crosses racial and socio-economic lines, and the new complex's goal is to bring more Hispanic players into the fold. "We are sitting in a community where this can happen. The majority of households in walking distance from the center are Hispanic."
"I love tennis. It challenges me and makes me think," said Alyssa Gordon, 11, a sixth-grader at nearby PS 100, where she started playing at age 6 in the after-school program. "I actually want to become a tennis player," she said, smiling as she adjusted the strings on her racket.
After-school tennis coach Danny De La Cruz, 20, said kids latch onto the game's test of endurance and mental fitness challenges. "It's a thinking sport. It's great to see their progress when they eventually hit the ball without thinking about it."
The two stadiums each seat 500 spectators. The seating is built below grade into the park's bedrock to keep it from obscuring the park's rolling green hills and century-old trees. "You're not going to see the grandstands," said Marc Gee of Gluck+, which designed and built the two-story complex. "This will a major venue for high school, college and USTA tournaments."
Inside there are three classrooms, a gym and a lounge, where students can do homework. Ten of the 20 hard courts will be covered during winter months.
Tennis in the Bronx dates back to 1971, when Arthur Ashe and Skip Hartman, founder of the junior tennis program, organized tournaments. The original courts were installed in the 1930s under New York City's legendary parks Commissioner Robert Moses.