by Briana Warsing
According to Neal Herman – a veteran of the 6:00-8:00 a.m. weekend New York Junior Tennis and Learning (NYJTL) clinics at the Roosevelt Island Racquet Club – tennis and Roosevelt Island just go together. He believes that the Island is synonymous with tennis, and that the Roosevelt Island Racquet Club is iconic. He says, “People from all over the city come here to play, and people of all ages play here. It’s one of the features that outsiders think of when they think of the Island.”
Joyce Short, the NYJTL site director for Roosevelt Island, is a longtime Island resident and tennis player. Of her charges, she says, “We get them from when they’re five until they’re 18.” Currently, in the 5-8 age group, 87 kids are registered. Short calls them the pee-wees. They play Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday at the Octagon courts from 5:00 to 6:00 p.m. (In the summer, they play from 1:00-4:00 p.m. every weekday.) And they play for free; racquets are included.
According to Short, there are four principles fundamental to teaching tennis. She starts with safety. Her goal is, “Make sure every child goes home with every tooth they came onto the tennis court with.” With 87 five-year-olds holding a racquet for the first time, that is a daunting proposition. Next, Short says, “We drag out the mini-nets and we use the low compression balls. We get the equipment and the court size down to a small child’s level.”
Fun is the next principle that Short lists. She says, “They’ve got to be engaged and having fun. Otherwise, who’s coming back?” Island parent Chaya Mohan says, “It’s taught in a fun way, which holds the attention of the five-year-olds. My little girl loves it because she gets to do all this with her friends. It’s like an extended play date!”
The third principle to teaching tennis is the reason that Short got into this in the first place. She believes that tennis builds character, and that any instructor has to inspire that. Mohan agrees. “I send my five-year-old girl there to learn not only tennis but the myriad social aspects that come along with it – like teamwork, team spirit, sharing, winning with humility and losing with grace, to name a few.”
Ultimately, says Short, “Children who play tennis are particularly noted for having higher-than-average academic [scores], because they’re able to focus and control themselves, set a goal, aim for that goal, and achieve that goal. The kids learn how to modulate their self-speak to motivate themselves. Building character is a major part of what we do.”
Short elaborates. “In other sports, there are umpires and officials. But when you’re playing tennis, the likelihood is great that you’ll be calling lines your whole life. If you don’t have integrity, you’ll be a lonely person, with no one to play tennis with. If you win, you need to be able to win with humility or no one will be able to play with you. If you lose, you need to lose with good sportsmanship or else no one else will want to play with you.”
Additionally, “The children have to be independent when they’re out there. They’re the ones who manufacture the stroke without prompting from anyone else. You don’t have a team surrounding you, rooting you on. It’s you and only you.” Neal Herman agrees. He says, “It’s a sport that teaches you about hard work and being an individual. It’s a lonely sport. Once you get on the court, it’s player versus player. No team or coach to help you, so you learn to think and play for yourself.”
Short concludes, “That’s why I am so vested in this sport for children.” She also characterizes tennis as a "thinking person’s game." She compares it to a game of chess, “except you’re the chess piece. You can determine what your opponent is going to give you because of what you give them.” As a result, children learn to develop strategy and learn about consequences.
Short has three instructors working with her. She raves about them all, but none more than Daniel Langerman, her head intern. She says, “Daniel has been with me since he was nine years old. He is my right arm; he’s my left arm. I wish I could clone Daniel. All of the site directors throughout our program are jealous. Daniel takes initiative, he has patience, and he’s marvelous with the young children. He gets down there on their level.”
Langerman, who is a high school senior, took the Princeton Review test-preparation program free of charge through NYJTL last year, and has just won a $5,000 Jacob Javits Scholarship to use at the college of his choice.
How It Began
“My involvement teaching tennis began about 27 years ago with Earl Carr (who is in his mid-30’s now),” recalls Short. “Earl said, ‘You gotta start a program for the kids of Roosevelt Island.’” Short remembers, “Roosevelt Island is such a small place, especially back then, all those years ago. I kept running into him; he would ask again. Finally, I said, ‘Okay, Earl, bring some of your friends down to the courts next Tuesday and we’ll see how many kids are interested.’ Earl showed up with 35 kids.” The program was born.
At the time, Short’s kids program was not affiliated with NYJTL. That didn’t happen until later, when the Roosevelt Island Racquet Club was built.
Short says, “Tennis brings together a lot of kids on Roosevelt Island.” She explains, “We’ve had ball kids in the U.S. Open, Mayor’s Cup winners, college scholarships, kids who played on their college teams.”
Carr is a great example. As a freshman, he played singles at his high school. He earned Reebok sponsorship, and they paid for some of his tournaments and gave him sneakers and clothes. At one event, he met Serena and Venus Williams. He recalls, “Back then, they were incredible, up and coming.” Ultimately, Carr won a partial tennis scholarship at the College of William & Mary.
Carr remembers picking up his first wooden racquet for Short’s instruction. After that, he says, “I played tennis with a fervent passion.” Of Short, Carr says, “[She] got really involved helping young people get involved. She helped us enroll in tournaments. [She] was the inspiration behind a lot of people on Roosevelt Island being able to get involved with NYJTL.”
Short says, “This is a program that can launch kids in many ways. Being highly ranked professionally is not the only way to make money in your pursuit of tennis: instructor, physical trainer, part of the therapeutic community dealing with sports injury, sports management, sports marketing. There are so many different disciplines that you can chose to pursue in tennis.”
And out of tennis, too. Carr believes that he utilizes many of his tennis skills in his banking career. Of himself and his peers in the program, he says, “Tennis consistently challenged us to aspire to excellence, integrity, and leadership. It gave us something constructive to do with our time and kept us off the street.” He actually remembers when he and his friends climbed the fence to get into the tennis courts when they were closed, so they could play more.
Tennis isn’t just for kids. Short says, “At any age, can you play soccer? You need a soccer team! You need all of these people around you who are all available to do the same thing with the same inclination. That gets difficult as you get older. With tennis, it’s easy: grab a pal, and if you don’t have one, hit against the wall.”
Permits to play on the Octagon courts where Short’s pee-wees are playing cost $15 per season per kid and $150 per season for an adult.
For more on Joyce Short, see "Joyce M. Short: Pioneering Athlete," Coach and Role Model at nyjtl.org/joyce-m-short.
To teach your kid how to score tennis, check out youtube.com/watch?v=gvobmEtDPf4 for a poem written by Short and performed by NYJTL kids.