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World TeamTennis in the Bronx will be 'a happening,' coach says

Luke Jensen, left, and Billie Jean King at

Luke Jensen, left, and Billie Jean King at a New York Empire news conference for World TeamTennis at the Cary Leeds Center for Tennis & Learning in Crotona Park in the Bronx on June 25, 2019. Credit: Newsday/Neil Best

There has been a professional baseball franchise of some renown based in the Bronx since 1923, but relative to Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn, that borough otherwise has been quiet on the major sports franchise front.

That will change, in a modest way, next month when the New York Empire of World TeamTennis settles in for its two-week summer season at the Cary Leeds Center for Tennis & Learning in Crotona Park.

The facility is smaller and less famous than the Empire’s previous two homes – the past and present sites of the U.S. Open at Forest Hills Stadium (2016) and Court 17 of the USTA Billie Jean National Tennis Center (2017 and ’18).

But the move is for the best, according to Billie Jean King herself.

“We could have played in different places, but we thought long and hard and we wanted the New York Empire here,” King, a WTT co-founder and part owner, told Newsday before a preseason news conference on Tuesday at the Leeds Center.

“We think it’s good for tennis and it’s a way to give back to the community as well. Hopefully, the community will support the New York Empire.”

The schedule does not lack for star power. John Isner is scheduled to play in the July 14 opener. Former U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens is to set for July 18.

Venus Williams is to visit with the Washington Kastles on July 19. (The Kastles’ longtime coach is Murphy Jensen. His brother and doubles partner, Luke Jensen, the Empire’s first-year coach, guaranteed a victory that day.)

So the sales pitch is obvious: Come and see elite players in an extremely intimate setting – seating capacity will be in the high three-digits – in a two-year-old stadium far from the chaos and crowds of an event such as the Open.

“John Isner, in this setting, serving 150 miles an hour?” Jensen said, marveling at the upcoming spectacle.

The challenge will be attracting fans unfamiliar with the area, the transportation and the parking options.

But Jensen said the local tennis world is well aware of the facility and its courts, which predates the stadium itself.

“They’ve been here before,” he said. “Their kids have played here before. They have come and watched events here before. They understand the power of this place . . . They get it. We don’t have to explain the challenges. They understand why they need to support professional tennis here.”

Jensen added, “It will be an event. It’s a happening, and it’s going to be a great product. When you see this place, there’s a lot of ‘wow’ to it. You want to deliver the ‘wow,’ both on and off the court.”

The Leeds Center, which opened in 2015, provides free tennis instruction for young people and many other community programs and activities.

King said leaving Court 17 – and with it the construction and pre-Open bustle that came with that site – will serve the Empire well.

“The court was great when you got there, but it was very difficult for people to find it, I felt,” she said. “This is kind of contained. You’re not going to have construction and not everyone is going to be looking around saying, ‘Oh, the U.S. Open is here!’

“It’s just going to make them think about the New York Empire and the Cary Leeds Center.”

King added, “The Bronx needs this, and I think we can fill a need. What I’d like to do is build a loyalty in the Bronx area, because they don’t have too many [pro sports] things. The kids that come here and get to see the pros play is major. It’s really inspirational . . . I think you have to see it to be it.”

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