12-Year-Old Girl May Embody McEnroe’s Vision for U.S. Tennis
By HARVEY ARATON
For John McEnroe, a man of impassioned and instantly expressed emotions, hitting with Ingrid Neel was almost a case of love at first tennis stroke.
To introduce herself, Ingrid drew him to the net with a deft drop volley. Then she dared to lob the great Johnny Mac, lofting the ball inches from the baseline.
O.K., McEnroe thought, so this is how you want to play with a four-time United States Open and three-time Wimbledon champion? He retaliated with a drop-shot winner of his own, stepped toward the net, pointed a finger at his audacious new adversary and gave her a look that said, “You cannot be serious!”
But McEnroe could plainly see that, yes, absolutely she was.
“The way she played, the look in her eye, made me think that maybe it was the 2011 version of what I would look like now, only a girl,” he said.
A 12-year-old girl with freckled cheeks, standing short of 5 feet and weighing less than 100 pounds. But McEnroe, now 52 and in the business of discovering and developing future American stars, was smitten.
“I said, ‘O.K., that girl is the real deal, someone I would like to work with,’ ” he said.
This was last October, and McEnroe was getting ahead of himself. Ingrid had come from Rochester, Minn., to his academy at the Sportime club on Randalls Island, which was created last year with the goal of developing tennis players in his unorthodox image.
McEnroe believes that Florida’s live-in tennis academies have created an assembly-line sameness to America’s young players and have contributed to the country’s inability to produce big winners on the men’s and women’s professional tours.
In starting the academy, he envisioned talented boys and girls from not only the New York metropolitan area but also from around the country and even abroad coming with their families to “the most stimulating city in the world” to lead normal lives while learning to embrace their individuality and creativity in a sport that demands it at the very highest levels.
Thus far, McEnroe’s academy has mainly attracted New York-area players. Even Ingrid Neel has a local connection. Her mother, Hildy, grew up on Long Island, a McEnroe fan and trained for college tennis (at Long Island University) at the Port Washington Tennis Academy years after the young McEnroe’s time there. One of her instructors was Claude Okin, the managing partner of Sportime New York, which teamed with McEnroe to create a stay-at-home urban alternative to Florida’s live-in tennis academies.
After reading about their initiative, Hildy Neel contacted Okin, offering Ingrid’s truncated biography: took up tennis at 6; progressed quickly to the point where she was too good for girls her age; is ranked first in her section in the 18-and-under group; and recently created a stir in upper Midwest tennis circles by announcing she would compete this year against boys.
“John was such the quintessential New Yorker and a tennis genius,” Hildy Neel said. “I thought that there was the potential that he and Ingrid would connect.”
If being a natural iconoclast was not enough to make Ingrid Neel the dream McEnroe student, there was also the flattering disclosure that she had patterned her approach to the game after his. In an era of determined baseline slugging, Neel watched McEnroe on video and was fascinated by his knack for taking the ball on the rise, his attacking style and his contortionist’s ability to hit volleys and half-volleys of all angles.
“I always laugh when he’s approaching because he does this little hop,” she said. “But I loved the way he played because my favorite part of tennis is coming to the net. When I go to Florida and other places to play and I come in, a lot of my opponents don’t expect that because they never see it.”
Hildy Neel said Ingrid — who, unlike McEnroe, is right-handed — was never instructed to move forward.
“How you play tennis is a reflection of your personality,” Hildy Neel said. “That’s what she would do when she was little — hit and move in. She would always play in no man’s land, and her coach would never say, ‘Back off.’ That takes a certain attitude, and that’s what she and John seem to share.”
After hitting it off with McEnroe, Ingrid had a recent encore visit, accompanied by her mother and her coach, Brian Christensen. Over several days, she participated in a variety of academy programs — directed by Gilad Bloom, a former pro tour player from Israel — and attended the night of renewed rivalries at Madison Square Garden that pitted McEnroe against Ivan Lendl.
Much to his disgust, McEnroe retired with an injury from the pro set while ahead, affirming the still depressing notion that athletic glory will from here on be achieved vicariously, hopefully with someone like the young and precocious Ingrid as his protégée.
“It would be ironic if I coached a girl to be the best, or one of the best, whatever,” he said.
Attracting sponsors (beyond Nike) to underwrite his academy has been a problem thus far, but there has been no shortage of local parents willing to have the ever-irascible McEnroe lecture their offspring about their critical first step toward the ball.
Last summer, McEnroe and his staff awarded full and part-time scholarships from a field of several hundred players attending an open tryout. One of the beneficiaries, Sabrina Xiong of Queens, the 12-year-old daughter of Chinese immigrants, recently won a sectional tournament.
Yet McEnroe knows that his academy will pose no threat to the brand names of tennis instruction — the IMG Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla. and the United States Tennis Association programs run by his brother Patrick — until it lands its share of the most gifted and talented players like Neel.
“We have an overqualified staff right now, no question,” McEnroe said. “I guess I have to look at this as a longer-term thing, find the kids who want to come here, whose families agree with my concept, if you want to call it that.”
McEnroe’s belief is that the American system has churned out baseline huggers overdosing on topspin. He said that they play too much tennis when they would be better off working harder in shorter periods of time and developing other interests, including different sports.
Likewise, Hildy Neel prefers that Ingrid’s life, at this stage, not be dominated by tennis. Although Ingrid has won national and international tournaments, she plays ice hockey and piano while attending a Rochester middle school.
Hildy Neel said the family focus had been less on building a national ranking and more on allowing Ingrid to experiment tactically — especially given the likelihood that she has a fair amount of growing to do. Hildy Neel is almost 5 feet 8 inches and her husband, Bryan, is 6-0.
“I really believe that until you pass puberty you can’t overtrain,” Hildy Neel said. “It does more harm than good. But living in Minnesota, where the competition is not cutthroat, Ingrid was good enough to be endorsed for national events without having to only play a baseline game.”
During one of Ingrid’s recent sessions with Bloom, McEnroe arrived to have another look and noticed a man sitting by the side of the court.
“Are you the father?” he asked.
Christensen stood up and said, “I’m the coach.”
McEnroe offered a hand and said: “Good job, man. She’s beautiful to watch.”
Christensen, 50, masked his excitement over meeting the man whose poster from his 2002 autobiography, “You Cannot Be Serious,” hangs in his basement.
“We kind of modeled her after you,” Christensen said.
“Well,” McEnroe said with a crooked smile, “now I know why you did such a good job.”
It all sounded like the beginning of happily-ever-after, but it wasn’t, not yet. Hildy Neel said that although she had family in New York, moving to such an expensive city would present financial challenges to continue the comfortable lifestyle the Neels have in Minnesota.
In addition, they have spent time at the Bollettieri academy, leaving Hildy Neel with the impression that her family “could live off the grounds and still have a normal life.”
But what McEnroe is offering is living large — in New York as well as at the net.
“They work at the net more than any other program,” Hildy Neel said. “We came back to develop a little bit more of a relationship with Gilad and John and to figure out if we did decide to come to New York what this would look like.
“We do have time to make a decision, but we are going to have to make one, probably within two years. Ingrid is running out of competition in Minnesota.”
McEnroe would argue that there is no more competitive and stimulating a place than New York. And that if Ingrid can make it through a session with him, she can make it anywhere.