J.F.K. High School Makes an Unlikely Tennis Powerhouse

A few years back, few people would have pegged John F. Kennedy High School in the Bronx as a “tennis” school.

Its set of eight tennis courts behind the school, near the Harlem River in Marble Hill, had fallen into disrepair, and the boy’s team had not won a Public Schools Athletic League title in nearly 30 years, school officials said.

But thanks to a generous alumnus and an enthusiastic young tennis coach, that all changed over the past three years. And on Wednesday, Kennedy won the city championship in the 30-team B Division.

The Knights compete at a level just below the 18-team A division, but the title felt like nothing short of a Cinderella story for this unlikely squad that hails from an area where tennis does not exactly thrive.

The athletic program at Kennedy, which is on the city’s list of schools slated to close due to poor student performance, has historically been a powerhouse in sports such as basketball and football. But the tennis team has had its share of embarrassing seasons, being trounced by schools with more affluent students who have had plenty of formal tennis training from an early age.

“This is certainly not a team of privilege,” said Evan Klein, the boys’ tennis commissioner for the P.S.A.L. “They have had a lot of odds stacked against them. I teach on the Upper East Side where you have a lot of kids in tennis programs in Queens, and on Randalls Island where John McEnroe teaches.”

In comparison, Kennedy was a somewhat ragtag bunch of beginner players whipped into shape by their coach, Jason Loeb, who was hired at Kennedy four years ago, just after a tennis-playing alumnus had helped repair its courts free of charge. Mr. Loeb began playing competitive tennis at age 5 and has trained several nationally ranked players, including his teenage sister, Jamie.

He was blessed with two excellent players — Steven Wilson, a Bronx-born phenom, and Anvar Musayev, who emigrated from Azerbaijan, where he played junior tournaments — but to round out the team, he began recruiting students with little or no tennis experience.

“Kids would see us practicing and see that, ‘Oh, there’s tennis going on,’ ” Mr. Loeb said. “They’d show up in these old-school Converse sneakers, no tennis gear, maybe a cheap racket. I have a bunch of competitive rackets around the house and I gave them decent rackets.”

He wound up with a rainbow coalition of players. There was Biju Mollik and Zikrullah Choudhury, both from Bangladesh. There was Joseph Nuesi and Melvinn Mejia, both Latinos. And there was Kedarry Ransome, whose interest in tennis was piqued after playing table tennis growing up in Trinidad.

“My whole team is kids of color, except for Anvar,” Mr. Loeb said.

Wilson, 17, Kennedy’s No. 1 player, said he would often get double-takes as a black teenager carrying tennis rackets around the Soundview section where he grew up.

“It’s not really normal for a black kid from the Bronx to be playing tennis,” said Wilson, who went 41-1 over four years and has a full scholarship to Wilkes University in Pennsylvania. “People would say, ‘You should be playing basketball.’ ”

Mr. Loeb went about instructing and drilling the players, and pairing them for scrimmage matches, with the loser condemned to wind sprints. The team dominated opponents in 2009 and 2010 but lost in the playoffs.

This season, Mr. Loeb motivated his players by reminding them they had to overcome their lack of a tennis pedigree. He also reminded them that Kennedy is scheduled to close in the next few years.

“I’d tell them, ‘This may be one of Kennedy’s last chances at a title,’ ” he recalled. “I’d say, ‘What a way to go out, the tennis team winning one last title for Kennedy.’ ”

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