Every year, the top names in tennis gather in New York for the U.S. Open, the final Grand Slam of the tennis season. While the tournament in New York certainly has its appeal, one of the most highly anticipated events takes place off the court.
The mother-daughter team of Judi and Penny Lerner are the powerhouse duo behind the Citi Taste of Tennis, which has become one of the highest anticipated non-sporting events to accompany tennis’ biggest tournaments.
Like most success stories, the Lerners’ business came together through a perfectly timed set of circumstances. Penny had been working as a social worker when her organization lost funding and she was laid off. At the same time, Judi, who was in the midst of a successful career in tennis, was ready to venture into her own endeavors.
Judi had noticed a void in the athlete management space, seeing that too much attention was being paid to sports themselves, rather than the athletes who played them. Tempting Penny with the opportunity to raise money for the nonprofit she had previously worked for, she used that event as a trial run for the two of them starting their own company.
“We went right into business after that, creating a woven fabric between athletes and the community in which they live to make them feel more comfortable in the place that they were going,” explained Penny.
Both she and her mom knew that these young athletes traveled all over the U.S., often far from their home countries, and would find themselves in random cities with no one to help them get acclimated.
Their agency, AYS Sports, aimed to change that.
“[These athletes] that come here don’t live here so they don’t know about our regional cuisine. They don’t know about the beauty of our little cities and how tasty or how wonderful the chefs are,” explained Penny Lerner. “We wanted to introduce the international base of tennis – players and media and people that follow the space – with the regional beauty of our American cities.”
When they started this endeavor, neither Lerner had their MBA, but Judy explains the first 15 years was essentially like business school.
“We learned how to find a space for ourselves that made sense and could take our business with us,” she explained.
From the ground up, the two built not only an agency, but a series of premier events, most notably the Citi Taste of Tennis, which occurs in tandem with many of the top tennis tournaments around the country.
Citi Taste of Tennis’ premier event occurs annually in New York City ahead of the U.S. Open, combining sport and cuisine and bringing in top athletes and chefs to interact with attendees. Past events have included cooking competitions, VIP hours where guests can mingle with athletes, and food from world-renowned Iron Chefs.
This year’s event is scheduled for August 23 at Cipriani 42nd Street and will feature several of the world’s best tennis players, most notably the powerful doubles duo Mike and Bob Bryan, last year’s U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens, and the fast-rising stars John Isner and Kevin Anderson.
“[The players] look forward to these things now because it’s not an obligation that they have to do, it’s more that they want to come there and they want to have fun and we don’t ask them for a lot,” explained Judi Lerner. “A piece of it is that we try to really understand the personality of the player and enhance that to make it into something more so that they can let their natural ability and natural flavor show too.”
There aren’t many events where you can walk in and see Nick Kyrigos DJ’ing or Gael Monfils dancing, or Serena Williams walking through, but by focusing on the lifestyle element of tennis, the Lerner’s have made that a reality.
The trust that makes this type of event possible was not built overnight.
“My mom has been in the business for a really long time and she has always delivered and never asked for much. I think that a lot of the top players have always found value in that,” explained Penny Lerner.
That type of thinking has helped both agents and players trust the Lerners to plan events that respect the players’ time, values, and interests and made it a comfortable and desirable environment. The experience itself has moved beyond sport and cuisine, transforming into a lifestyle event with a blue carpet, music, and any other element that fits players’ personalities.
As the 19th annual Citi Taste of Tennis New York occurs this week, the Lerners are already looking ahead to future events, committed to using their balance of skills, temperaments, and mutual value of hard work and persistence to ensure the events are a success for years to come.