Between Racket and Music

Former Israeli tennis star Gilad Bloom, who lives in New York, can still be found on the court, but is now devoting more and more time to his second career: composing and performing songs with his own band.

NEW YORK - Nighttime at Caffe Vivaldi in the Village. In the corner, a pop-rock-blues band is playing. The soloist, pounding his electric guitar and singing, is Israel's former tennis champion Gilad Bloom, wearing shorts and a gray knit shirt, with his head shaved and the stubble of a beard. He is singing something called "Crazy World."

Bloom, 44, started his own successful tennis academy about 10 years ago in New York, mainly for children and teens, which was subsumed over a year ago into the John McEnroe Tennis Academy, where Bloom is now professional director. At the same time, he's been trying to jump-start his career in the world of music. He writes music and lyrics, and for two years now has been appearing with his own eponymous group.

Natan Dvir

"We thought about what to call the band," he explains. "I'm the least professional of all the members, but basically the music and the words are mine and I am the person who's paying them. So why shouldn't it be called 'the Gilad Bloom Band?'"

There are about 30 people in Caffe Vivaldi, the vast majority Bloom's friends from the tennis academy. Former U.S. tennis sensation John McEnroe, who lives in New York, isn't present, but some of the coaches are. Between one glass of beer and the next, they cheer their boss.

It turns out that over the years Bloom has accumulated a considerable repertoire, of some 30 songs, and he performs at various venues once or twice a month. "Every song requires a lot of work. I write, and then we work on it in the studio. I do all this in parallel with the professional management of the tennis center. The truth is that if I were to win the lottery, I would drop everything and just make music."

Most of the songs the band performs are by him, and were written in English. A few were composed by his brother, Ilan Bloom. The band does one reggae piece, performed by Bloom's lead guitarist and vocalist Yoav Nash. Nash has been playing electric guitar for fun for years and says he is glad to be making music more seriously now. Nash managed Bloom's first tennis project in New York: the Gilad Bloom Tennis Enterprise Corp. When Bloom went on to direct McEnroe's center, located in Randall's Island Park, he took Nash with him as a physical therapist, masseur and dispenser of first aid.

A peak moment for the band will be August 20, when they are due to appear in Riverside Park. Says Bloom, "The organizer told me it will be the last in a series of free concerts in the park, and he is expecting about 1,200 people, so this is an important event for us."

Uzi Keren

There are quite a number of businesspeople who have established bands because they could afford to. Among the most famous is Paul Allen, who founded Microsoft together with Bill Gates. Bloom, too, feels music burning in his bones. "I have told my wife that by the time I am 50, I will have released a record," he vows.

Bloom's love of music actually started at about the same time as his tennis, at age 10. "Later, when I had become a tennis pro and was traveling around the world, I had a lot of dead time. One day I'd have a game at 2 in the afternoon and the next game would be the following day at 6 P.M. So I'd stay in the hotel, watching television and reading. I very quickly got into music. I started buying scores of Beatles and Rolling Stones music, and started playing. I took 20 or 30 private lessons on the guitar. Every teacher gave me a different direction. When I was 30, one of the teachers said to me: 'Forget the books. Put them away in the attic and start playing by ear.' In 1999, when I was still living in Israel, my brother gave me lyrics he'd written and I composed music for them. I am now singing one of them, 'Millennium,' in my performances."

After playing the circuit and working for a time in Israel, Bloom arrived in the United States to work as a coach 11 years ago, but in his free time continued with his hobby.

"I wrote about my relationships, about loves and disappointments. I had a girlfriend who committed suicide, another girlfriend who broke my heart. When I got married and had a child, I wrote two songs about my son Guy's birth. He's now 6. The writing is mainly personal, but I also started writing songs that make political statements. This was a kind of escape - to do something different. But the truth is that it wasn't going anywhere at first."

Bloom's musical pastime in fact gained momentum at the height of the economic crisis in the U.S., he explains: "That was in the summer of 2009. Lots of people, including academics, people from Wall Street and real-estate people had lost their jobs and were looking for work. There were some who also came to the tennis academy. A fellow named Robert [Mitchel] showed up and asked me for work. I gave him a job with one of the young players and I saw that the boy was playing better than he was.

"Robert confessed that he wasn't a tennis coach at all, that he had played many years ago when he was in high school. He was in fact a 52-year-old musician who wasn't having success finding work; he has a master's degree in music and plays five instruments. Incidentally, today he is working as the musical producer for actor-singer Danny Aiello, and is also a substitute musician in the production of 'Mary Poppins.' The man is a gifted musician who couldn't make ends meet.

"I said to him: 'I've written some music. Maybe we can do something with it.' He listened and said it was possible ... He took my music, adapted it and wrote the notes in an orderly way. We recruited some instrumentalists and set up the band - and we've been together for two years now. The sax and keyboard player, Fred Israel, is an accountant by profession, Patrick Carmichael is an excellent flutist and percussionist I met at the studio, and Robert Mitchel is the bass player. Yoav is the guitarist and backing vocalist."

Over the past two years, the band has performed publicly more than 25 times. "We started at the Underground bar on the Upper West Side, and then we moved to the Vivaldi. We also have a website. There are weeks when I don't see the band and don't touch the guitar because of my job, but I enjoy the creative work. I don't have any plans to get to Carnegie Hall or to Madison Square Garden, but maybe one day I will bring the band to Tel Aviv to perform in a few pubs."

Gilad Bloom grew up in Ramat Hasharon, started playing tennis at age 9 at the Israel Tennis Center there, and excelled quickly. At 16 the left-handed player went professional and began to garner a long list of titles: Israel's junior champion, three-time men's singles champion, and two-time men's doubles champion. He played on the national team for 11 years and participated in the Olympic Games twice as well as in the Davis Cup. He achieved the 61st spot in the international rankings in 1990. After he stopped playing professionally, Bloom became head coach at the Ramat Hasharon academy. After three years, he was told that the center could no longer afford his salary, and he was let go.

Bloom arrived in New York in August 2000 as the trainer of Harel Srugo, who played in the U.S. Open youth tournament. In a conversation with someone on the plane, the idea came up of coaching youngsters on the East Coast, he recalls.

"The method that works here is word of mouth. I very quickly started coaching two or three children privately. By the second year I already had 11 children, in the third year I had 34 - and a year later, 50 children. This jumped to 80 and last year it reached 240," he says.

"The model of the school I founded was very competitive. In New York there are tennis programs for children that are in fact Mickey Mouse programs. They bring in 20 kids and throw balls at them. Very often the parents don't know how to tell the difference between a good program and one that isn't good. I wanted to found a professional, competitive and intensive school. I had players coming to me who want to play three or four times week and even more, with ambitions to play at college or even to become professionals."

Bloom had first met McEnroe, the former world No. 1 player, at Wimbledon in the 1980s, back when the star was at his peak and Bloom was 17, and the pair became friendly. When Bloom came to New York, they resumed contact. McEnroe came to play at his academy sometimes in order to stay in shape, and told Bloom that for years he had dreamed of opening an academy of his own. About a year and a half ago, he suggested they merge their academies: The children who trained with Bloom would transfer to McEnroe's school, Bloom would bring his coaches to McEnroe - and Bloom himself would become the professional director. The CEO of the organization is John's brother, Mark.

"McEnroe invited me to his home and made me a generous offer. He in effect swallowed up my academy. Today I am the professional director of 630 tennis players at the academy. If in the past I managed the entire business, today the headache of the business side is no longer mine. I have more reasonable working hours. McEnroe is the guru. Sometimes I go onto the courts, work with the kids and talk with them. He is the mentor and my role is to see that everything runs the way it should."

Bloom gets around New York on an electric bike. He is married to Irka Seng-Bloom, who is "half Chinese, one-quarter Dutch and one-quarter Dominican," as Bloom describes her. "When I arrived here I had plans to be a bachelor. But as I was sitting on the subway on my way to the Open, I met her," he says.

Is there a dearth of former tennis players in the United States? Why do they need Gilad Bloom?

"They say of me that I'm the tough Israeli. Parents send me their kids, who are in many cases wimps, to toughen them up and for them to play tennis at a high level. The Americans like blunt people, because they aren't like that. My mentality is: If that's what the coach says, the coach is right. It's a professional approach. There aren't a lot of good tennis players in the United States, there are a lot of middling ones. A small percentage of the good [retired] players in the U.S. go in for coaching. If you were a good enough player, it's reasonable to assume you have earned enough money and now you are spending your time playing golf or investing in a business that doesn't have anything to do with tennis.

"Many past players don't have the desire or patience to coach after all the years on the courts. And if you do want to coach, the last place you want to work is New York. There aren't lots of tennis courts in the city."

Court time is understandably expensive. At peak, he says, an hour on a court at an exclusive club can cost $100 to $150. "Outside the city, in prime time the price is $50 to $60. There are inexpensive public tennis courts in Central Park, but there's a very long line at them. And even if there is a court, the weather is crazy: Sometimes it's very cold and sometimes it's very hot.

"Because of these constraints, most of the serious tennis academies in the United States are located in southern Florida, California, Texas and Georgia - 'friendly' states with respect to the weather. Those places are where America's good players are concentrated. The result is that today in New York there isn't another player at my level - who was in the top 100 internationally, who played in the most important tournaments in the world and who has a program for children and teens."

How much does a private hourly lesson at your center cost?

"Students' ages at McEnroe's academy range from 4 to 18, and the prices range from $140 for an hour with a young coach, to $350 for a youngster or $400 for an adult for an hour with me. There aren't a lot of facilities in New York where you can learn tennis at a high level. There's our academy and there is the U.S. Tennis Association academy that operates at the U.S. Open facilities in Flushing. They are in effect our competitors."

Is it difficult to work in New York?

"New York is not a city for lazy people. If you are good at something, you will succeed and live respectably. It doesn't matter what you do, even if you clean the streets. If you are serious and care and give good service, all you have to do is get up in the morning, go to work and behave properly."

So your life is all set financially because of your tennis?

"Relative to someone who's unemployed and down and out, I'm in good shape. I am not going to be homeless. I have savings and at 49 I am supposed to be getting a pension of several thousand dollars a month for 20 years from the Association of Tennis Professionals. But I need to work. I can't sit on the money like other people. If you are ranked among the top 100 in the world, you can earn as much as you need. If you make it into the top 50, you'll do even better. If you are in the top 10, you will become a millionaire. However, if you are outside the top 100 - you live from hand to mouth. All in all I have no complaints."