In sporting terms, the vision of outright dominance for any athlete goes something like this: They win and win and win and then they win again, and then, against the odds, they win some more because of the absolute horror of allowing anyone else to win. In other words, they are wired to crush their opponents.
Perhaps it was the hardwired athlete’s brain of Molly Nolan and her over-my-dead-body energy that led to the most extraordinary match (and win) of her sporting life. This is her first season running the Hither Hills Racquet Club, on the Napeague stretch, after five years in that role at the tennis concession at Montauk Downs State Park, where she grew up playing the sport.
In January, she lost her bid for a sixth consecutive season at the helm of the tennis program at Montauk Downs when New York State awarded the license to operate the tennis center to Club Consulting and Management, a national company that specializes in assisting real estate developers in the construction and programming of tennis club facilities. Club Consulting then hired Serbian-owned Tipsarevic Luxury Tennis to run the day-to-day operations in Montauk, providing services such as skills clinics, private and group lessons, and game arranging for players.
“There was a 5 percent difference between my bid and the new company’s,” Nolan explained, sitting courtside at Hither Hills Racquet Club last Friday afternoon. All four of the Har-Tru courts were occupied by players taking private lessons. (Additionally, the club has one artificial carpet court.) “I had so many letters of recommendation from locals and summer people, but they just went for the higher bid, I guess,” she said.
Nolan, 30, is a Montauk native who played five years of varsity tennis at East Hampton High School, followed by three semesters of N.C.A.A. Division III tennis for Skidmore College. She then transferred to Cornell University to study nutrition, which was also the focus of her master’s degree from New York University.
At the age of 13, she began working behind the desk at the Montauk Downs tennis facility. By 17, she was on the court teaching. In 2017, when she was 25, she began co-managing the Downs and became its sole proprietor from 2019 to 2021. During her time at the Downs, Nolan built a booming business, fueled by a vast crowd of supporters.
“When I started there, I used to pay a flat lease amount to New York State. But then, and I don’t know if it was because I was doing so well or what, but they switched from a flat lease to a percentage of the growth. So, it was a flat fee to a certain number and then anything over that, I had to give the state a kickback,” she said, recalling her business dealings at the Downs. In addition, for the last three years, Nolan has run the tennis facilities at Gurney’s Star Island Resort and Marina, an ongoing operation for her that she is able to run in tandem with Hither Hills, by divvying up the professional coaches on her roster between the two clubs.
After losing the lease at Montauk Downs, Nolan was desperately trying to figure out what to do next. “For the whole of last winter, I didn’t know what I was going to be doing this summer,” she said. Her husband works on her family’s fishing boat and the couple spend the summers living on their houseboat. They bought land in Montauk in 2018 but realized that, “This is the worst time to build anything.”
Then one evening in March, a daughter of Doug and Kathryn De Groot, who own Hither Hills Racquet Club, was having dinner at Sel Rrose in Montauk when she overheard diners at the next table talking about the fact that Nolan had lost her lease at the Downs and that they would no longer play there. So, the younger De Groot leaned over and suggested that they should play at Hither Hills instead. They responded, “We’re going to play wherever Molly ends up going.”
A week later, Nolan had an offer for a new lease in a new Montauk location. But, initially, she was worried. “I kept thinking, it’s so far away from town. Even I don’t like crossing the stretch. Nobody will want to come.” Then, she visited the club and loved its friendly vibe, it’s non-clubby atmosphere. “I pulled the trigger and thought I’m just going to trust my gut. We’ll just see what happens. And everybody followed pretty much. So many people have known me since I was 8. It’s such a strong connection,” she said.
What sets Hither Hills Racquet Club apart from the many tennis clubs sprinkled across the East End is its seemingly relaxed and fun environment. It’s also one of the cheapest deals around, with a spring-to-fall membership that runs under $500, compared to most club memberships, which are in the thousands of dollars. “It’s chill here. We play music. We have fun,” Nolan said, adding that before she took over this year, she had always thought of the Hither Hills club as, “a ghost town. I wondered if it was cursed or something,” she said, smiling.
It seems to be the opposite of cursed now, and Nancy Sainberg, a nearby resident, confirmed this. “For the last two or three years, there were hardly ever cars parked at the club. Now, it’s always full!” she remarked.
In a way, this is a story about a lopsided match between a local champ, boundless and bright, against an institution that tried to outsmart her at her own game, at the height of her dominance.
Game, set, and match to Nolan.