Youth Tennis: Bringing the Game to Kids
These people, places and programs are helping to create the future for our sport.
USTA Eastern: Doing It Right at Yonkers Tennis Center
Commitment, drive and community engagement are the keys to success for the Yonkers Tennis Center and its general manager and director of tennis, Simon Gale. Gale is a passionate advocate of the USTA’s Youth Tennis format, which is growing participation at Yonkers “by leaps and bounds,” he says. “This format teaches kids to love playing the game through games-based instruction.”
“Yonkers Tennis Center has everything right,” says USTA Director of Coach Education & Development Kirk Anderson. “They were among the first to be using the new formats for 10 and Under Tennis, including smaller courts, lower nets, shorter racquets and softer balls. They have a highly trained and qualified staff who are experts with youngsters, and provide plenty of opportunities for kids to play tennis.”
A participant in the USTA’s Target Market Initiative, Yonkers and Gale have fully embraced the red-orange-green ball pathway and are adept at keeping kids on level until they are skilled enough to progress. “Yonkers and Simon are superstars when it comes to the ROGY pathway, hosting Play Days and tournaments, and helping to develop the next generation of Eastern juniors,” says Julie Bliss-Beal, USTA Eastern’s senior director of competitive tennis.
Gale is a national trainer for the 10 and Under Tennis format; he has taught Youth Tennis at the White House; he believes the rules governing competition for 10-and-under tournaments are “the most significant thing to happen in tennis since the tie-break.”
“For these and so many more reasons, it’s easy to see why Simon and the Yonkers Tennis Center are Youth Tennis provider success stories,” says Eastern Executive Director Jill Fonte.
USTA Mid-Atlantic: Ingram Leads a Youth Tennis Boom in D.C.
Washington D.C., is a city filled with monuments built to honor leadership. Jeri Ingram, a 43-year-old single mom born in the nation’s capital, follows that tradition. Working behind the scenes, Ingram’s mission is to bring tennis to the youth of the city. And she is beyond busy these days.
With the aid of grants provided via USTA Serves, Ingram is overseeing a year-long overhaul of the Southeast Tennis & Learning Center (SETLC) grounds including 13 state-of-the-art courts. SETLC continues to vault young children and teens to higher ground 13 years after its opening in 2001, with more than 5,000 kids receiving tennis instruction and academic tutoring and dozens earning collegiate scholarships.
“We have our own education curriculum, even putting it into action during our summer camps,” says Ingram. “It’s computer lab training, reading and also team-building exercises. Tennis teaches so much to the kids and keeps them active, and then the classroom time reinforces personal responsibility and values.”
At the same time, through D.C.’s Parks and Recreation Department, Ingram manages 14 individual programs as part of her newest role as tennis manager for the city of Washington D.C., with a strong focus on youth. She’s pulling in younger kids from NJTLs all around the region for monthly Play Days to teach the fundamentals of the sport. Her own daughters, Bailey, 8, and Brieana, 6, are two of the hundreds of children enjoying Play Days.
“With Jeri, her every day is passion combined with hustle. Naturally, she’s awesome on the court with the players, but she’s put so much into outreach with the D.C. Parks and Recreation Department and volunteering on local, district and section boards,” says Alanna Broderick, who worked with Ingram as director of community tennis development for the USTA Mid-Atlantic Section from 2009 to 2013. “She’s selfless. She’s genuine. And she’s given hope to so many kids and parents by giving them this game and a place to play.”
— Nicholas J. Walz
USTA Middle States: A True ‘Gift’ to Jr. Team Tennis
If April Gift had it her way, she’d never need to talk about USTA Jr. Team Tennis (JTT) again. Not because she doesn’t want to, but because in her eyes, the program speaks for itself. “Any parents or kids who experience the program always seem to get hooked,” she says. “Once people know about it and get into it, they’re on board, and it stays that way.”
It’s obvious that Gift has a passion for tennis, and that passion extends to JTT. Last year, Gift moved to Charleston, S.C., and even at 600 miles away from the USTA Middle States Section, she continues to get more players hooked on JTT, and she continues to be one Middle States’ most dedicated volunteers.
“The program is growing,” Gift says. “I’m constantly on the phone with [Tennis Service Representative] Cathy Shaak, working on getting more interest and getting the word out to new kids.”
In her time with JTT, Gift has become a mainstay on speed dial for parents and coaches. “She handles issues, she’s great with the kids and with parents, and takes care of everything that needs to get done,” says Middle States’ Junior Development Manager Meghan Goodwin.
Much of that comes from her belief in the program, and how it helps kids grow their games. Gift makes one thing clear: nothing beats match play. “Whatever their level, if these kids want to play at those next levels, they need the experience on the court,” she says. “A lot of kids aren’t ready for tough tournament play, and if they try it anyway, they may end up leaving the sport because they’re not having fun.
“I hear it from other coaches all the time. They’re realizing that JTT gives players experience on the court and makes them better high school players. Playing experience can’t be replaced.”
Benefits of the program — like affordability and a team-based format — are major sellers. JTT is now available for 10 and Under Tennis, opening the game up to a bigger base of players.
“Because of April, more people in central Pennsylvania are playing tennis than ever before,” Goodwin says.
— Michael Gladysz
USTA Missouri Valley: NJTL Program Thrives in St. Louis
This is the third summer that the Dwight Davis Tennis Center in St. Louis has organized its NJTL program. That first year, Jess Batchelor, director of tennis development at Dwight Davis, had 30 participants; now she expects to have over 70 participants in the tennis center’s eight-week program.
Most of the program’s participants come from Better Family Life, a St. Louis-based non-profit organization dedicated to the prosperity and growth of the American family. In 2013, Batchelor applied for a grant through the St. Louis District of the USTA, which provided 30 youngsters with eight weeks of summer camp.
The program has also successfully reached beyond the summer months. In April, when the Fed Cup visited St. Louis, 54 NJTL participants attended a “Fired Up For Fed Cup” youth event at Dwight Davis and received a free racquet. “We told their leaders how they can use caution tape and set up a makeshift tennis center when they want to play,” Batchelor says. Also during Fed Cup, 27 youngsters were flag-bearers and were able to see the likes of Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys up close.
While the basics of tennis are Batchelor’s focus, she also makes sure to spend time teaching nutrition and health. “If you stay active, stay fit and keep eating well, I tell them you can continue to play sports like tennis for a long time,” she says.
The program has continued to grow, and Batchelor has big ideas as to where NJTL in eastern Missouri could go in the future.
Among those ideas is to obtain a motorhome or RV where Batchelor could take NJTL on the road to more rural communities where tennis may be less accessible. “I would love to send lots of nets, lots of balls and as many pros to places that may never see a tennis court until it comes to them.”
— Andrew Robinson
USTA Midwest: Tennis is About ‘Having Fun’ in Midwest
Matt Dektas, director of tennis at Five Seasons/E.X. Academy, believes his 10 and Under Tennis program is “everything,” and that’s why it’s one of the most successful in the Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky areas.
“Growing our game starts from the ground up, and as a tennis professional we have to focus a majority of our time on 10 and Under Tennis,” Dektas says. “Teaching Youth Tennis takes a very special pro. Sometimes pros think it is a demotion, but I think it’s a promotion! It means you understand psychology, how to keep things fun, as well as the technical part of the game.”
Even within 10 and Under Tennis, there is a wide variety of skill levels, so Dektas has tailored his programs to the needs of both beginners and more advanced players. But all his programs have one common thread: “All tennis is about fun,” he says. “It’s just a different kind of fun for these two groups of players. The 10-and-under beginner group is about going home and feeling they can truly play. That means they have to rally; the red balls allow them to be successful. In the high-performance world, it is about the details. The attention to details is much greater.”
At Five Seasons, Dektas and his team of professionals, junior helpers and parent volunteers have worked to create a program to introduce the game to young children with the goal to help prepare them for the next level of play. At the conclusion of the eight-week session, participants then receive discounts to continue in subsequent programming.
The newest Youth Tennis program is “Grade School League.” “The goal is to create new lifelong players by introducing tennis in a low-cost, fun team format through the schools,” Dektas says. In addition to working with area schools, the club uses local businesses and has even used Groupon to help promote Youth Tennis programs. But, says Dektas, “Word-of-mouth is still the best advertising.”
— Tracy Maymon
USTA Northern California: NorCal H.I.T.S. Program a True ‘Hit’ With Kids
USTA Northern California is fortunate to have many providers that successfully run H.I.T.S. (Honesty, Inspiration, Teamwork and Sportsmanship), a six- to eight-week program for kids 10 and under that teaches not only the fundamentals of tennis, but also focuses on growing a child’s core values. One provider in particular — Watsonville Police Activities League (PAL) — recently partnered with a local elementary school to run the H.I.T.S. program to improve the lives of children in their community.
Watsonville PAL relies on educational, athletic and other recreational activities to cement a bond among police officers, recreation leaders and youth. The elementary school was looking for ways to promote a healthier and more active lifestyle for its students in a city where more than half of the children are overweight. Tennis was a perfect fit for their after-school setting. The sport is very approachable for the kids, many of whom were experiencing tennis for the first time.
Because of PAL’s H.I.T.S. tennis program, the children benefitted from learning a new team sport and participating in activities that will help them lead a more active, healthy lifestyle. And, thanks to a PAL Foundation grant that covers equipment and program costs, the program is free to the school and students!
For Watsonville PAL, the addition of the H.I.T.S. program is a great complement to other activities they support, which include soccer, golf and martial arts.
“Watsonville PAL is excited to expand its programming to include tennis. We are always looking for new programs to bring to the community that encourages youth to be active, interact with positive mentorship and build life skills,” says PAL Executive Director Coresta Salas.
— Brooke Fishel
USTA Northern: Painting Lines on Playgrounds in Sioux Falls
The Sioux Falls Tennis Association (SFTA) in Sioux Falls, S.D., under the direction of Cindy Huether, was looking for opportunities to get more kids playing tennis, and they thought, what better way than by going back to school?
With the help of then-USTA Northern Tennis Service Representative Chris Dummermuth, Huether met with Jeff Krieter, who is in charge of buildings and grounds for the Sioux Falls School District, and proposed to paint 36-foot tennis court lines on playgrounds for each of the city’s elementary schools. Krieter loved the idea and provided potential locations and current playground layouts for each school. Huether and Dummermuth then met with each school principal and walked the playgrounds to assess possible court locations.
For only $1,246 (USTA Northern funded $935 and USTA National funded the balance), the SFTA was able to paint 25 36-foot courts at 17 elementary schools. The SFTA then provided each school with an equipment package, which included two mini nets, kid-size racquets, red felt and foam balls, and tennis instruction books. They also contacted the school district’s physical education director and offered their services to teach PE classes at the elementary schools, visiting 13 in all.
While at the schools, they gave each kid a colorful wristband with the SFTA website and information about summer programming. That summer, the city saw a dramatic increase in tennis program participation, which was attributed to the painting of the lines.
“It was such a positive, collaborative effort on all parts,” Huether says. “It was invaluable to go into the PE classes and show the teachers that tennis could work in a large classroom environment. We also thanked the principals for investing in such a positive activity for their kids. It was a win-win for everyone.”
— Lisa Mushett
USTA Southern: ‘Cash’-ing In On Tennis in Fayetteville
Chris Cash has taught tennis across the country, from the mansions of Beverly Hills to the heights of Denver to his current post in a much cozier Fayetteville, Ark.
At the beginning of this year, Cash started to build one of the biggest USTA Jr. Team Tennis programs in the nation. Centered in Fayetteville, the program attracts kids throughout Northwest Arkansas. For his pioneering work, Cash was presented the 2013 Victor Sheshunoff Meritorious Education Award by USTA Arkansas and named PTR Member of the Year for the state. This award is presented to a PTR member in the U.S. who has shown dedication and diligence in promoting and supporting tennis and PTR. He teaches tennis at Wilson Park for the Fayette Parks and Recreation Department after working at the Fayetteville Athletic Club.
Cash, together with assistants Erica Rogers and Andrew Atkinson, has played a significant role in the development and implementation of Jr. Team Tennis for 10-and-under players. He works closely with the USTA Arkansas state office and Northwest Arkansas Local League Coordinator Sue Cordischi to ensure his players, parents, and all JTT participants get the most out of the program.
In 2013, Cash molded 10 teams of 72 players, with nine of them advancing to the Arkansas State Championships. That achievement eclipsed all providers or facilities in the state. At the championships, he organized a player party and other social activities to keep his players entertained when they weren’t on court. This season, he has dramatically increased participation, securing 117 kids on 17 teams.
Cash has earned three certifications in the PTR education pathway, including the organization’s highest rating as a graduate of the PTR Master of Tennis program in coaching 11- to 17-year-olds.
— Chris Stuart & Ron Cioffi
USTA Southern California: Programs to Satisfy Everyone in San Diego
Youth Tennis San Diego (YTSD) is based at the Barnes Tennis Center and the organization is all about youngsters. Whether they are elite tournament competitors or just beginning to play — and all those in between — there is a smorgasbord of programs to satisfy everyone. After-School Tennis (AST) is a prime example.
“AST is an entry-level program for elementary and middle school students,” says YTSD Executive Director Kerry Blum. “It’s usually held from September through May, with some exceptions at year-round schools. There are five six-week sessions annually, and they feature the 10 and Under Tennis format, with low-compression balls, smaller racquets and shorter courts.”
During a session, youngsters receive two hours of group lessons and play a week. “YTSD supports the effort by providing equipment when needed, as well as teacher training, administrative support and insurance, along with special activities,” Blum adds. “Programs are conducted in the security of a school environment and in most cases, under the guidance of a school staff member with whom the participants are familiar.”
AST was created in 1989, and focuses on bringing tennis to underserved populations from San Ysidro to Oceanside, Calif. Up to 25 youngsters take part in the twice-weekly classes. “AST currently serves over 10,000 elementary and middle school students annually through 100 program classes,” Blum said. “Of those involved, 93% receive need-based scholarships.”
Looking ahead, Blum offered, “Those in the program are encouraged to continue playing by becoming involved in AST co-ed team leagues and junior tournaments at the Barnes Tennis Center. The idea is to keep challenging the youngsters by making tennis interesting, fun and friendly and in a low-cost setting. YTSD plans to expand the AST program by adding more sites, which provide more opportunities to learn to play.”
— Mark Winters
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