By Jonathon Braden, special to USTA.com
In the mid-1990s, kids growing up in Greenville, S.C., had few opportunities to play team tennis.
The city had tennis for kids but it was disorganized, said Tim Driscoll, a longtime Greenville tennis pro. On some meet days, only a few kids from a team would show up. Other times, when more kids would show, forming competitive matches was a problem.
Fast forward 20 years and Greenville is home to one of the largest USTA Jr. Team Tennis programs in the South. And that is due in large part to Ashlyn Cousins.
Cousins wanted an outlet to keep her two sons involved in tennis. Not finding one, she decided to start a program herself. To make it happen, the 42-year-old convinced tennis pros to help recruit and lead USTA Jr. Team Tennis squads and marketed the program through strategies both old – word of mouth – and new – such as a Facebook page.
The results, said Driscoll, the director of tennis at Greenville County Recreation District, speak for themselves.
“Kids are just really looking forward to playing [Jr. Team Tennis], whereas before we couldn’t really get kids interested,” Driscoll said.
Having seen the program flop before, Driscoll admitted that he was wary when Cousins started the Greenville Jr. Team Tennis program in 2009. Cousins, however, saw a chance to get hundreds of families playing tennis, including her own. Her boys, Nathan and Caleb, then 11 and 9, respectively, had been taking lessons for about a year but didn’t want to play in tournaments and questioned why they were practicing so often.
“I thought they were going to give it up,” she said.
So Cousins asked Greenville’s tennis pros, including Driscoll, to help recruit kids and teams. She encouraged her friends to spread the word. She also started a website for the program in lieu of grander gestures that were initially suggested – such as buying months of billboard ads or dozens of 30-second television spots. She wanted the program to last for years, not be overrun with participants in the first year and slowly drop off after that. She also figured that the program would grow quickly enough if families enjoyed it.
She was right. In the program’s first year, word was already spreading: Driscoll was telling his students and parents to get involved, including Wendy Simmons and her four children. At the time, Simmons’ children, like Cousins’ boys, weren’t excited about tournaments. Yet Simmons, like Cousins, wanted to keep her kids involved in tennis.
Five years later, all four of Simmons’ kids have participated in the program, with two, including her son Robert, remaining involved in 2014. Robert appreciates Jr. Team Tennis because he meets new kids and sees old friends at practices and meets.
“It’s a really good thing to do,” he said.
Trip Crowley also has enjoyed the camaraderie. He had never played tennis before being asked to join a team in the fall of 2009. But now he plays some 15 hours a week, including during his JTT matches on Friday nights.
Both Robert, 16, and Trip, 15, said that they like playing against people at or above their skill levels on a consistent basis – and Jr. Team Tennis provides that. To keep things competitive, Cousins organizes a rating day before every season in which kids are grouped by skill level.
Cousins also does her part to ensure that her extended tennis family has fun on and off the court. She leads end-of-season parties at destinations such as Gravitopia Trampoline Arena in Greenville. And at the recent invitational Greenville Jr. Team Tennis hosted for advanced teams and players, kids walked on a red carpet and devoured a candy bar buffet. They can also go to the program’s Facebook page and view their photos.
This spring, Robert Simmons will play high school tennis four nights a week and still make time for Jr. Team Tennis on Friday evenings. Mom Wendy will also stay involved, organizing beginner-level tennis for kids ages 11-18. She too enjoys the camaraderie of the program, the chats with parents at the Friday night matches and the team dinners that sometimes follow meets.
For his part, Driscoll, the initial skeptic, likes how Jr. Team Tennis transforms an individual sport into a regular outlet for bonding between youth players. He believes Jr. Team Tennis will become only more popular with junior players of all skill levels in the future.
And to think, it all started with the determination of a local mom who didn’t want anyone to quit.
“I’m working for something I love,” Cousins said, “and I’m doing something for my family.”
She did start the JTT program with her family in mind. But, five years later, she’s done that, and in the process has brought tennis to thousands of others as well.