By Nicholas J. Walz, USTA.com
NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- Not too long ago, Taylor Townsend picked up a racquet for the first time and played as carefree as the kids she helped mentor on Monday.
"I started playing right-handed, I didn’t even know what hand I was," said the 17-year-old southpaw, who recently turned pro after claiming four Grand Slam junior titles in singles and doubles in 2012. "I just liked it because I got to hang around the big kids, do things big kids did. Even when I fired a ball over the fence, it was fun for me."
Townsend spoke to an audience of more than 300 children from 10 New Haven public schools as part of the 12th annual First Niagara Free Lesson, introducing kids to the game of tennis and emphasizing the importance of fitness in their lives through an introductory tennis clinic. The pep talk and subsequent tennis activity took place Connecticut Tennis Center at Yale, site of the New Haven Open at Yale, the Emirates Airline US Open Series event held each August.
Hosted by USTA New England and First Niagara Bank, the two-hour event featured nearly two dozen 36-foot courts filled with players, coaches and Townsend herself, constantly moving and hitting.
"I’m still young, and still learning everything – it’s amazing that these people and these programs have come together to bring tennis to you," said Townsend, referring to local mentoring organizations in attendance, including the New Haven United Way, Boys & Girls Club and Big Brothers Big Sisters chapters.
Also in attendance was Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy, who said he believes in the power of tennis to keep kids engaged in their community.
"Mentoring is just one additional tool that we try to supply to the children in our state to make sure that they grow up healthy, well-educated and happy," said Malloy. "We’re trying to convince them to pick up a sport like tennis that you can literally play all of your life, every single day. The physical activity is what’s important."
To help at-risk children in avoiding violence, underage drinking and drug abuse, the New Haven Open and The Governor’s Prevention Partnership have formed a statewide alliance in Connecticut promoting leadership and following positive examples like Townsend, who cited tennis as a terrific outlet.
"Tennis was a great gateway," said Townsend of her own childhood, one that has required repeated uprooting and her leaving behind traditional schooling in the eighth grade as the flip side to international stardom. "I went through a lot when I was younger, and tennis allowed me to release all of the emotions that I had. It kept me active, and I could make friends. As I’ve gotten older and am able to travel more, I’ve gotten to experience different cultures and encounter even more diverse people, which also made me a better person."
Juan Velazquez, part of the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, shared a moment with Townsend as she handed her racquet to him to complete a hitting exercise, followed by a high-five and a bit of chatter. Though older than his newfound friend – Velazquez is 18 – he came away inspired by her and the entire atmosphere of the event.
"I had given up tennis, really, and concentrated on music – I’m a saxophone player," said Velazquez. "Being here and seeing younger kids loving their first tennis experience is reminding me why I love [tennis]. I’ll certainly get back into playing."
While Townsend aims to be in the main draw of the New Haven Open in the summer, in a sense, she never wants to leave the famed New England city behind. At the end of her address, she urged any child in attendance who wanted to continue to ask questions about the game to reach out via social media.
"I’ve had some great mentors like Zina Garrison and Billie Jean King, who give me a lot of great advice on how to deal with things on and off the court," said Townsend. "I want to use my tennis to help people. I have Twitter, I have Instagram and I have Facebook – if anyone wants to reach out and talk to me, I would gladly give advice myself."
For more on 10 and Under Tennis and the USTA's youth tennis initiative, and to find a program near you, go to YouthTennis.com