Growing the Game in Perth Amboy
Perth Amboy, N.J. is a location steeped in tennis history. Situated in close proximity to the Raritan River, the city has maintained multiple courts along the waterfront since the 1920s. That venue was once the setting of a local tennis tournament held during the U.S. National Championships (later the US Open); those who lost early in Queens—including a young Arthur Ashe—would often travel down to Perth Amboy to compete in the event. (Ashe actually captured the title there in 1964, four years before claiming his first Grand Slam on the grass at Forest Hills.)
Today, local officials are as passionate as ever about connecting that past to the present and future. Perth Amboy’s recreation department works diligently every year to promote and offer affordable tennis programming to the city’s 60,000 residents, 80% of whom identify as Latino. The reason the sport stays high priority, says Perth Amboy Superintendent of Recreation Kenneth Ortiz, is simple.
“Just look at what it provides,” he explains. “Tennis is based on an honor system. There are ethics and morals within the sport, and that builds character. That’s what we thrive on, what we want to teach our kids. One of the things that I also learned when I took over the recreation department was just how many professionals play tennis. I met engineers, architects, lawyers, doctors and people from all walks of life. And I started to think about young people experiencing this. It could be life-changing to meet someone in your [dream] field in a social sports setting.”
Keeping all these benefits in mind, Ortiz and his team have worked closely with USTA Eastern staff over the last ten years to maintain a blossoming, robust tennis operation in their community. This past summer, they hosted a seasonal kickoff event that included face painting, pizza, music and an appearance by the mayor. The gathering attracted a staggering 250 residents to the courts on the waterfront and resulted in 40 additional sign-ups for their adult and junior summer programming.
“I think what was key was that it wasn’t just about tennis,” Ortiz says. “We made it a family event. And it was pretty cool that people weren’t hesitant to try tennis.”
Ultimately, around 120 kids participated in the city’s summer youth offering. Ortiz applied for and received a USTA Eastern Growing Tennis Together grant to help subsidize the program; with the funds, department officials were able to pay for dedicated instructors as well as offer the clinic at a low cost—immensely important for an area where the median household income is around $50,000 a year. Officials also organized adult red ball or “beginner” sessions for the first time, and the goal is to run that programming alongside the junior option so that parents and kids can participate together and foster connections through the sport.
“We have a six-year-old in our program named Aaron,” Ortiz explains. “He loves tennis and he actually trains with some of our older kids. Aaron’s father was telling our instructor that when Aaron gets out of school, he does some homework, and then he and his dad go hit together. That’s what we want to happen. We want to provide the space and the resources for parents to have those experiences with their children.”
Ortiz is also always thinking about the future. He wants to build a pathway to give young players the opportunity to grow and progress.
“Another side of Aaron’s story is that here is this young man [in our community] who’s pretty good at just six years old,” Ortiz adds. “Who knows where he can end up? Maybe one day he can be a county or state champion.”
To that end, Ortiz is working to make the sport a year round option in Perth Amboy. He is currently collaborating with local facilities to ensure younger players can continue on their tennis journeys at indoor locations once temperatures begin to drop. And the department recently developed a partnership with the locally-based Ronald Wm Spevack Tennis Foundation to provide high school athletes in the city additional training opportunities, particularly during their off seasons.
To further inspire the kids, in September, Ortiz brought 24 of the players in the youth program and their parents to the US Open, where they got to participate in some on-court demonstrations prior to the start of the day’s matches.
“Our kids were blown away,” he says. “I'm a big basketball guy. And when I was in high school, I got to play at the Meadowlands back when the Nets played there. And when you take a look around and you see the seats, it's pretty inspiring. That's the same thing that happened with these kids. You get to see the pros, and you get the chance to hit on these courts. And the parents enjoyed it too! They said, ‘This was great. Not only for my child, but for me. It opened up my eyes to what tennis [can be].’”
Ultimately, experiences like these are what motivates Ortiz to keep innovating and building a community through the sport. He recalls a time in his youth when he was walking out of a McDonalds with his family and a homeless man approached them for money. Even though Ortiz’s family themselves came from a humble background, his mother extended five dollars so that the man would be able to eat.
“After seeing that, it changed something in me—I’ve always wanted to help others,” he says. “Not just help them, but mentor them so they can do well for themselves. Like I said before, there are so many players from diverse backgrounds and professions in tennis, and I want our kids to get to meet those people so that it could [lead to] opportunities for them. Our tennis instructor said to me recently, ‘Kenny, the kids are so social now. [At the beginning of the season] they were so quiet and now I have to ask them to quiet down.’ I said, ‘You know what? That’s not a bad thing. We’re creating good people who want to be around each other.’ That’s what’s heartwarming for me. We’re cultivating these young people.”