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Eastern

Growing the Game in Rockland County

Scott Sode | May 23, 2022


Students from Cherry Lane Elementary in the Suffern Central School District practice a tennis drill outside as part of an afterschool program run by the Rockland Community Tennis Association.

During the workweek, Dennis Zaide is a solution architect who develops robotics process and intelligent automations. After business hours and on the weekends, he’s helping to build an entire tennis ecosystem in his community.

 

“To me, it’s the challenge, the mental aspect,” he says of what draws him to the game. “If you’re struggling, you have to work through it. It’s not like you can get benched and someone else can bail you out.”

 

As a founder of the Rockland Community Tennis Association (RCTA) in Rockland County, N.Y., Zaide has helped a litany of young players realize the joy of that challenge, all in a relatively short amount of time. Just last August, the RCTA piloted a summer camp that drew many young players out to the St. Thomas Aquinas College courts where the organization bases its operations. The pilot was such a hit that the group continued weekend programming into the fall and even added an additional location to meet demand. Later, during the colder months, they partnered with the Piermont Police Athletic League to provide after school tennis in the gym at the Piermont Community Center. When they again opened up registration for outdoor sessions earlier this spring, the RCTA retained a staggering 98% of its participants from the previous November. Since its founding, the organization has never stopped—and yet they’re just getting started.

 

“We want people to fall in love with the game,” Zaide says of the RCTA’s mission. “And from there, wherever their tennis journey takes them, it’s all a win. As long as the kids want to keep coming back, as long as the kids feel like they learned something, that means they were better than the day before. And that's what it’s all about.”

 

Zaide didn’t necessarily set out to play such an instrumental role in growing tennis in his community. In fact, he initially was just trying to spend a little more time with his kid.

 

“I have always tried to connect with my children via sport,” he explains. “My daughter happened to be a swimmer, and my son ended up falling in love with tennis.” 

Zaide would take his son—then elementary school-aged—to the Tappan Zee High School courts on the weekend for some informal practice sessions. As the activity became more and more of a routine, friends and neighbors would tag along with the pair, and before long, Zaide was serving up lessons to a whole group. As the kids grew older, he decided to bring in a buddy—a coach at a nearby college—to help out. The students progressed so much that by the time they all reached the seventh grade they were able to join the high school’s tennis team as middle schoolers.

 

“It was quite a cool success story,” Zaide says. “So I just thought, ‘Wow. We could actually make such a difference.’”

 

Zaide then went about formalizing his informal clinics into a community tennis association. He created a website, marketed the programming via email and brought a group of certified pros into the fold. Today the organization boasts seven instructors, as well as several coaches from two colleges—St. Thomas Aquinas College and Dominican University—who also help out when their schedule permits.

Zaide with participants from RCTA's tennis programming.

The RCTA team is already branching out far beyond their initial offerings. In addition to camps at the college and programming at the community center, the organization recently received the opportunity to bring tennis directly to local elementary schools.

 

The Suffern Central School District had already integrated tennis into its physical education curriculum thanks to a coordinated effort between P.E. teacher Giancarlo Palumbo and USTA Eastern Community Tennis Coordinator Natalie Dagnall, who was able to provide free equipment to the school through the USTA’s Tennis in Schools initiative. But they both wanted to offer interested students more playing opportunities beyond just the classroom unit. Dagnall contacted Zaide to see if he might be able to help create an after school program—and a perfect connection was formed.

 

“It was an amazing opportunity,” Zaide says. “We love teaching kids. The only logistical thing I thought was, ‘Oh my God, they’re far!’ But I also thought, ‘we’ll do it, we'll learn, and then we'll run it for other districts near us.’”

 

With Dagnall’s help, Zaide applied for and received funding through USTA Eastern’s School Youth Tennis Initiative grant to run programming at each of the six Suffern Central elementary schools. The funds allowed him to support his instructors as well as obtain the appropriate equipment and supplies for the amount of kids the RCTA would be serving. The Suffern Central Parent Teacher Association marketed the offering and handled registration, and Palumbo secured approval from the district board, as well as recruited high school student volunteers. Zaide and his team spread out and set up nets at each of the schools’ gyms (and later on the blacktop as temperatures climbed), and as soon as the last dismissal bell rang, a whopping 150 children—around 30 per school—showed up to play. In the end, the RCTA provided over 100 hours of lessons among the six schools. 

 

Learn more about how your Community Tennis Coordinator can help you integrate tennis into your school district's curriculum

 

Ultimately, the afterschool program succeeded beyond everybody’s expectations. Plans are underway to bring the programming back next year, and the district recently hosted a celebratory family day at the high school so that the kids could get out on a court and show off their skills. Even some of the high school students who helped out with the program just to earn community service hours ended up developing an interest in the sport; Zaide says he will offer some of them counselor positions at the RCTA’s summer camp later this year. And to keep the momentum going, the RCTA team is now working with the South Orangetown Central School District in Blauvelt, N.Y. to replicate the same experience.

 

Intertwining tennis and academics has always been Zaide’s end goal with the RCTA. As the organization expands, Zaide hopes to incorporate more educational components into its programming. He is already introducing a “homework club” at the community center, where students can receive after school tutoring in addition to tennis lessons. And he also plans to bring in a series of speakers to the RCTA summer camps so that campers can learn about nutrition, mental toughness, college recruitment and more. From the very beginning, Zaide has not just wanted to create better tennis players—but better humans. He recalls watching tryouts for his son’s high school tennis team recently, a team that included many of the kids he helped train. 

 

“A bunch of eighth graders were trying out and got cut,” he remembers. “One eighth grader, who happened to be an RCTA kid, [got ready to try out], looking super worried. So a group of the players already on the team [who know him through the RCTA programming] huddled around him. And I heard them say, ‘You can do it, you got it.’ And he ended up making the team! But it really resonated with me that this group of older guys, freshmen and sophomores—not even his classmates yet—were able to support him. It said to me that we’re doing something right. I was like, ‘Okay, we’re building good guys here.’”

 

Find out how you can form a community tennis association

 

Learn more about the Rockland Community Tennis Association

 

Photos courtesy Dennis Zaide and the Rockland Community Tennis Association

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