Serving the Community: Kyle Vukhac
Kyle Vukhac (above), a high school student in New York City, first picked up a tennis racquet “before I can even remember,” he says. Growing up with a father who played regularly, the game was just always a part of Vukhac’s life. And although he tried plenty of other sports throughout his childhood, Vukhac always seemed to gravitate toward a tennis court.
“It’s the independence of tennis, the mental aspect of it,” he says. “The fact that you don’t really have anyone to rely on—that was really interesting to me. It became a way to better my own mental strength.”
During a service learning unit in school, Vukhac became really energized by community service and giving back. He started thinking about things he loved, like tennis, and how he could use his passion for the sport to help others. He recalled going to a tournament in the Bronx as a 10-year-old and realizing that many of his competitors weren’t nearly as equipped as he was.
“I had grown up pretty fortunate,” he says. “I live on the Upper East Side. I play at the West Side Tennis Club [in Forest Hills, N.Y.]. [At this tournament], I had a nice racquet. My shoes were relatively new. And I could see that not a lot of these players had the same opportunities that I did.”
He also thought about his father, who got to play Division 1 tennis for Rutgers University but who, growing up, didn’t have the luxury of taking lessons and instead had to teach himself the sport. Vukhac began to contemplate different ways he could personally help make the game more accessible. With this goal in mind, and barely a freshman in high school, he decided to form a community service organization—called SecondServes—and immediately set to work.
For his first initiative through SecondServes, Vukhac began collecting racquets from friends and family members to donate to kids around the city. He received an enthusiastic response, amassing a sizable collection initially. But he wanted to ensure that what he gave away would last. So he got his hands on a stringing machine and taught himself how to string racquets.
“I just thought that if I was able to teach myself how to string and start stringing for other players, I could use those commissions to buy strings to refurbish the racquets that I collected,” he explains. “It would have more of an impact on the players who received them.”
It took him a while to learn, he says. In fact, he recently came across some of the guinea pig racquets he used when he was first figuring out the skill.
“It’s just funny to think about how far I’ve come,” he says.
He’s come pretty far. To date, he’s collected over 400 racquets and has already restrung about 100 of them. He’s in the process of connecting with NJTLs in the tri-state area to begin large-scale donations.
Although racquet collection remains SecondServes’ primary focus, Vukhac has also developed several other projects through the organization. He regularly cleans up tennis courts all over the city. He brings a broom to sweep out corners where debris can often linger, picks up trash and uses a special roller to help dry out the surface after rain. He’s also begun working with the RecycleBalls non-profit to donate used tennis balls, and ultimately, make the sport greener. Vukhac notes that the rubber in tennis balls can take 400 years to decompose even if the ball itself loses its consistency and bounce after just a couple matches. RecycleBalls aims to repurpose that rubber—into products like dog toys and stucco replacement—rather than have it sit in a landfill. Vukhac has already connected the organization with several local courts, including West Side. To date, he’s helped recycle over 500 tennis balls.
Still, Vukhac wants to do more. In the future, he’d like SecondServes to host tournaments that raise money to bring underserved families to the US Open, so they can gain more exposure to the sport. But he stresses that even in providing access and exposure, representation still remains very important. Being Vietnamese-American, he notes how meaningful it’s been for him to watch Asian players like Kei Nishikori and Naomi Osaka reach such high peaks on the professional circuit.
“Tennis is still predominantly white,” he says. “And so I’ve always looked up to Nishikori. But that does show how the game can grow, if someone like me, an Asian-American, is able to have an idol in the sport.”
With all he’s accomplished through SecondServes, it’s hard to believe Vukhac is just a sophomore in high school. Much of his success, he says, is a credit to his family for instilling in him an enterprising spirit.
“Both my parents are refugees from the Vietnam War,” he explains. “Seeing where they are now, I recognize that the opportunities I have are because of them. I have a lot of opportunities that they didn’t have [themselves]. So I think my work ethic and my drive is really derived from both of them, and that’s what’s helped me push SecondServes to what it is now.”
Learn more about SecondServes here.