Pride Spotlight: Papi Tennis

Scott Sode | June 22, 2021

When Daniel Arzuaga (pictured, center) moved back to the Bronx in 2016, after several years abroad, he noticed that there were some great tennis courts in the nearby Williamsbridge Oval park. The only problem? They were frequently in use—by skateboarders.


“My first thought was, ‘Get these kids off, this is sacred ground,’” he says with a laugh. “And my next thought was, ‘There are no tennis players here. How do I get them to start coming? This is a beautiful facility, and it’s not being used.’”


He decided he needed to get the word out. So he created a profile—Papi Tennis—on the gay social networking apps Grindr and Scruff.


“I think it said ‘Look, you wanna play tennis? Come meet me at the park,’” he recalls. “‘If you wanna learn, I’ll teach you, and we’ll go from there.’”


As a result of the profile, six people attended Arzuaga’s first organized “Papi Tennis” meet-up. “Then, six became eight,” he says. “Then, eight became 12. And then the group just really started taking off.”


Local residents started to see the courts in action. Others heard about it through word-of-mouth. Today, a mere four years later, the Papi Tennis Facebook group includes over 800 members. A similar WhatsApp group for the social-media shy includes another 200. Papi Tennis “chapters” have formed on courts in Brooklyn and in Harlem. 


“To this day I’m still kind of in awe of it,” Arzuaga says of the astronomical growth. “I realized I hit on something. I was giving free tennis lessons, and a lot of these people couldn’t afford to play tennis. But they do want to play. They just needed access. So we’ve had kids come in, we’ve had people from nearby churches come in. It started as an LGBT tennis group, but it’s really become very all-inclusive.”


Arzuaga still holds classes for beginners on Saturdays, “the heart of the program,” he says. At the same time, on the rest of the courts, more advanced players—matched up by level—enjoy a little hitting and friendly competition. The group also organizes competitive tournaments—a Brooklyn vs. Bronx competition was very popular last summer—as well as outings that are mostly unrelated to tennis, “so that people can bond off-court,” says Arzuaga. Papi Tennis hosts holiday parties and Pride gatherings, and they recently held a large barbecue at a member’s house in New Rochelle. (The barbecue featured some red clay-court tennis; the event was affectionately dubbed “Roland Garros East”.)


“The off-court social events are critical to the overall mission of Papi Tennis,” says Arzuaga. “Tennis is the centerpiece, but the socializing is the key element that makes people feel welcome and want to return. The personality of the group has really become what I’d hoped for, which is a very supporting family network. Everybody’s making friends and everybody’s very into the community feeling of this. There’s a lot of magic to it that I still can’t wrap my head around.”


And that magic—the spirit of inclusivity that Papi Tennis engenders—has changed lives. Arzuaga recalls one member—a young, closeted Bangladeshi immigrant—who had recently come to New York within the last five years and was living in close quarters with his family.


“He came from a very homophobic home and culture,” Arzuaga says. “He was trying to come out to his family, and he had no outlet,” Arzuaga says. “He reached out on one of the apps, and he started coming to the courts. All of a sudden this shy, scared kid just blossomed. He became more open, more proud of who he was. Eventually, he ended up coming out to his parents, and he credits the tennis group with that...because he finally had the supportive environment that could back him up.”


This story is one of many Arzuaga can tell off the top of his head. He also mentions a man from Kuwait who came to New York for a kidney transplant and happened to pass by the courts where the group was playing.  After watching the man gaze at the tennis from across the chain link fence, Arzuaga invited him to play. Suddenly, the Papi Tennis meetups became a major component of the man's physical rehab from surgery.


“He was a true beginner, and by the time he left our group to return [to Kuwait] he was a solid 3.0 player,” Arzuaga says. “That was an amazing transformation to witness. And imagine this. He did not speak a word of English! All of the teaching and instruction was facilitated through hand gestures and Google Translate.”


The group’s growth and impact have far exceeded Arzuaga’s expectations. But now that he has seen its scope, he is more empowered than ever to continue to grow and protect it.


“This Papi Tennis experiment really started out as ‘I want to play tennis so let me find bodies and see what happens,’” he says. “And incredibly, I built a solid tennis and ‘life’ family along the way. I now want longevity. I am very protective of the group. I’ve worked hard to find funding and sponsors. I feel very responsible for [these players], very committed to keeping this positive environment going. I’m doing it for them and for our tennis family unit. I no longer do it just for myself.” 


Beyond shifting Arzuaga's perspective, the group has also made him a more compassionate human, he says.


“I’ve always been a big-hearted, giving person, but I think Papi Tennis has opened my heart even more,” he explains. “It has made me realize the majesty of giving and sharing. When you give, sometimes you do not receive, and you are a little disappointed. But somewhere down the line it comes back tenfold, and that is exactly what has happened with this group. Now I want to give harder and better and continue to make this community the best it can be.”


And that kind of personal reflection is exactly what has always drawn Arzuaga to tennis in the first place.


“Every time you step on the court, it’s different,” he says. “You expose yourself to many game styles. You meet people from all over the world. You challenge yourself mentally and physically, you face and solve problems. Tennis expands the way you think. It helps you grow, both as an intellectual and as a human being. I love that about the sport.”

USTA Eastern is proud to support programs like Papi Tennis. To learn more about our available grants click here.

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