Asian Tennis League celebrating 33 years
Colorado's Asian Tennis League celebrates 33 years of bringing families together
Inspired by the Denver-based Akebono Invitational Tennis Tournament and the Nisei Japanese Basketball League, which were organized for players who were of 50% Japanese descent, Andy Cleary’s brainchild was to host an Asian Tennis League in Denver.
The year was 1989, a historic year for the Asian American tennis community that had just witnessed the triumph of a young American named Michael Chang at the French Open.
Andy recruited his wife, Julie, basketball teammate Terry Wong and fellow University of Colorado graduate Susan Nakano to help build a league that has been going strong for 33 years.
Each weekend during the season, members gather, get their court assignments and head off to play spirited, joyful competition. The emphasis is entirely focused on fun, being social, and inclusiveness.
“Everyone has always been welcome,” says Susan Bolton, who began playing with the Asian Tennis League in 1991 and has had a leadership role for about 20 years.
While the majority of the participants are of Asian descent, the ATL is quite liberal in its membership/participation requirements. According to the unofficial bylaws, requirements to compete in the League are that you must:
Know someone who is Asian;
Have eaten Asian food.
As if to put an exclamation point on its efforts to welcome people of all ethnic backgrounds, the ATL’s first Hall of Fame inductee was Dan Luna, a legendary Colorado player and coach of Latino ancestry. The second inductee was Frank Adams, a nationally-renowned youth coach who is also a member of the Black Tennis Hall of Fame. The first Asian inductee was co-founder and tennis commissioner, Julie Nishiyama Cleary.
The League consists of 32 players who compete each Saturday, 4:30-7pm, for several weeks beginning in April and ending in May. Each Saturday has two 90-minute sessions. The format is all doubles. Players are paired up by ability and head off to their assigned courts for a match.
One of the most important aspects of the ATL is its family-oriented format. With players ranging in age from pre-teen to participants over 80, it is not uncommon to see multiple generations of players from the same family engaged in competition.
“Before COVID, we had more players each week,” says Bolton, “but we trimmed it down this year to make it easier to manage. We have a pretty long list of substitutes so if you can’t make it one week, there’s always someone who can step in.”
In addition to league play, ATL has long offered lessons for the players’ children. Colorado Tennis Hall of Fame inductee Miko Ando and her mother, Susie, coached the kids early on, with Frank Adams coming on board more than two decades ago to become the main coach for the program.
“Frank owns magic tennis energy that makes kids enjoy and learn tennis,” said Andy Cleary.
Each week, while players report to their courts for matches, Frank is just a few courts over, teaching the game to a couple dozen kids with help from junior coaches who have graduated from the program and now give back their Saturday afternoons to help the next generation of young players. All had a fun tennis experience with Frank. Many have gone on to join the adult league, while several have lettered in tennis on their high school teams. Two former students have won high school state championships, three have played college tennis, and three have become certified tennis professionals at local clubs.
And then there are those who go on to have families of their own and the whole process begins again when they bring their children to learn.
“We are really one, large, extended family,” says Bolton, who recalls multiple generations of families who have grown up with the League. “We see grandchildren, even great-grandchildren of past league players come out to learn the game and to be involved in tennis.”
The ATL was recognized in 2006 by both the Colorado District and the Intermountain Section of the USTA for its significant contributions to multicultural populations.
In 2014, many of the ATL’s founding members were featured in USTA Colorado’s Breaking the Barriers: The Asian Connection Portrait Series. The series provides an opportunity to celebrate diversity and inclusion, and at the same time brings together communities in a non-traditional way to discuss race and equality. The Asian Connection was the second of four exhibits from USTA Colorado and Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Bear Gutierrez, whose innovative portraits showcased Colorado’s Asian-American and Pacific Islander tennis pioneers, including players, coaches and officials.
A New Home
After 30+ years at Gates Tennis Center, the ATL relocated to the recently completed Denver Tennis Park just a few miles away this summer. “It’s a natural fit,” says Bolton. “The DTP’s mission matches ours, to create a vibrant tennis community that is inclusive of all.”
“It’s so important to feel like we’ve got a real partner,” adds Bolton. “DTP is focused on youth development, and that’s been a huge part of our community since the beginning. Our priorities are aligned in the same direction.”
But even more than that, says Bolton, “We have been welcomed with open arms here. Gabe (Vicuna, Director of Operations for Denver Tennis Park) was very excited to have us. The staff has been amazing and we feel blessed to have this beautiful new facility to call home.”
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