Middle States

Community & Tennis: The Delaware Sickle Cell Tournament

For nearly four decades, two friends in Delaware have looked at community and tennis as one. 


The team of Watson Brown and James Monk are two staples of the Delaware-based Sickle Cell Tournament, an event that has brought community groups together annually while raising more than $400,000 overall for sickle cell research. 


“We look at the history of this event in two parts,” said Brown, who first became involved with the event in 1982. “One is the fundraising element, and one is the tennis element. Both are very important and both have made a big difference here in Delaware.”


After 44 events, “big” may be an understatement.


Referred to as the Sickle Cell Tennis Classic when it officially began in 1982, the tournament first took place at the Rodney Street Tennis Courts in Wilmington. It pulled in players from Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and New York, using the then-brand-new USTA National Tennis Rating Program (NTRP) to set up draws for all skill levels. 


The tournament initially came to be from a festival-type event in the late 1970s, organized by tennis players in the area and also benefiting sickle cell research. By the mid-1980s, the tournament was experiencing rapid growth. Brown, trying to keep up with the demand for play and new draws, recruited Monk to get involved. 


Monk became the person behind the technology, helping to improve communication with players, and organization of the draws. 


“My role has always been automation,” he said. “We used to pull names out of a hat to do the draw. I came in to help get us up with the times.”


Watson and Monk began working together around 1985. Originally connected as friends from playing on the Rodney Street Courts, they’re now co-tournament directors, organizing play for hundreds of players and assisting with the fundraising side.

That fundraising side is one of the most impressive parts of the event’s history. In recent years, the Delaware Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority (AKAs), Zeta Omega Chapter, has managed its charitable component. Since taking over, it’s presented Nemours Children’s Hospital with $180,000 toward sickle cell disease research. 


“We wanted to give the money to a local place, but also somewhere that was doing a lot with research,” Brown said. “Nemours has been that place for us and we’re lucky to have the AKAs doing this.” 


Watson continued in his thanks for the AKAs, mentioning that they are the total reason behind all of the fundraising success in recent years. 

The total money raised speaks for itself. Another perk to this event? The community ties.


On the tennis side, the history of the tournament laces in competition and opens doors for anyone with an interest in playing. When the event began, there were very few competition events for non-country club members. Many recreational players struggled to find events in which they could experience competition. 


“We love that this tournament is, and always has been, very accessible,” Monk said. “In some ways this tournament began as a way to connect people who loved tennis, but didn’t have a place to compete in this sort of way. They couldn’t go to a country club or play another organized form of tennis. This was a place for them.”


“We also have a lot of mothers and sons, fathers and sons. You name it, we’ve had it,” Brown added. “This is a good chance for families to do something together.”


These days, the event still draws a diverse crowd. Everyone is welcome, regardless of background. And that’s the way they say it will continue. 


Sickle cell disease is the most common inherited blood disorder in the United States, with approximately 100,000 Americans living with the disease. The disease widely impacts the African American community.


A date has not been set for 2022, but Brown and Monk expect the tournament to continue far into the future, raising additional funds and continuing to bring people together on the courts. 


USTA Middle States, which has directly supported the event for the last six years, plans to continue its involvement.


“Middle States is proud to be a sponsor for this wonderful tournament,” said Renee Bridges, Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. “Year after year, the AKAs, along with Watson and Jim, do an excellent job organizing and running the event.”


“Tennis has no owners,” Brown added. “If people have an interest in competing, they should have a place to play. Over the years we’re really happy with how this tournament gives people that chance.”


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