Building a Diverse Tennis Community in Kansas
USTA Kansas is passionate about growing the game of tennis- that’s why we’re here! A big part of that comes from reaching out to our communities and giving everyone a chance to play. USTA supports several programs designed to increase diversity and inclusion in the sport of tennis, so we caught up with our local providers to see how their programs are helping make a difference.
National Junior Tennis and Learning
The National Junior Tennis and Learning (NJTL) program is designed to provide free or low-cost tennis lessons to under-resourced communities around the country. These non-profit organizations encourage students to stay active, improve their game and keep a good academic standing in school.
“We promote tennis because it’s a good active sport and you meet a lot of people with it. That comradery is really important,” said Alex Lee, director of the McAdams NJTL chapter in Wichita.
NJTL promotes learning in the classroom by providing an annual essay contest. Each local chapter also serves as a community resource for students to receive academic encouragement.
“We make sure we ask the kids about their grades, and any other problem that we see the kids are facing, we try to talk to them and help them if we can,” Lee said. “It’s a good opportunity for these kids to learn. Everybody gets along and has a good time playing tennis.”
Wichita Tennis Open
Wichita is home to the Wichita Tennis Open (WTO), a professional men’s tournament hosted at Wichita State University that has been bringing in countless players and fans for over five years. The event not only features athletes from around the world, it also showcases local tennis through the activities that run alongside the professional matches.
“I think the biggest thing is the Kids Day because we’re able to bring in so many kids at once,” said Nick Taylor, WTO director. “I look at it like this, if the things we do can bring in just a couple more people to tennis and it enhances their lives, then I think that’s great.”
The annual Net Generation Community Kid’s Day allows over 300 kids from local community centers to enjoy an afternoon on the courts learning the basics of tennis. The event is managed by Jaren Glaser, diversity & inclusion section manager. Glaser organizes the Kid’s Day to provide three separate activities for the kids to rotate through: a Team Challenge tennis event, a tour of Wichita State University’s campus, and a chance to watch the professional matches and talk to players and staff.
As a decorated wheelchair tennis player himself, Taylor is also passionate about expanding the sport’s outreach to wheelchair athletes.
“We’ve always had a strong wheelchair tennis program here in Wichita, so I’ve always involved wheelchair tennis in the WTO in some way,” Taylor said. “This year I came up with the idea to have a wheelchair tournament during the pro tournament. That would have made us, other than the US Open, the only professional tournament in the country that has professional wheelchair tennis tournament happening at the same time.”
Although COVID-19 cancelled the WTO this year, Taylor is planning to launch the professional wheelchair tournament alongside the professional circuit next year.
Junior Team Tennis
Junior Team Tennis (JTT) provides competitive team play for young athletes during the summer. It allows the kids to compete with and against players from outside their school or club, and encourages them to keep working on their game, even while they’re on a school break.
This year, Kansas JTT Coordinator Janet Glaser worked with Sara Rasmussen, director of Riverside Tennis Center, to provide a safe place for local youth to compete in summer JTT. Following the ever-changing COVID-19 guidelines wasn’t easy, but the work was worth it to provide play opportunities in the community.
“For a while it was overwhelming, but we set our sights on the start date,” Glaser said. “There was never a thought about not doing it. We all know, from years past that this is important, and maybe now more than ever.”
Last year, Glaser created a winter JTT program to fill the winter school break and give kids more opportunities to play with athlete from other schools.
“During JTT, we have lots of local schools that organize their own teams, but Janet and I try to make sure we also put together something for the kids who maybe don’t have a group that they play with,” Rasmussen said. “We want them to realize that all they need is a racquet and another person to go out and play. That has been very successful with helping that program grow.”
One of the biggest challenges of diversity and inclusion programs is that the structure of a tennis lesson needs to be mobile in order to be brought into new communities. Connie Robertson has dedicated many years of her life to doing just that: bringing tennis to people who need it. She makes regular visits to Fort Riley, as well as three Native American Boys & Girls Clubs, to provide lessons to the soldiers and children at those facilities.
“I go down to Fort Riley and work with all different types of soldiers,” Robertson said. “I do drills and teach them the strokes, but I also help them get equipment and places to play. When they move away, I try to contact that area within USTA and get them someone to play with so they can keep going.”
At the Native American Boys & Girls Clubs, Robertson has been able to use tennis to teach skills and discipline to kids of all ages. She focuses on building their strokes, but also reminds them to be honest with their calls and to look after one another. Robertson has even been able to bring the three clubs together by hosting a tournament for them each year.
“It’s a skills tournament, so they get a certain amount of points based on where they hit the ball,” Robertson said. “I give out a traveling trophy to whichever team totals the most points, they get first, second and third place medals, and then we all go for pizza.”
USTA Kansas is proud to support tennis in all of our communities. Check out more information on our diversity and inclusion mission.