AT WORLD TENNIS DAY
Ashley Marshall | March 6, 2017
For a group of five youngsters who have grown up with a racquet in their hand, World Tennis Day is more than just an exhibition featuring the elite players in the game.
Depending on which Play For Life ambassador you ask, the day is a cool experience, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attend the world's most famous arena or a chance to inspire other children.
The ambassadors are 4-year-old Amadeo Mendez-Robles of Las Vegas; Lleyton Johnson of Columbus, Ohio, age 8; Kalli Minor of Compton, Calif., age 10; Jessica Popiol of Bartlett, Ill., age 11; and New York City native Teddy Brodsky, age 16.
Teddy said he was in awe of Madison Square Garden – the site of Monday night's BNP Paribas Showdown, held to celebrate World Tennis Day – especially getting to experience it virtually empty first thing Monday morning. ADVERTISEMENT Now he's hoping to use the unique experience to motivate other youngsters to get out on the court.
"It's the coolest thing I've ever done in my entire life," Teddy said. "I live in New York, so I come to Knicks and Rangers games. I've come to this event for the past few years, so to just be on the court is the most unbelievable thing. It's a unique experience unlike any other thing where 18,000 people can be here, but right now there's maybe 10 of us in here."
Teddy, who counts Andy Roddick, Roger Federer and Jack Sock among his favorite players, has also been playing since he was 2 years old. He currently trains at Columbia University and said tennis is in his genes since his mother played competitively in school.
"I play for fun. The goal would be to play in college, but it's not really about that," Teddy said. "It's more about being active and playing for as long as I can. The reason you get into tennis is to get the younger kids playing, so that's the goal."
With so many pros in town for the event, it was inevitable that the quintet would get to meet the likes of Roddick, Sock, Venus Williams and Nick Kyrgios, all of whom are participating in the Showdown.
Lleyton met his favorite player, Lleyton Hewitt, after whom he's named, at the media day on Sunday and said he can't wait to tell his younger brother Finn about his time in the Big Apple when he gets home.
"It's really fun," said Lleyton, who started playing tennis when he was 2 years old. "I like playing with my dad because he's my coach and I like hitting volleys."
On Monday, the ambassadors practiced on the court before the pros arrived and they took part in TV interviews with NY1 and PIX11. They also got a behind-the-scenes tour of Madison Square Garden, had a chance to check out the viewpoint from the top of the arena and see the broadcast booth and press area.
"It's amazing. This is a great opportunity," Kalli said. "I've got to interview pros and be on Team America. It's amazing."
Equally amazing is Kalli's love for tennis and her memories of what inspired her to pick up a racquet. Now, she's hoping to do the same for the next generation of players in Compton, Calif.
"One day I was watching ESPN with my dad and I told him I wanted to play tennis," Kalli recalled. "He said, 'Why?' And I said, 'There's this brown girl on TV that's really good.' She said I could be better than her and that makes me want to work harder every day. The harder you work, the more opportunities that come. This is a great opportunity to help other kids like me."
Added Jessica, who has been playing since she was 7 years old and has ambitions of winning a major title one day: "It's super exciting and it's such a big honor to be here. I'm so, so excited. Meeting the players in person and seeing the huge stadium, it's amazing. Tennis is such a fun sport and you can make friends while playing it.
"Other kids inspire me and I inspire other kids. I started Instagram to inspire other kids, and now everyone is commenting that I'm such an inspiration and that makes me so happy."
Helping others get in the game was a common message throughout the festivities. Michelle Robles, the mother of Amadeo, said World Tennis Day is a great opportunity to showcase youngsters playing and enjoying tennis. She helped set up the TnnsKids National Junior Tennis and Learning (NJTL) chapter in Las Vegas in 2015 after discovering her daughter Bella, who started playing five years ago when she was 6 years old, had few affordable opportunities to play in her neighborhood.
"Our daughter Bella inspired my husband Carlos and I," she said. "There weren't many options for her in Las Vegas, so we started taking her to the courts in the park, but we realized that not every parent would be able to do it. We realized other kids were interested, too."
The chapter has now expanded to service youngsters in two middle schools and two parks where they live, and it is growing into a regional park in northern Las Vegas.
"Amadeo gravitated to the court and started walking and crawling on the court," she said. "He really loves watching his sister and playing with her and he thinks hes as good as her. For him, this is another tennis practice with new friends. He associates tennis as playtime with friends."
During the matches, Kalli got to play a point against Muguruza, Jessica had an opportunity to hit with Venus Williams and Lleyton and Amadeo played on court with Sock and Kyrgios.