Frances Tiafoe headlines pro-am for military veterans at the USTA National Campus
After representing his country with pride for the first time at both the Tokyo Olympics and in Davis Cup in 2021, Frances Tiafoe took time in his offseason preparations to serve up a special ‘Thank you’ to those who’ve served the U.S. in the armed forces.
The 23-year-old American, a national spokesperson for “ThanksUSA,” a non-profit founded in 2006 that supports the educational pursuits of the children of U.S. veterans, was the featured guest of honor at the organization’s inaugural pro-am event held at the USTA National Campus in Orlando, Fla., from Dec. 11-12.
Veterans hailing from as far as California and Iowa were among those who participated in the two-day event, an extension of tennis programming for veterans that’s held at the USTA National Campus and sponsored by the USTA. The Campus hosts “Military Mondays”—a weekly clinic for active-duty military personnel and veterans sponsored by the Orlando Utilities Commission—while the organization as a whole also sponsors the ThanksUSA Tennis Corps program, which brings together veterans and teenage tennis players in weekly tennis clinics across the country. The program not only helps veterans heal physically and emotionally through physical activity, but it also allows them to mentor the young people they meet there.
“The Campus is beautiful,” said attendee Joseph Halk, a Navy veteran who lives locally in Orlando. "I love the clay courts, the hard courts, the way they treat the veterans and the veteran program. I can’t say enough good things about the organization.”
Halk adds: “What got me back into tennis, actually, was an event here at the Campus. Back in 2019, Army and Air Force played here [as a part of College MatchDay] and I came to watch. They asked me if I was a veteran, I said I was, and they got me out there hitting a little bit and told me about the Monday night program.
“Most people dread Mondays, but I absolutely look forward to Mondays because I know it’s the time I can get out here and play with the other folks.”
ThanksUSA launched its Tennis Corps program in 2018 at the Junior Tennis Champions Center (JTCC) in College Park, Md.—Tiafoe’s longtime training base—with veterans from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and it has since spread nationally.
“[Tiafoe] inspires a lot of people, and I’ve told him that,” said Army veteran Kenneth Best, who, like Tiafoe, is from College Park and had practiced with him at JTCC even prior to participating in the event in Orlando.
“Even at 72 years old, he inspires me so much every time I know he’s playing and representing College Park and the metropolitan area of Washington, D.C.”
In addition to veterans like Halk, who first picked up a racquet at a young age, and a self-described lifelong fan of tennis in Best, the event also welcomed beginners including Jeffery Feller, a dual Air Force and Navy veteran from Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., and Carole Rowland of Knoxville, Iowa, another veteran of the U.S. Air Force.
“Tennis is a sport that I think I can navigate through with my injuries from the service,” said Feller, who was introduced to the sport through a veterans’ clinic in Loma Linda, Calif.
“I was in physical therapy and happened to see a tennis flyer, and I just wanted to see if my body had the ability. I like being competitive and I can’t play some of the sports that my body used to be able to play. It’s a new sport to keep my body moving … but now, I’m learning the sport and growing to love it.”
Added Rowland: “I’ve had both hips replaced so it does limit me… but you overcome and adapt, as we in the military always do. I saw an ad for a clinic that was coming up, and I said, ‘Why not? If I don’t go out and try it, I’ll never know if I can do it.’… It’s a lifetime sport and you can do it at all levels. That’s all it takes – just one step or one swing.”
Other current and former touring tennis pros in attendance with Tiafoe included former world No. 15 Robby Ginepri, current world No. 55 Mackenzie McDonald, (recently named the 2021 ATP Comeback Player of the Year after a career-best season), and various USPTA-certified teaching professionals. In addition to a doubles pro-am, the weekend’s slate of events also included a tour of the USTA National Campus, a veterans tournament, an exhibition between the pros and a silent auction.
“Tennis Corps and this special event are a unique way for me—and for many of us—to show our gratitude for the sacrifices made by our military families,” said Tiafoe. “They overcome challenges including financial difficulties and family separations that I’ve experienced in the past. With my tennis racquet and my voice, I can help raise awareness of their needs. I am proud to do that.”
Since its inception, ThanksUSA has awarded 5,000 scholarships valued at more than $16 million to families in all 50 states and every branch of the U.S. military.
“We are proud to partner with ThanksUSA and host this event at the USTA National Campus to celebrate, honor and thank the veterans and their families for everything that they have done and continue to do to keep us all safe,” said Jo Wallen, Sr. Director, USTA National Campus (pictured, second from left).
“We’ve seen through our weekly military clinics that these tennis programs can help our veterans and their families enjoy a more healthy and fulfilled quality of life.”