Grassroots tennis leaders celebrate Pride in USTA virtual panel

Victoria Chiesa | June 29, 2021

For five local LGBTQ+ leaders in tennis, Pride is not only limited to the month of June: It's a 365-day-a-year effort and helps them grow the sport in their local communities.


With the support of the USTA's Partners BRG, five distinguished panelists from around the country, all of whom identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community, came together on Monday to speak about their experiences in the sport at the local level, the work that they do to grow tennis in their backyards and the ways they've changed the game in a virtual panel entitled "LGBTQ+ Life in the Tennis Ecosystem." 

Moderated by host and journalist Nick McCarvel, the panelists—Ashley Massengale, a board member of the USTA's Southern section and USTA League National Committee member as well as a past president of both USTA Georgia & USTA Atlanta; Dave Killian, board member of the Gay Games and a USTA Pro Circuit National Committee member; Jean Telfort, a local organizer in the New York City area and founder of the Tennis Family Group community tennis assocation (CTA); Matt Olson, the current executive director of the USTA New England section and formerly in the same role at USTA Atlanta; and Melissa Romig, the founder of 'Novice Night' at Sets in the City Dallas, a CTA aimed lesbian and queer women but open to all players—spoke openly to a virtual crowd of more than 60 attendees.

All five panelists spoke about how they found themselves in tennis—from Telfort, who grew up in Haiti and played the sport while on active duty in the U.S. Army, to Massengale, a competitive junior player and collegian at Yale before burnout took her out of the game before adulthood—and how they now spread it to others. After embarking on a legal career, for example, Massengale found her way back to the sport as a volunteer and quickly took a more active role in committees and leadership, which includes a passion for USTA League play.


"I think the number one thing I try to do is get active in all the communities, including the gay community in Atlanta and the gay tennis community," she said. "I try to be a respresentative of the community wherever I go and get involved authentically.


"I don't that there are a lot of openly gay volunteers, at least in the USTA Southern section, so it's important to me to be open, to talk about my wife and my son and for everyone to see that this is a normal thing, whether they knew it before they met me before or not."


Killian, a college player at University of the Sciences in the Philadelphia, was a longtime volunteer at various professional tournaments in his area, including the famed WTA Tour stop in Charleston, S.C., and has used this experience to turn his attention locally by participating in the USTA's “Diversity Immersion for Volunteer Engagement” (DIVE) program, which seeks to recruit and engage volunteers and future volunteer leadership from more diverse backgrounds at all levels of the organization.


"The goal, for me, in any organization I'm involved with is inclusion," Killian said. "It can't just be lip service and it has to start at the top. I try and instill that in any organizations I belong to."


READ MORE: In their own words: USTA volunteers on Pride Month


In their various roles in grassroots tennis, from community tennis associations to more organized USTA-sanctions organizations, events and competitive tournaments on the GLTA (Gay and Lesbian Tennis Alliance) worldwide circuit, the group stressed the importance of making the game accessible to everyone of all ages, ability levels and backgrounds. It was that mindset which led Romig, who was not a tennis player until her middle-age at the urging of her wife, to create a new, social opportunity at Sets and the City, a long-established, local CTA in the Dallas-area for queer women who are completely new to the game.


"We noticed that there is a very specific niche of beginner, lesbian tennis. ... We play out doubles points for 90 solid minutes. We don't do drills or anything, we hit, hit and hit, and rotate, rotate and rotate," Romig said. "When you were very new to the sport, that's what you're looking for: those touches on the ball. For a lot of the players, tennis is just a part of it. Tennis is a healthy, active way for them to meet friends in our community. They're having fun, and it's a very collegial and familial process to it."


Telfort, who takes the game to both youths and adults in communities in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island, sahred similar sentiments: "There's a novelty to seeing a tennis racquet for the first time ... and there's a desire to do something different. In these communities I go to, [they play] a lot of basketball, but an athlete is an athlete. For example, I had a gentleman in the Bronx who's a boxer ... there are people out there who understand the nuances of the sport, and everyone feels like there is something to gain from it. Making it fun, and mutually beneficial for the people participating, has been a key to what I've been doing."


With tennis participation up across the country over the past year thanks to its status as the ideal social distancing sport, the entire panel was in agreement that local organizers play will a crucial role, both now and in the future, to not only keep the momentum going, but to continue to open doors for others. 


"I really think it's all about open communication and developing partnerships in the community. That's what everyone here is really talking about. It's so exciting to see and that's the way that things should naturally happen," Olson said.


"We want people to see themselves in us. ... One of the great things that's really been happening is to see the shift in tennis. During my early days, I was petrified that people would find out that I was gay. Tennis is a part of your life as work, as play, as your circle of friends and the idea that you could've lost your job for being gay was terrifying. We're all woven into different parts of the organization, and it's just who we are. 


"Creating partnerships with areas like parks and recreation, colleges, making sure that people know as an organization that we're open and inclusive. ... I really believe that that should encompass everything that we're doing."

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