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National

Grassroots tennis set to boom in Asheville again after 2022 Billie Jean King Cup Qualifier

Victoria Chiesa | April 14, 2022


ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Harrah's Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville is home to the Billie Jean King Cup for the third time in the competition's last four years this week, and according to the highest-ranking grassroots tennis administrator in this state, the whole community feels it when professional tennis comes to town.

 

Since 1995, Kelly Gaines has been the executive director of USTA North Carolina, the local district that governs the sport in this area of the USTA's Southern section. Over Gaines' tenure, her staff has grown from two to a dozen and membership in the organization has tripled, but nothing has affected enthusiasm for tennis amongst all ages quite like hosting the best players in the world.

Read moreMatch-ups set between U.S. and Ukraine for 2022 Billie Jean King Cup Qualifier

 

"What we've seen after the first two ties in 2018 and 2019 is about a 20% increase in tournament participation, in USTA League participation in this area, and it's not just Asheville. About five or six counties contribute to that number," Gaines said. "The Asheville Tennis Association, the local community tennis association, has hosted the oldest adult tournament in North Carolina, the Asheville Open, for 90 years, and as a result of having [Billie Jean King Cup] here, they've seen an increase in participation and in sponsorship. That's allowed them to put more money back into the community."

 

In the days leading up to the tie between the U.S. and Ukraine, which begins Friday, Gaines and her team organized a variety of community tennis events in the Asheville area for every and ability level. They boast a thriving partnership with the city and county's public and private schools, and more than 1,500 students combined touched a tennis racquet in the two years when the event was last played here. With this weekend's tie held in the middle of spring break, though, Gaines and her team had to get creative with their outreach.

 

"We wanted to do different events each day, with spring break camps, with parks and recreation, with the YMCA, with two of our state-wide community tennis associations," Gaines added. "Our whole focus, and the whole focus of our CTAs, is bringing new people into the sport, and having professional events like this and the Winston-Salem Open [an ATP 250 event held just over two hours northeast of Asheville prior to the US Open in August] in the cycle, it just bumps everything up a level." 

 

This week, Gaines and her team leaned on a games-based approach for kids and social play for adults at these pop-up clinics for those completely new to tennis—"We've launched a state-wide program called 'Try Tennis,' which is what we call 'couch-to-court in six weeks,' and that program has been very successful thanks to Billie Jean King Cup," Gaines says—but the week's slate of events also included a high-performance camp, a clinic for local USTA Foundation National Junior Tennis and Learning (NJTL) chapters, an all-ages wheelchair tennis clinic, and an event for the national non-profit ACEing Autism.

 

The entire Team USA family also came out in support of these events. As a part of the USTA's commitment to fully integrating tennis, Paralympians Emmy Kaiser and Conner Stroud got on-court for clinics with both the rookie adults and wheelchair athletes, and they'll also play in a wheelchair tennis exhibition match in-between the tie's matches on Saturday.

 

"I'm also a coach back home, so I love being able to introduce the sport to anybody," Kaiser said, "so hitting with those adults, it's about getting them excited to play, but it's also about being able to show somebody who's in a wheelchair that she can play tennis, even if she didn't know she could."

In all, Gaines says, this tennis festival has the potential to inspire all, whether they're on the court or sitting in the stands. 

 

"When I came to tennis as a child in the mid-1970s, the people that I saw were Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Evonne Goolagong, Martina Navratilova, Pam Shriver, Tracy Austin. I had a backboard at home, and every night I played Tracy Austin and Pam Shriver, but I never saw them in person. I only saw them on TV," she said.

 

"For these kids, these girls, and boys—and I think boys need to see women play and I think girls need to see men play—I think that's important, that you see what you could be. You see that it's possible. We're at an event that's named for Billie Jean King ... and it gives me chills that I, as Kelly from Burlington, am going to be in the same space, literally and figuratively, as her. I would have never thought that at 12 years old. For these 12-year-olds that get to see that, it can be possible. It is possible."

 

The rest of Team USA agrees. 

"I remember last time I played when it was [named] Fed Cup, there were girls that are playing on tour now that were there as young girls watching us play, really excited to meet us," Jessica Pegula, the top-ranked U.S. player here this week, said. "I think it's always great to inspire the next generation and keep that going because it's such an honor to play."

 

"The impact that these players have on the next generation is quite remarkable. They probably don't even realize what it means," U.S. team captain Kathy Rinaldi added. "When we bring our junior Billie Jean King Cup teams in for them to be able to spend time and to be able to speak with these players, it gives them a sense of belief in themselves, it gives them a sense of belonging.

 

"These girls are absolutely incredible with the young players. That's how we grow the sport. To be here in Asheville and to have a tie like this in a community like Asheville is really inspiring, just impacts everybody at the grassroots. That's what it's all about."

 

All photos: Mike Lawrence/USTA

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