Hispanic Heritage Month NJTL Spotlight: Multicultural Tennis Association
The Multicultural Tennis Association, a National Junior Tennis and Learning (NJTL) chapter in Las Vegas, seeks to raise the profile of the sport in local Spanish-speaking communities — and for founder Carlos Mendez, his wife and their two children, Bella and Amadeo, the past six years of fulfilling that mission has been a true family affair.
“The genesis of it all was the fact that there weren’t enough affordable programs in our city. My daughter, at 6 years old, fell in love with the sport, but I didn’t fall in love with the cost," Mendez said with a laugh.
Having taken up tennis as a recreational hobby growing up in East Los Angeles, Mendez, who also played basketball, wanted youth in the area he now calls home to have an outlet that was not available to him at the same age.
“There were a few courts in some parks in East L.A., but those courts were closed,” he continued. “So that was the image I had growing up of tennis: not accessible, for the elite. When my daughter was introduced to tennis… we soon realized that we would probably have to sell our home or take out a huge line of credit to afford tennis lessons.
“As a family, we realized there was something wrong with that. If we were having hardships with these expensive lessons, then what was happening on the other side of town or in other areas? We embarked on what’s now become a lifelong journey, as a family, to share the sport and make it accessible. We identified local parks, partnered with the school districts and city programming, and we began to offer a free, introduction-to-tennis program for Title 1 [the largest federal aid program for public schools in the U.S.] schools.
“Along with our volunteer coaches, we go to schools and put racquets in kids’ hands for the very first time... We do our best to let kids know that tennis is available for them."
Since its founding, the Multicultural Tennis Association has grown thanks in part to support from the USTA and the USTA Foundation. In 2018, it was one of 10 NJTL chapters which had their efforts to reach Hispanic youth in their respective communities supported by former USTA president Katrina Adams. Over the past six years, the chapter has evolved to include after-school programming in elementary and middle schools, and Mendez notes that its 'Padrinos de Tenis' program, which he describes as a "godparent initiative" that helps support young people in their tennis and education pursuits.
"In our culture, padrinos are pretty much your religious parent, if you will. In absence of a parent, the godparent steps in and guides you through life," he said.
"In our culture, we celebrate milestones with them, baptisms, First Communions, confirmations, and I thought, 'How can we create this for tennis? Let's go ahead approach this as a responsibility for parents, godparents or sponsors where they support our more advanced, high-performance Hispanic youth.'
Through this program, Mendez says he works to identify promising Hispanic players from across the United States and supports them and their families in various ways, including answering their questions, providing them access to equipment and offsetting entry costs for tournaments.
Passionate about growing the sport in Spanish-speaking communities both in the Las Vegas area and across the country, Mendez believes that growth can come with investment in five pillars by both the tennis establishment and families at home.
These pillars include raising the profile of successful legendary athletes and current touring professionals of Hispanic heritage, utilizing the network of college and university tennis teams to emphasize education in their communities, raising awareness of and supporting scholarships and grants for young athletes, and having access to quality coaches in community programming.
"Other sports encourage parents to throw a football with their kids, to shoot hoops with their kids without judgement at all," he said. "If we're able to encourage and empower parents themselves, that also leads to the growth to tennis and tennis can become a stable sport in their communities and their neighborhoods.
"The NJTL network and what it stands for, this is important. The USTA has been phenomenal in support of our networks, and frankly, we couldn't do it without that support."
In championing diversity and inclusion in tennis for decades, the legendary Billie Jean King speaks openly about the importance of role models for young people to look up to in the sport. "If you can see it, you can be it," King often says, and ultimately, Mendez agrees: he and his family want to share this philosophy to the communities that they serve, too.
"There have been many pioneers from our culture and heritage in the past. People like Pancho Gonzales, Rosie Casals, Charlie Pasarell, Mary Joe Fernandez, who wore the American flag," he said. "They were an inspiration, and all I could think was, 'Let's go out to the neighborhoods, walk the streets... and introduce the sport.'
"For me, it was also just creating a sense of philanthropy for my own kids, teaching them how fortunate they are, but also to not forget to give back. Their dad was that kid from East L.A. who didn't have access to a tennis racquet. In a sense, we're helping and giving back to that young Carlos Mendez from East L.A.
"We're not from the country club circuit, we're not from the academy circuit, we're just a family who wants to give back."
Photos courtesy of Carlos Mendez.
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