Innovative Atlanta tennis league unites Junior Team Tennis and adaptive players

Victoria Chiesa | March 10, 2023

For two days last October, teamwork truly made the dream work in Atlanta when an innovative youth tennis league united able-bodied Junior Team Tennis players and adaptive athletes on the same court. 


The effort, USTA Atlanta executive director Amy Bartlett-O’Connell explained, was the result of a unique collaboration between local Junior Team Tennis players and adaptive athletes from Special Pops Tennis, an Atlanta-area non-profit that brings tennis to children and adults with intellectual disabilities.


A total of 46 participants took part in the inaugural pilot program, held at no cost in partnership with the USTA Southern section on the campus of Wesleyan School in Peachtree Corners, Ga. on Oct. 22 and Oct. 29. The participants were sorted into doubles pairs, made up of Junior Team Tennis players ages 13 to 18, of an intermediate or advanced level, and Special Pops athletes who ranged in age from 10 to 72, and competed in a round-robin on teams. All players received a medal in honor of their participation, and a USTA-branded water bottle in their team color, at the conclusion of the event.

The inaugural league not only afforded all participants full days of good-spirited match play, but the opportunity to make make new friends. It also allowed young tennis talents to learn life lessons; as Unified partners, JTT players were guided on how best to help their partners on court and how to be a good teammate, while supportive parent captains helped facilitate matches and got partners ready to play. A Unified partner is the Special Olympics term for individuals without intellectual disabilities.


Seeing this camaraderie blossom between players and volunteers alike, Bartlett-O’Connell said, was one of the most rewarding takeaways of the overall experience for her. Even after matches were completed, for example, participants “stuck around and continued to play.”

“This was such a special league and everyone that was involved did an outstanding job making this collaboration come together,” she added. “My favorite part were the relationships that were formed because of tennis. Tennis really is for all, and this was a great way to show just that.”


Founded in 2005, Special Pops Tennis programming has grown to serve more than 625 players in communities around the state. Jim Hamm, the organization’s executive director, said that the inaugural league was emblematic of the work that he and his staff of more than 650 volunteers do each day to help make tennis more diverse and equitable.


"Personally, it inspired me to put greater intentional effort into connecting the traditional tennis community with the adaptive tennis programs," Hamm said. "Historically, we would launch programs and seek adult volunteers to assist with the leadership and success of that program. The JTT partnership highlighted the power of exposure to the relationship-building that is derived when people of similar interest are partnered with a common goal."


According to the Centers for Disease and Control Prevention (CDC), there are nearly 61 million adults with disabilities in the U.S., or 26% of all U.S. residents. By investing in organizations such as Special Pops Tennis, which is a registered community tennis association within the USTA, the USTA seeks to attract youth and adults who are often excluded from other athletic exploits, and build a sense of community. Following the success of the first edition, Bartlett-O’Connell said that her district hopes to host a second edition of the league later this year, and is happy to share its learnings with others looking to offer similar programming in their community, whether it is at a smaller or larger scale.


Hamm agreed, saying that bringing programs such as these to different areas of the country, can only augment the recent boon in tennis participation. 


"The JTT and adaptive program overall strengthens the community, as the JTT player will experience leadership opportunities, relationship-building with people who learn differently, and a joy from playing a sport that has included an emotional rollercoaster ride," he said. "The adaptive tennis programs in communities benefit from an expanded base of volunteers that have a degree of sport expertise that can be extremely valuable to programs or individuals just getting started. The JTT and traditional tennis communities benefit from being reminded that tennis is fun. JTT members also receive community service credit hours playing/teaching a sport they love.


"Socialization is an element of tennis. Parents of children with special needs will say that opportunity is the greatest life skill value their child receives from adaptive tennis programs. Growth has been realized from our first season of league play as JTT players have become volunteers in our training sites and families with JTT players have spread the word and several new athletes with special needs have joined our training programs."

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