Gaines honored for
growing the game in Asheville
Arthur Kapetanakis | February 6, 2019
ASHVILLE, N.C. – Fed Cup is back in Asheville, N.C., and in the year since Serena and Venus Williams starred in a 3-1 opening-round victory over the Netherlands last February, tennis has grown at unprecedented levels in the city. While Team USA will again take center stage when its 2019 Fed Cup campaign begins against Australia on Saturday, much of the credit for growing the game locally goes to Kelly Gaines, the executive director of USTA North Carolina.
Gaines (above, second from left), who has been in her role since 1995, has worked tirelessly to provide community events, connect with local schools and galvanize the community around Fed Cup in Asheville. For her efforts, U.S. Captain Kathy Rinaldi and her team honored the tennis lifer with a team jacket at the conclusion of Wednesday’s Net Generation activation at the U.S. ADVERTISEMENT Cellular Center.
“I was absolutely, totally shocked,” said Gaines. “It’s a whole team behind it. I get to be the front person, but with our North Carolina staff, our local volunteers—it is just a labor of love. I’m very grateful and very honored.”
The Burlington, N.C., native helped coordinate three Net Generation kids’ days in the buildup to this year’s Fed Cup tie—up from one last year—as interest from local schools ramped up. By week’s end, at least 10 schools will have participated, with 1,000 children impacted across the pre-match events and match-day activations.
Rinaldi, Sofia Kenin, Nicole Melichar and coach Lisa Raymond were on hand Wednesday, taking time out to work with local children, play tennis and answer questions on topics ranging from their training schedule to why they decided to play tennis as kids.
Also on site was Leah Friedman, national skills manager in the USTA’s Community Engagement Department, who joined Rinaldi in lauding Gaines.
“Kelly Gaines and USTA North Carolina are the gold standard,” she said. “It’s not just this week. Kelly and her team are committed to growing tennis within the communities and schools with Net Generation year-round, and we couldn’t be more grateful.
“Her team is exceptional, but all teams need a good leader,” continued Friedman, who described Gaines as a “spiritual leader” and a shining example in community tennis.
Dozens of USTA North Carolina and local volunteers helped make Wednesday's event possible, with varying stations set up for the eager school children. Jodi Balestrieri, a volunteer and member of the Asheville Tennis Committee, was among the coaches.
“Each of the stations focuses on a different fundamental skill that the child needs in order to eventually work up into a full swing,” she explained. “We’re working on—in a fun way—getting control and trying to slow the ball down.”
In addition to the Net Generation festivities, Gaines also helped organize adaptive clinics on Friday evening for wheelchair and amputee players, as well as an adult clinic. All of that behind-the-scenes work has reaped rewards, with Asheville’s tennis scene booming.
Since last year’s Fed Cup tie, the city has seen a 12-percent overall increase in USTA League participation, a 20-percent increase in annual pass-holders and a 90-percent increase in junior play at Aston Park Tennis Center, Asheville’s flagship public tennis facility. In July’s Asheville Open Tennis Championships, the longest-running USTA tournament in North Carolina, participation increased 62 percent among juniors and 34 percent among adults. For 2019, the city’s first-ever Junior Team Tennis teams are set to start play, with three programs across the mountain area expected to attract 50 to 60 kids each.
Gaines has seen her home state host a combined seven Fed Cup and Davis Cup ties during her tenure, and she is also heavily involved with the Winston-Salem Open, a US Open Series event, each August. At the ATP tournament, she takes on the familiar role of promoting community engagement, offering events just about every day of the one-week event.
As a visionary leader, Gaines continues to look forward, while promoting the themes of fun, fitness and friends through tennis, a sport for a lifetime. She hopes the sport's recent surge is only the beginning.
"It's been awesome," she said. "I'm excited to see what will happen in this next year."