National Tennis Month 2022: Sport surges in popularity as students pick up racquets

Dan Levinsohn | August 29, 2022

"Battle of the States" during the 2022 National Tennis Month.

The results are in: May’s National Tennis Month was a resounding success. 


Across the country and its 17 United States Tennis Association sections, more than 500 unique events took place. From early childhood after school programs organized by the Althea Gibson Academy in East Orange, New Jersey; to racquet recycling projects initiated by the Little Tennis Library in Ann Arbor, Michigan; to a Tennis Sticker Contest ahead of the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic in San Jose, California, tennis enthusiasts got creative in their celebration of the sport. 

Over 20 cities, counties, and states signed proclamations, from Auburn, New York, to Wichita, Kansas. Professional players helped with promotion: Two-time Grand Slam winner Vania King stopped by the Lake Balboa Tennis Center in Los Angeles to enjoy a doubles exhibition and participate in a Q&A, where she also recognized AAPI Heritage Month.   


But of course, the month also contained plenty of introductory practice sessions, recreational matches, and even interstate tournaments, which unfolded at schools, public parks, and even via Zoom calls.


The USTA received over 100 advocacy success stories from the various sections. Several community-based tennis organizations were awarded 2022 US Open tickets for their achievements.


Tennis has grown significantly since the turn of the decade. A Physical Activity Council participation report indicated that more than 22.6 million Americans swung a racquet in 2021 – a 27.9% increase from 2019, and the highest number of U.S.-based players since 2007.

Students from Cherry Lane Elementary in the Suffern Central School District during a tennis drill, as part of an afterschool program run by the Rockland Community Tennis Association.

“Players turned to the sport for a safe way to socialize with family and friends while also staying physically active,” said Michael J. McNulty, USTA Chairman of the Board and President, alluding to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Tennis is a sport with many health benefits, can be played for your entire lifetime, and is easily accessed.”


For many young American students, National Tennis Month 2022 served as the culmination of weeks or months of learning, training and playing. At Okmulgee Primary School in Oklahoma, counselor Dr. James Quinn used local donations and personal resources to introduce tennis to a new generation through a 10-week spring program.


“The outcome is that we have 30 kids who fell in love with tennis and have learned the basic skills to play the game,” Quinn said.

He noted the children benefited from increased physical activity, improved cooperation skills and a stronger understanding of and appreciation for rules. “Many of the students have improved behavior in the classroom as a result from participation in the tennis program, [and] improved their grades as well. ... We are hopefully expanding our program into a summer camp and a new program for our middle school.”


Some school-based programs started late last year. Leadership from the Suffern Central School District, the Rockland Community Tennis Association (RCTA) and representatives from USTA Eastern worked together to introduce the sport to more than half a dozen elementary schools in the area.


After learning more about the USTA’s efforts to support schools at a physical education conference, Suffern High School teacher Giancarlo Palumbo connected with the organization’s regional Community Tennis Coordinator, Natalie Dagnall, to apply for relevant grants and resources. Programs such as Tennis in Schools provided necessary equipment, lesson plans, and funding for tennis-focused gym classes. As the sport exploded in popularity among Suffern students, Dagnall encouraged expansion beyond the classroom. 


Palumbo coordinated with the school’s PTA, and the team soon enlisted RCTA co-founders and directors Dennis Zaide and J. Calungcagin to serve as head coaches. Over 50 student volunteers from the high school helped bring the project, which Palumbo affectionately refers to as the “Suffern Future Stars,” to life.  

Dennis Zaide with participants from RCTA's tennis program.

“It was the first after school program since the pandemic,” Palumbo said, adding the PTA wants to repeat the project this upcoming school year. 


In addition to the six elementary schools in Suffern, others in adjacent Orangeburg – where Zaide and Calungcagin have their own families – also started extracurricular tennis programs. Approximately 150 students participated at some point throughout the year.


READ MORE: Growing the Game in Rockland County

Zaide explained how the communities involved rallied behind the afterschool program: “You had our coaches from our CTA, who were loving every minute of each particular game to help the kids in the school. You had the PTA from the school, you had Giancarlo who was championing this, and you had all these principals who were super engaged.”  


In a May feature, the RCTA co-founder told USTA Eastern: “As long as the kids want to keep coming back, as long as the kids feel like they learned something, that means they were better than the day before.”


For National Tennis Month, Suffern High School hosted a family day that saw students and their loved ones compete against and alongside one another. Approximately 40 families attended. 


“The beauty of tennis is that it is such a fun family, community sport,” said Dagnall. “So when you have these events, you’ll find people sitting under the trees, watching. People coming up and giving it a go, grandparents thanking the grandchildren. Everybody was out there wearing their USTA hats, laughing and enjoying themselves, having the best time.”

Reflecting on the sport’s growing popularity, Dagnall referred to role models on the professional circuit from diverse backgrounds, as well as the health benefits involved. 


“When they get out on the court, people are realizing: ‘Yes, I can do this,’” she said. “Tennis is one of the healthiest sports to play today, from a heart and lung perspective – and also from a schooling perspective, it’s seen as one of the best sports for children to grow in terms of building resilience, collaboration, and a lot of other skills that make them do well in a school environment.”


Tennis has only strengthened the bond between Doris Short and her son, Jeremyah McDaniel – a rising senior at Mississippi’s Columbus High School in the USTA Southern District. Though McDaniel had tried other sports including track and boxing, tennis appealed to him most. 


“I’ve got a bunch of support behind me,” said McDaniel, who is considering becoming a tennis coach. “Just a real passion for the game … I would just say it was a love because, you know, I've always pretty much been playing tennis.”


“It’s not that he’s won every game that he’s been in,” Ms. Short said, describing a number of moments and matches that stood out as highlights. “He’s had his peaks and his valleys. But he plays from the heart when he’s out there, he really gives it his 100.” 


McDaniel, 17, originally got involved with the sport nearly a decade ago, inspired by a local news segment featuring Golden Triangle Tennis (GTT) Executive Director Vanita Phinisey. Phinisey picked up tennis around 2007 – and began working with junior players shortly afterward. 


“Just having seen it on TV and having been an athlete, I was easily able to pick up on [the rules],” Phinisey said. She was particularly inspired by Serena Williams: “I was thinking, ‘You know, that looks like a lot of fun.’ And I don't know why I didn't have it in high school, but, you know, I got out and I tried it and the rest is still the future. I would say history, but it's still the future.”


GTT – whose title refers to the cities of Columbus, Starkville and West Point – has hosted a number of National Junior and Tennis League (NJTL) events since its officiation in 2017. After receiving a two-year grant from the USTA Foundation in 2019, the organization graduated from the USTA NJTL Blueprint for Success program earlier this year, as reported by USTA Southern. (During the pandemic, GTT met regularly through video chat when in-person opportunities weren’t available, and coaches met with students for private sessions.) Over 500 children have been involved since the program’s inception.


READ MORE: NTM: Columbus, Miss., Hosts Battle of the States


Phinisey has primarily used GTT to focus on the community’s youth, steering children away from risky behaviors and instilling characteristics that aim to help them throughout their lives. According to the program’s website, the vision is “to make a positive impact in the classroom, in [students’] relations with others, in their nutritional habits, as well as on the court.”

But Phinisey also recognizes that kids benefit from parental involvement, and that tennis can be enjoyed at any age. “This area is kind of untapped, but definitely growing,” Phinisey said, mentioning that GTT has expanded into adult leagues and cardio tennis exercises. “People are learning more about the sport. And I do believe that has a lot to do with our organization, because we continue to grow each year.”


For National Tennis Month, GTT spearheaded its third-ever “Battle of the States” tournament from May 20 through the 22nd. Over 200 players and 21 teams from Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee competed, with juniors and adults able to team up.


There were plenty of memorable moments, especially in the team matches – which sometimes saw kids play adults in doubles. 

Golden Triangle Tennis spearheaded its third-ever "Battle of the States" tournament in May.

“I had a junior player participating, but we were short a female,” Phinisey said. “We had in the rules that if you're short, you can grab any of our ball kids to play your match. So one of the [ball] kids got to team up with the other junior player, and they won. The adults were like: ‘Did we get beat by two juniors?’ [I said,] ‘Yeah, but remember, I was going to give you that junior if you were short.’” 


For McDaniel, who had advanced to the tournament’s finals, the experience was rewarding. “I got a chance to meet a lot of people from different places, you know, and we all had the same love for the game. So it was a fun time, and competitive as well.”


The 17-year-old has advice for other kids interested in tennis. 

“Give it a chance,” McDaniel said. “It’s a fun sport, it’s very competitive, and a great way of keeping in shape. It’s not as harsh on the body as football or any contact sport, just have fun without the risk of getting hurt.” 


He paused, and added: “You have to be focused and very patient.”


His mother chimed in, sharing a piece of wisdom that extends beyond tennis. “That’s the most important thing: To be able to steady your opponent and beat them at their own game.” 

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