NJTL 50 for 50:
Arthur Kapetanakis | April 30, 2019
As the USTA Foundation celebrates the 50th anniversary of the National Junior Tennis & Learning network, USTA.com looks at 50 NJTL leaders and alumni who helped shape this incredible community dedicated to helping youth strive for academic and athletic excellence on the tennis court, in the classroom and in life.
In this installment, we catch up with Chris Beck, a former nationally ranked tennis player and an early NJTL leader. Along with her husband, Leif, she founded an NJTL chapter in Philadephia in 1970—one of the very first NJTL programs in the country. A good friend of Arthur Ashe, Chris also chaired the NJTL national nonprofit before its merger with the USTA. She remains involved in tennis and education today.
The Chris Beck File
Name: Chris Beck
NJTL Chapter: Philadephia NJTL, Legacy Youth Tennis and Learning, NJTL national
Role with NJTL: Philadephia NJTL founder (with husband Leif), former NJTL national nonprofit chair
Year became active in NJTL: 1970
How did you first come to be involved with NJTL?
Chris Beck: My husband Leif and I were both nationally ranked tennis players back in the amateur days.
There’s always been a feeling to give back, so when we heard about National Junior Tennis League, which it was then, we thought, “Oh, let’s try this in Philadelphia.”
And we knew Arthur [Ashe] very well, and Charlie [Pasarell], from years of participation.
So we started in Philadelphia on four courts with volunteer coaches. And then as it grew and it became known that it was a successful approach, the city of Philadelphia's recreation department began to hire lots of tennis coaches. So it grew and grew and grew.
It was not a very happy neighborhood. Gangs were still very visible in the Philadelphia inner city.
One of the earliest things they learned, which was fun, was in match competition. They had to call the lines right. They were very accustomed to calling lines wrong and getting another point for themselves. So that was a great lesson, in terms of sportsmanship, and they all learned, which is wonderful.
There are so many benefits from participating in an individual sport: self-esteem, self-confidence, how to win and lose graciously, and being exposed to kids from other neighborhoods, which the team play certainly gave the opportunity for that.
I’ve spoken with Billie Jean [King] a couple times about this, because she loved NJTL and remembers the team competition that was initially an important part of it. And now, with her World TeamTennis, it makes sense.
How has the program, and your role in it, changed since you started in 1970?
Chris Beck: I’ve been involved all the way along. Certainly National Junior Tennis League became National Junior Tennis and Learning, and we really had very early on a learning component in the indoor building, which Arthur generously gave his name to: the Arthur Ashe Youth Tennis and Education Center.
What appealed to him about the center was that only kids could play there—no adults were allowed to play there. There were only five indoor courts. He always said, “The more the better. Keep doing what you’re doing, more.”
And so we built a bigger indoor-outdoor center, and now that’s become Legacy Youth Tennis and Education. It’s multipurpose, more focused on tennis players but also with community programs and education.
And in the building there’s still the Arthur Ashe Library—so a strong focus on awareness for kids, giving them the opportunity to see beyond themselves, to see beyond their playground, their neighborhood, which always was an important piece.
And then for a while it became a national organization, and for six years, I was chair of the NJTL national nonprofit before the merger with the USTA. And then Donna Fales took over for me at the NJTL national organization, which was one step at a time.
And then it grew and grew and grew, which is great.
Are there any particular success stories or highlights that stand out through your time with NJTL?
Chris Beck: To be nonspecific, so many of the young people went on to college and got tennis scholarships. And, of course, one of the most important things, when Arthur would come for our annual benefit, he would say, “Well, how are the kids doing in school? Sure, how are they doing on the tennis courts, but how are they doing in school?”
And that became very important, and a focus.
Last week we had an annual benefit for Legacy Youth Tennis and Education, and D.A. Abrams got an award. It was like a reunion for us; it was so much fun. Michael Kennedy works for USTA Middle States, and Greg Williams is a very successful pro at one of the big tennis clubs in this area.
And then the senior director of community programs at the Legacy Youth Tennis and Education is Derrick Billups, who grew up in just about our first year of NJTL in Philadelphia, at one of the playgrounds which was next to a housing project. So he’s made his way, and he’s doing great.
There’s all kinds of success stories, which is fun to see, and it’s all because of exposure and people caring.
Arthur Ashe clearly has his fingerprints throughout the NJTL network. Can you tell me about your relationship with him personally?
Chris Beck: Arthur was a good friend, and that goes way back. He and I have exactly the same birthday, and we played in the juniors together.
That’s where my eyes were really opened to racism, because he wasn’t able to use the locker room, he and these other kids who came up from St. Louis. And I said, “What in the world?” This was my first exposure to such things.
Later I told him that story, and he just chuckled. Typical Arthur.
We became very close friends because of working with kids and giving kids opportunities through tennis, using tennis as a hook to open doors for them and help them improve their futures.
And so that common mission, that common cause, brought us together over all these developments with NJTL. Many meetings in New York, many get-togethers, phone calls here and there.
Yeah, he’s just a good friend.
Photo (l to r): Arthur Ashe, Chris Beck and NJTL alum D.A. Abrams.