NJTL 50 for 50:
Erin Maher | May 10, 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 NJTL co-founder Sheridan Snyder. In 1969, Snyder joined tennis players Arthur Ashe and Charlie Pasarell at the US Open, where the three men conceived the idea of the NJTL. Soon thereafter, thanks to Sheridan's business savvy and persistance, the first NJTL clinic was held at the Harlem River Playground tennis facility. Today, there are more than 300 chapters across the country.
The Sheridan Snyder File
Name: Sheridan Snyder
NJTL Chapter: National
Role with NJTL: Co-founder
Year became active in NJTL: 1969
How did you become one of the co-founders of the NJTL?
Sheridan Snyder: I was watching one of the first matches at the new US Open tennis at Forest Hills, and I was with Arthur Ashe and Charlie Pasarell as a former roommate. And so they had an interesting challenge to me. They said, "Sherry, you developed a lot of new companies and new products through your business activities. Why don't you try creating something new for people?"
And I said, "Well you know, that's a ... probably would be a good suggestion. I'll have to think on that." And so I thought, "Gee, wouldn't it be good if we could use all these public tennis courts to create a bunch of new tennis players throughout the country by putting together a program that was geared for youngsters between the ages of eight and 18?"
And so I created this format of National Junior Tennis League, which is for the novices but it was a competitive program, which the kids like, rather than an instructional program. They enjoy much more a competitive program, much like Little League Baseball.
And so I tested out the format. I believe the year was 1969, at the then courts in Harlem River Playground, which is located at 186th Street and Amsterdam Avenue in New York.
How did that first lesson go?
Sheridan Snyder: It's sort of a funny experience that I had. I had a Pontiac Firebird. It was my favorite car, and I drove it down to Harlem to get the kids going and get the racquets distributed around the kids to get some interest, and all of a sudden, I found out I was having the tires stolen on my Firebird. And so I learned the hard way that Harlem could be a tough place.
Someone suggested I go to the local preacher at the church down there, and I said, "I'd love to keep doing this for the kids, but if I keep losing my tires, I'm not going to be able to afford to do it." And so he got the word out quickly to stop stealing those tires if you want to play tennis.
How did that first year go?
Sheridan Snyder: It went extremely well. Frankly, I was living in Connecticut at the time, and I bought 200 used racquets and brought them down to the playground in Harlem to see if kids were interested in coming and playing tennis. So I wasn't sure if it would work or not because the kids in that area weren't really involved in tennis at all. They didn't know it. To my surprise and elation, they were very excited about it.
I just created a program where, instead of normal scoring of tennis of Love-15 and Love-30 and all that, we switched. We had a scoring system of one to 15 for the young players, changing serve on every five points, and one to 21 for the kids up to 18, so it would be easy for them to keep score. And then we set it up into teams, and we brought the young girls into it and the young boys.
Then I contacted people in my tennis world who I had known well in college and were playing tennis on the tour and were in various parts of the country, and I said, "I started this program in New York, and it's going well. You want to try it?"
One of the first programs, other than New York, was Washington, D.C., and then Philadelphia came on. Philadelphia now has a program of its own that has 10,000 kids in it at an indoor tennis facility. And now it's all over the country. The USTA has a number—I think it's in 300 some-odd communities and cities.
So while you were on the tennis court getting the program off the ground, how did Charlie and Arthur contribute to NJTL?
Sheridan Snyder: They were really the voice here. When Charlie and Arthur challenged me to find a program for kids, I said, "Okay, guys. I've done what you told me to do, now you gotta help me. You gotta get up here and promote NJTL for the kids of color and the Hispanic kids because that's the new population we're going after."
And they did. They were part of NJTL and spoke for it. They spoke to it everywhere they were in tennis. So they've been a tremendous part in the growth of the sport over the years.
How does it feel to be one of the co-founders of a program and an organization that has impacted so many?
Sheridan Snyder: Well, obviously, I feel wonderful because I got to see the impact it could have with kids.
Pictured above: (l to r) Sheridan Snyder, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe and Charlie Pasarell