The NJTL Network:
50 Years of Learning & Legacy
Erin Maher | March 25, 2019
In 1968, as the world saw significant political, social and scientific transformations, the world of tennis also saw major change. That year, the amateur players who filled the tournament's top draws began to share the spotlight with professionals, ushering in the "Open" era of tennis. It was also the year that three men, prominent figures on both the tennis court and in the tennis community, founded the National Junior Tennis and Learning (NJTL) network, transforming the lives of hundreds of thousands of youth for years to come.
In August 1968, the first US Open (formerly known as the U.S. National Championships) took place at the Westside Tennis Club in Forest Hills, N.Y. While players competed at the year’s final Grand Slam, Arthur Ashe, Charlie Pasarell and Sheridan Snyder got together to take in the afternoon action over lunch.ADVERTISEMENT
Ashe, a native of Richmond, Va., picked up tennis at age 7, playing on public courts only steps away from his home. In 1959, he made his major tournament debut at the U.S. Nationals and, in 1962, attended UCLA, where he earned a scholarship to play tennis for the men’s varsity team.
At UCLA, Ashe roomed with Pasarell, another player on the men’s team, who hailed from Puerto Rico and had been a star on the junior circuit, amassing titles at some of the world’s most prestigious junior events, including the Orange Bowl and the U.S. Junior Championships.
Together, the two made their mark on collegiate tennis. In 1963, both earned All-America honors for the first time. Ashe went on to win both the NCAA Division I singles and doubles championships in 1965, and Pasarell took both titles the following year. Both went on to have highly successful careers on the pro tour, as well.
Snyder also played collegiate tennis and was a star player on the University of Virginia men’s team from 1955-58, playing No. 1 singles for three seasons and No. 1 doubles all four years as a Cavalier. Unlike Ashe and Pasarell, Snyder did not go on to play professionally, but he remained active in the tennis community, running tour-level tennis tournaments after graduating, including the Nassau Bowl Tennis Tournament, a grass-court event in Glen Cove, N.Y. It was there, in 1962, that Snyder, Pasarell and Ashe met and developed a friendship.
Pasarell and Ashe were in New York in 1968 to compete at the inaugural US Open. Ashe was seeded fifth in the tournament; Pasarell, No. 12. Snyder, who had become a successful businessman and created new start-up companies, was employed at the event, charged with raising prize money for the now "Open" tournament. He was involved with the conception of the "US Open Club," a restaurant located under the main stadium that allowed diners to watch the center-court action through one-way glass.
As the men took in the tennis at the US Open Club, Ashe and Pasarell proposed an idea for Snyder to develop: getting more children to play tennis.
"They had an interesting challenge for me," Snyder said. "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?’"
Later that week, Ashe left an indelible mark in the game of tennis forever, taking the title in Forest Hills. In doing so, he became the first African-American male to win the US Open. After the Open, Ashe and Pasarell continued competing on tour, while Snyder contemplated the directive left to him.
In June 1969, less than a year after the three had lunch and Ashe took home the US Open trophy, Snyder had an answer to Ashe and Pasarell's call to action.
"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 8 and 18?’"
Snyder set off to test his conceptualized youth tennis program. Living in Connecticut at the time, he loaded 200 used racquets into his car and headed to the Harlem River Park public tennis courts on 186th Street and Amsterdam Avenue in New York City. To promote the program, Snyder contacted a local Harlem preacher, who encouraged children to attend and was vital to gaining traction for the fledgling program.
Snyder hosted 25 boys and girls at his first session. The on-court action was a success, but off the court, there were a few bumps that he had to overcome.
"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 them to get some interest, and all of a sudden, I found out I was having my tires stolen on my Firebird," recalled Snyder.
"And so I learned the hard way that Harlem could be a tough place. I returned to that same 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.’"
With tires intact and kids on the court, Snyder tailored his new-found program to make tennis easier and more appealing to the children. Instead of the traditional scoring method (Love-40, 30-15), he created a more natural system for the kids to pick up: 1 to 15 points for young players, 1 to 21 for the older participants, with service changes after every five points. Snyder also brightened up the strictly traditional all-white tennis attire.
"In my day of growing up, and certainly for many years, tennis was a wealthy-man's game played on grass with white clothing. You had to have white pants and a white shirt and all that stuff," said Snyder. “I knew that wasn't going to work. So I decided that we were going to have colorful uniforms that they [the kids] could relate to, like basketball players and football players, and not have to feel they had to wear all white."
With adaptations to the game and equipment in hand, Snyder found success in his pilot tennis program.
"I wasn't sure if the program would work or not because the kids in that area [Harlem] weren't really involved in tennis at all. They didn't know it,” he said. “And to my surprise and elation, they were very excited about it."
Snyder was interested in establishing NJTLs at multiple sites and leveraged the many contacts he had made in the world of tennis over the years to start building the program, including hiring Gene Scott, a New York City-based tennis promoter and player agent. The first four programs were launched in public parks in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Stamford, Conn., and New York City.
With the early success of Snyder's new program, he returned to Ashe and Pasarell with a proposition for them.
"When Charlie and Arthur challenged me to find a program for kids, I said, ‘OK, 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,'” Snyder said. “And they did. They were a part of NJTL and spoke for it. They spoke to it everywhere they were in tennis. They have been a tremendous part in the growth of this sport."
With each tournament they played, Ashe and Pasarell spread the word about NJTL, and with each passing year, the program expanded, thanks to dedicated individuals across the country who shared Ashe, Pasarell and Snyder's vision.
One such dedicated individual, Barbara Wynne, had already been running a similar youth tennis program in Indianapolis for a few years called “Riverside Upswing.” Wynne, a long-time tennis-player-turned-teacher, met Ashe, who not only had a tremendous impact on her life but on her youth tennis program, as well.
"We met Arthur in Chicago in, I think it was 1970," recalled Wynne. "He'd already started [NJTL] in New York, and I went there and decided that whatever he was doing, I would support. I really admired him, and to this day, I dedicate everything of my tennis work to the late Arthur Ashe. So that's how I got an NJTL started. We were on court before the program, NJTL, happened, but I couldn't imagine a better group to emulate and become more like than theirs."
Lewis "Skip" Hartman was a tennis club owner and developer in New York City in the 1970s. As Hartman began to establish his tennis business, he was approached by an associate of Scott's who was interested in further expanding NJTL’s reach in the city. Hartman persuaded the New York City Parks Department to transform public park tennis courts into usable facilities in the winter time. The concept of a youth program based in public parks was enticing to Hartman.
"Since my business was based on using public park property," Hartman said, "I thought it wouldn't be a bad idea to do something for the community. It seemed like it would be good business to have some good community relations."
Hartman took the NJTL programming, which had a minimum requirement to offer the program at least three hours a day, three days a week for six weeks, and sponsored his program at his first indoor club in the Bronx. He continued to offer it at every club he opened thereafter for free or a nominal price.
Hartman grew the program from four parks in 1970 and 1971, to 55 parks and six public-school sites throughout the five boroughs of New York by 1975. Today, his original NJTL, now called New York Junior Tennis & Learning (NYJTL), is the largest nonprofit youth tennis and education program in the nation, serving 85,000 K-12 New York City youth per year.
"I've promoted it [NJTL], and I've gone along with it—we all have—because Arthur was such a transcendental person and such a fine person, and he loved the program," said Hartman.
"To tell you the truth, when I would tell people for the many years I've been doing this, when I talk to someone about NJTL and try and explain what it was, all I have to do is say that it was co-founded by Arthur Ashe, and right away, they have a sense of what it was."
By 1971, 50 chapters of NJTL had been established throughout the U.S., reaching over 25,000 youth annually in public parks. The first eight years of the program saw great expansion and evolution. The mission of NJTL went from attracting more children to the game of tennis to opening opportunities for low-income, mostly black and Hispanic young people through the sport of tennis. The mission also grew to include the development of character and instilling the values of leadership and academic excellence in its participants.
In 1984, NJTL had grown to 100 chapters and programs nationwide, reaching 100,000 youth, and moved under the legal control of the USTA. Supported by the USTA Foundation, the NJTL curricula expanded from on-court tennis drills, to academic-focused programs and more. Expanded initiatives for NJTL saw the creation of scholarships available to participants, Excellence teams, an ACE curriculum, an annual USTA Arthur Ashe Essay Contest and Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day at the US Open.
Throughout the years, NJTL has produced notable alumni, including former Top-5 player James Blake, who played at the Harlem Junior and Tennis Education program in New York City; current world No. 34 Frances Tiafoe, who played at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in Maryland; and Serena and Venus Williams, who learned the game on public courts in Compton, Calif., with the LA84 NJTL program.
Former professional tennis player Rodney Harmon also learned tennis through NJTL. He went on to become a former Top 60 player, a US Open quarterfinalist and an NCAA Division I college coach.
“My experience with NJTL was the catalyst for me to become involved in tennis,” said Harmon, who is now the head women’s tennis coach at Georgia Tech University. “I loved playing our local NJTL matches and enjoyed our appearance at the NJTL National Championships.
“For me, NJTL was so important, as Arthur Ashe helped start the program, and he is from my hometown. His dad worked at the park where I grew up, so the shadow and influence of Arthur was always around. I feel so lucky to have been playing during the '70s, when tennis was so popular, Arthur Ashe was on the tour and there were so many adults and children playing tennis at my home park—Battery Park—which is now named the Arthur Ashe Tennis Center.”
The impact of NJTL has permeated to the larger tennis community. David Dinkins, who served as mayor of New York City from 1990-93, experienced first-hand how important the program is to kids. After befriending Ashe and learning more about the program from him, Dinkins became involved with NJTL, even hosting a dinner for NJTL essay contest winners at his home.
“He was just a great guy,” Dinkins said of Ashe. “I remember speaking at one of his memorials and saying, ‘He was a credit to his race: the human race.’”
For 50 years, NJTL has reached out to kids who may not otherwise have had the opportunity to play tennis and instilled the values of leadership and academic excellence in them. And it all started with an idea that three men discussed at a lunch meeting a half century ago at the US Open.
Ashe once said, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”
He, Pasarell and Snyder heeded those very words in founding NJTL, which today features a robust 300 chapters around the country that reaches 180,000 youth per year.
Fifty years have come and gone, but what will forever remain are the magic, memories and moments that NJTL has created and will continue to create for hundreds of thousands of youth for years to come.
In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the NJTL network, the USTA Foundation will launch a series of stories titled “50 for 50,” highlighting a combination of 50 NJTL participants, leaders, pioneers and alumni. These captivating stories will shed light on the positive impact their programs have had on their lives and will be featured on USTA.com and ustafoundation.com, as well as USTA and US Open social media channels using #NJTL50.