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Growing the Game's Grass Roots

September 29, 2010 11:28 AM
By Jonathan Whitbourne
Last year, the USTA awarded more than half a million dollars in recreational grants to individuals and organizations committed to strengthening the grass-roots game.
Here we spotlight four of those success stories:
Brewster, Massachusetts
Brewster is a small town with a big passion for tennis. But for several years, its racquet-wielding residents didn’t have a proper place to play. That’s all changed, however, and now Brewster is home to an innovative complex that might set the standard for all future public tennis facilities.
It all began a few years ago when several senior players approached Brewster Parks and Recreation Director Wendy Allegrone with concerns over the town’s existing tennis courts. They had a point: The Nickerson Tennis Courts, tucked behind the Brewster firehouse, were dilapidated and in urgent need of repair. In fact, some of the courts were no longer playable.
"The courts were in really bad shape," recalls Allegrone. "The town considered fixing them, but it would’ve cost $100,000, maybe more. Instead, a decision was made to start from scratch and build new courts elsewhere."
Unfortunately, this ambitious plan came with a hefty price tag—$600,000, to be exact. And while the town did have money earmarked for civic improvements, the slumping economy kept it from being able to foot the entire bill. Allegrone and her team turned to the USTA for help and were later awarded a $40,000 USTA Facility Assistance Grant. In addition to money, the USTA also provided an architect who helped design the courts.
"The USTA was huge in helping us, especially when it came to conceiving a workable layout for the courts," Allegrone says. "The land chosen for the courts was small (5 acres) and awkwardly shaped. The USTA suggested instead of building 6 [regulation-sized] courts, we build four [regulation-sized] courts and four QuickStart courts. It was a brilliant idea!"
Today, the new Brewster Community Tennis Courts, which opened in May, are teeming with players of all ages and abilities. The QuickStart courts are particularly popular, especially during the summer months when junior tennis programming is at its peak. And of course, the senior players couldn’t be happier with the new facility, for which they’d lobbied for so hard.
"It’s just so cool seeing generations of people enjoying the courts," says Allegrone. "We’re seeing more people out here every day—kids, parents, grandparents, everyone. Brewster is officially now a tennis town!"
Minneapolis, Minnesota
What do iconic cartoonist Charles Schultz, pop star Prince, and spectacular public tennis courts have in common? They all call Minneapolis home.
The latter comes courtesy of Support the Courts, an all-volunteer group dedicated to rebuilding tennis courts in Minneapolis public parks, especially those offering free or low-cost youth programming. Formed in 2004, Support the Courts has raised more than $1 million dollars and rebuilt a total of 20 tennis courts in four public parks. Impressive yes, but Support the Courts Founder and President Ellen Doll is quick to point out that her group isn’t done yet.
"We’re currently working on another site, and plans are underway to take on a second," says Doll. "Sadly, Minneapolis has several public courts that are in pretty terrible shape, which reflects poorly on the neighborhood. But we’re doing everything we can to fix this problem."
To do this, Support the Courts needs money. Lots of it. Fortunately, the group is adept at both fundraising and lobbying local officials for additional revenue. Support the Courts has also reached out to the USTA, which has awarded the intrepid organization a total of $84,000 (a $55,000 Tennis in the Parks grant, a $12,000 USTA Public Facility Assistance, a $10,000 Adopt a Court grant, and a $7,000 Public Facility Funding Grant from the USTA Northern Section). The money, says Doll, was used to help construct all 20 courts—including installing net posts, nets, windscreens, and other essential amenities.
Best of all, the courts are open to the public, free, and host to InnerCity Tennis, a not-for-profi t organization that uses tennis to teach more than 2,000 urban youths every year the importance of character, self-esteem, and sportsmanship. The six-week program (fi ve days a week) costs just $60 and is free for those who can’t afford the fee. Entering its 58th year, InnerCity Tennis has seen its enrollment surge thanks to the increasing availability of more public courts.
"Everyone involved with Support the Courts loves tennis, but I think we’re equally excited about how rebuilding these city courts gives kids, especially underprivileged ones, a place to meet and learn important life lessons through tennis," says Doll. "These are more than just tennis courts; they’re a place of learning and something the community can be proud of."
Sweet Home, Oregon
Broken romances, hardened outlaws, and trusty horses have long been staples of country music. But now cowboy crooners can add another subject to their songbook: tennis.
It all began in the fall of 2007 when the Sweet Home Economic Development Group (SHEDG), operators of an annual country music festival called the Oregon Jamboree, approached the Sweet Home School District with an interesting offer: Relocate the school’s six tennis courts so the Jamboree could use the land for camping and entertainment facilities. To sweeten the deal, SHEDG promised to match any money (up to $75,000) raised by the school to build the courts elsewhere.
"To be honest, the old courts were nearing their expiration date anyway," recalls Larry Horton, superintendent of Sweet Home schools. "Two of the seven had already been condemned by the insurance company, and the other five were in need of major repairs."
Help came from the USTA, which in 2009 awarded Sweet Home a $40,000 Public Facility Assistance grant. This type of grant, according to the USTA, is "intended to have a major impact on the growth of tennis in a community and the clients served by that organization." Sweet Home also received money from a Seattle-based charity, the Charlotte Martin Foundation ($20,000), the USTA Pacifi c Northwest Section ($5,000), and multiple private donors, which pushed the fundraising total to $75,000—the maximum SHEDG would match.
Construction of the four new courts began in August 2009 and was completed two months later. As a nod to the USTA, the Sweet Home Courts were painted US Open Blue, the same color as the courts at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York. The new courts have done much to spur local interest in tennis. But, as Horton will tell you, Sweet Home still has a ways to go before it can be dubbed a tennis hotbed.
"We haven’t had a high school tennis team in over 25 years, so obviously tennis isn’t the dominant sport in the town right now. But the new courts and some passionate people here are working to change that."
Arlington, Virginia
When Eric Legg attended a recent National Recreation and Parks Association conference, he learned something that made him mad—very mad. According to a USTA "attitudinal study," which measured people’s perceptions of tennis, kids said they "play"’ baseball, soccer, and basketball, but they "take tennis lessons."
"Too often, kids see tennis as a sport you learn, not one you play," says Legg, the sports programmer for the Arlington Parks and Recreation Department. "Think about it: When you sign up for Little League Baseball, you sign up for games—not throwing, fielding, and batting lessons. But with tennis, kids are drilled to death."
Legg reached out to the USTA and connected with Marikate Murren, the national manager of USTA Jr. Team Tennis. She encouraged Legg to start a USTA Jr. Team Tennis program where kids ages 8 to 18 play with their friends and compete in matches right away. The youngest participants (8-and-under and 10-and-under) learn the game through the QuickStart Tennis play format. With this format, everything—the racquet, the court, the ball—has been scaled down to suit the age and ability of the child. These modifications make striking the ball easier, leading to sustained rallies and lots of fun.
Legg loved the idea of bringing USTA Jr. Team Tennis to the Arlington parks but needed help with the launch. The USTA got the ball rolling by providing marketing, training, and equipment support. This included 18,000 promotional flyers (designed by the USTA and printed by Legg’s team), a Jr. Team Tennis/QuickStart television commercial, and QuickStart equipment (such as age-appropriate racquets, nets, low-compression balls, and training manuals). The USTA also arranged a three-hour on-court training session for park staffers and volunteers who agreed to coach the teams.
More than 100 kids signed up last year for Arlington’s inaugural season of Jr. Team Tennis, and Legg estimates participation numbers will increase by 30 to 50 percent this year. The program’s overwhelming success, says Legg, is a testament to the power of positive thinking and a collaborate spirit.
"The support we got from the USTA—both at the national and local level—was invaluable," says Legg. "It gave us the push to get things moving, to build momentum, and be successful."


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