Tennis activist wants city kids to raise a racket JTC


December 13, 1990|By MIKE LITTWIN

The picture on the cover of the magazine was unremarkable, a kid playing tennis on a court in a park. But it was a black kid, in dreadlocks, looking for all the world like a miniature Yannick Noah, playing tennis at Druid Hill Park, where the courts were not always open to blacks. That changed a long time ago, of course.

In today's world, the doors slam shut instead at the country clubs and the tennis clubs where most Americans learn the game. And so, blacks play basketball, and whites -- or, at least, upper-middle-class whites -- play tennis, and that's supposed to be just fine.

Except there are people like Pat Thompson who don't see it that way. Thompson believes everyone should play tennis. And she doesn't simply believe it, she does something about it. If you see a kid playing tennis anywhere in the city of Baltimore, he or she probably owes some small debt to Thompson.

Thompson is the prime local mover in what is called the National Junior Tennis League, which is part of the United States Tennis Association -- maybe the best part. The NJTL was founded by Arthur Ashe and others in 1968 to present tennis to those who would play it on public courts, the way Ashe did on the way to becoming a champion. This program isn't designed to produce champions, only tennis players.

In Baltimore, that's what Thompson is working to do -- to make tennis available to everyone.

"The idea is to establish programs," she says, "where an urban kid, a middle-class kid, any kind of kid could develop tennis skills. We want to introduce tennis to people who might never have considered taking up the sport."

She's talking about white kids, black kids, rich kids, poor kids. Any kind of kid. That's the idea, that tennis doesn't belong to one group or another.

And so, in 1982, Thompson founded, and still directs, the local NJTL program, which is neighborhood-based in as many as 10 locations and which reached last summer about 430 youngsters, who, for a $10 fee, got a T-shirt, a trip to a pro tournament in Washington, a place to play, instructors to learn from and even prizes to win. It's a huge success, attracting every kind of kid from every part of the Baltimore area.

That might have been enough. But in 1988, she helped develop, and still directs, the after-school, short-court intramural program wherein youngsters at schools and rec sites play tennis of a kind. The short courts are two-thirds normal size and can be set up indoors in gymnasiums, usually about three to a gym. The kids play with oversized rackets and a Nerf-type tennis ball. About 300 kids at about 15 locations are now involved, and the program is growing.

There is also a training center for developing those who may become future champions. Thompson is the coordinator. She also coordinates a pilot adult program.

And when she isn't developing, coordinating or working at her real job -- as a speech pathologist in the Baltimore school system -- she's out begging for money to make the programs work.

"There are budget problems," she says, laughing. "Money is always a problem. But my goal is to make these programs work. I'm trying to make that happen. I'm going to make that happen."

Thompson is sitting in a room at Sarah Roach Elementary School, one of the two schools at which she teaches. A youngster has just asked her about the short-court program. At her school, it's so popular they actually have to turn kids away. Thompson is the kind of person we've all met and admired, the kind who can do 12 things at once and do them all efficiently and enthusiastically and make you feel guilty for being one of the observers in life instead of one of the doers. She's definitely one of the doers.

She came to tennis early. Her mother played it. Her sister was the first black state champion. They belonged to the American Tennis Association, which was the black equivalent of the U.S. Tennis Association when the sport was more formally segregated. Tennis is a huge part of her life, and one of the parts that she is eager to share.

"Tennis is not a 'rush' sport," Thompson explains. "It's a sport that makes you look inward. It's a mind game as well as a physical game, and being an individual sport, it helps make you self-reliant. It teaches patience. It teaches you to take time with yourself. It's a sport that can be valuable to anyone who takes it up."

Not that there aren't roadblocks. She has to persuade coaches to come forward, talk clubs into providing facilities, ask businessmen and city officials for money. And, then she has to talk neighborhood leaders into setting up summer programs and principals into taking on short-court programs.

"I go to some areas, and they say, 'That's a white sport. We play basketball here.' " she says. "Last summer, we got 110 kids out in East Baltimore, where they have very few courts. I was totally thrilled."

She was thrilled, too. That's what you like about Thompson. For her enthusiasm, and for her success, the USTA made Thompson one of six recipients nationwide of its Community Service Award last month.

"I know why they gave it to me," she says. "They figured I've been doing this for eight years and was pretty close to burnout time, and if they gave me the award, they'd get another five years out of me."

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