Making tennis open to all

Service: The Howard County Tennis Association provides access to instruction, court time.

Howard At Play

July 14, 2002|By Nathan Max | Nathan Max,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

AS A YOUNGSTER, CHIU — Long before University of Maryland senior Chris Chiu was slamming forehands and ripping aces for the Terrapins' men's tennis team, he had an interesting training ground.

As a youngster, Chiu -- a Columbia native, now 20, who played No. 1 singles for the Terps as a sophomore and No. 2 singles as a junior -- used his driveway for a court and his father as coach. At the time, options were limited for a young child or beginner in Howard County to get started.

Today, things for county residents outside of Columbia-oriented programs run at the Columbia Association's two tennis clubs are changing because of work by four men who founded the Howard County Tennis Association in 1996.

For six years, Bob Weiss of Clarksville, Ken Knouse and Peter Finck of Ellicott City and Chris's father, Harry Chiu, have built from scratch an organization that focuses on making tennis more accessible to children throughout the county who lack access to instruction at privately owned courts.

For their effort, the HCTA won the U.S. Tennis Association's Mid-Atlantic Section Youth Development Award in 1997 and most recently was recognized as the 2001 USTA/Maryland District Organization of the Year.

"When Chris was growing up, there was no place to go," said HCTA Vice President Harry Chiu. "So I would hit with him. We'd go to Circle D Tennis Club [in Woodbine] or all the way up to Baltimore. It just wasn't convenient to do that.

"In the winter, it was a real pain. That was one of the motivations for setting up something."

Since its founding, the HCTA has run an outdoor junior program in the fall and spring for kids 6 to 14 years old, using courts at four sites: River Hill, Mount Hebron, Long Reach and Hammond high schools.

The program, which has expanded from 50 kids in the first year to more than 300 in the past 12 months, soon will include a fifth site, Reservoir High School.

The five-week program breaks down to an average cost of between $5 to $8 an hour, depending on whether the student plays one hour, three hours or seven hours a week.

"Our objective was to cater to the kids," said Knouse, HCTA's treasurer. "Over 80 percent of the kids who participate in this program have never picked up a racket. So our instruction is at the basic, grass-roots level. Our instructors teach them the basics, and through the perseverance of the instructors, a lot of these kids have come a long way.

"Now, the biggest obstacle for the development of county tennis hopefuls is limited access to local indoor facilities."

Weiss, HCTA's president, said the organization's long-term objective is to get a public indoor tennis facility built in the county. Currently, all the indoor facilities in the county are privately owned and tend to rent space mostly to adults.

"My position is, an indoor facility will pay for itself," Weiss said. "It's something we really believe, that until we get [an indoor facility], you're not going to be able to provide year-round access."

But he pointed out, "It's hard to develop yourself without playing year-round, and driving to Baltimore and Washington with the traffic and all isn't realistic anymore."

Most of the county's top junior talent trains at several locations in Montgomery County, in Baltimore County or at the College Park tennis complex in Prince George's County.

For example, Chris Chiu and nationally ranked Clarksville resident Danny Babkes, who attends River Hill High, trained under the tutelage of Montgomery County teaching pro Nancy Ornstein, who operates out of Olney Manor Regional Park.

Howard County's top female, Glenelg junior Marianne Baker, also trains outside of Howard. Baker, a two-time Maryland state high school champion, is nationally ranked and has never lost a set in a high school match.

"What the county really needs are some public indoor courts," Harry Chiu said. "It's really tough if you want to play at a high sectional or national level. A lot of pros don't teach in Howard County, and all the USTA Training Centers are located in Montgomery County and in Baltimore."

HCTA's dedication to junior tennis reaches farther. Each year, the organization awards two $1,000 college scholarships, and since 1997, it has staged the county's largest junior tournament.

Tomorrow morning, the 21st Columbia Junior Open begins at Wilde Lake Tennis Club, which is owned by the private Columbia Association. It will draw top-flight competition from all over the mid-Atlantic (Maryland, Virginia, Washington and the eastern portion of West Virginia).

The tournament will have eight flights, from boys and girls 12-and-under divisions through the 18-and-under age groups.

Over the past five years, the tournament has averaged approximately 150 players, said Knouse, this year's tournament referee. This year, 25 percent of that field will come from Howard County, he said. But if HCTA continues on its current course, that number seems certain to increase.

"If you provide the programs, people will come," Weiss said. "Columbia used to be a hot bed for tennis. When you put a facility there, it will draw the teachers [who] want to teach and develop the game the way it needs to be developed."

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