Leaders of a Baltimore summer camp are hoping to inspire African-American children to broaden their sports horizons beyond basketball.

Seeking a love match between kids, tennis

August 11, 2005|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,SUN STAFF

As young men on blacktops throughout the city dribble and dunk with aspirations of becoming the next LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony, other city youths are spending their summer serving and slicing, in hopes of becoming the next James Blake or Serena Williams.

On one side of the Druid Hill Park tennis courts, tournament team members play crisp, organized games. On the other, younger children bash balls over the fence at each other as 6-year-old Nikolas Davis runs toward a group of chatting girls, who scatter screaming at the sight of a boy about to intrude on their conversation.

It's director David I. Owens' hope that these opportunities - whether traveling to a tournament or messing around with friends - can help Baltimore children realize their potential in tennis and beyond. The seven-week All-Star Tennis Academy camp, for children ages 4 to 18, wraps up its 10th year this week and its first as a city program.

"Based on our society today, the predominant sport in the African-American community is basketball, followed by football, and then everything else," says Owens. "In memory of Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson, this camp is about getting tennis out of the clubs and to urban America."

But during a recent afternoon at the camp, the biggest problem facing assistant director Jason Gant isn't teaching a backhand or how to execute a perfect overhand serve. It's the sobbing 8-year-old standing alone and defeated in front of him.

"A knucklehead lost my lunch, and now it's gone!" wails Jade Jackson, before Gant locates it resting against a fence.

"She's freaking out, and it's right there!" says Gant, a former camper himself and now a 20-year-old senior at the University of Maryland, College Park.

While the All-Star Tennis Academy is hoping to groom tennis' next great players, it is, after all, still a camp.

And at camp, it's all downhill after lunchtime, as the kids get restless knowing they have only a few hours until their parents come to pick them up.

The girls braid one another's hair. The boys organize - or try to organize - a pickup football game, with no one liking the team he is on and everyone wanting to be quarterback.

On a grassy, shaded hill, 9-year-old Khalil Abrams grits his teeth and strikes a muscle-man pose. "We must protect this house!" he shouts, mimicking a commercial in which a football player pumps up his teammates.

After a morning of tennis, it's not surprising that the kids use their lunch break to play another sport. It's also indicative of the challenges facing Owens and tennis in general. Football and basketball are, well, cooler.

Within the camp's curriculum is an educational component in which the children are taken on field trips and attend classes three mornings a week designed to remedy academic weaknesses. Perhaps more important, they are introduced to the idea that tennis could present better opportunities for college scholarships than other, flashier sports.

Tennis is "a way to motivate me for a career," says 10-year-old Isaiah Gutrick, acknowledging that he's a basketball fan first. "Tennis could be a backup plan."

Avory Joseph, an eighth-grader at Baltimore Junior Academy, says he first came to the camp because his mother made him do it. He first thought tennis was for girls, but he has changed his mind.

"I think it's for everybody. People who want to get exercise, people who just want to get up and have fun," says Avory, 13.

Perhaps surprisingly, ESPN and Nielsen Media Research studies from 2000 found that blacks are the most avid tennis fans of any racial group. According to the studies, 11 percent of blacks characterized themselves as avid fans versus 5.7 percent of whites. Tennis was the seventh most-popular spectator sport among whites, but fourth among blacks - behind the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball.

"The type of things going on [in Baltimore] are going on across the country, largely built on the success of the Williams sisters," said Richard E. Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida, adding that the number of black tennis fans has likely gone up since the study. "Funding is key, opportunity is key, but getting kids to think they can be good tennis players is largely a function of role models who look like them."

And the number of such role models is growing. Serena and Venus Williams have won four of the last six U.S. Open women's titles between them. Blake lost the championship match Sunday at Washington's Legg Mason Classic, a tournament he won in 2002. At the Australian Open in January, Donald Young became the youngest junior player to ever win a Grand Slam. That win made him the youngest junior world No. 1, too.

But first things first for the students at the All-Star Tennis Academy. Unlike baseball, there isn't a tee to hit off of until one's hand-eye coordination improves. Gant runs drills and then organizes games to reinforce the drills. But in this sport, it's all mental, says Ron Swales, a visiting tennis pro from Anchorage, Alaska, and a 1976 Polytechnic Institute graduate.

"It's all right here," he says, pointing to his temple, "and they can [do it]. They can."

With lunch over, the pickup football game dissolved and a few knees skinned, Gant organizes the youngest children into a game of four-square tennis. A camper stands in each of the four boxes in the middle of the court, hitting a ball back and forth to others in the square until someone fails to return it within the boundaries.

This part is Nikolas' favorite. The second-grader isn't sure he can return the ball each time but promises, "I'll try my best. I try my best all the time."

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