In the midst of developing a youth tennis program for Elmcor Youth community center in Corona, N.Y., program director Janice Teague was offered a surefire way to ignite interest in the game among her younger campers: The group was invited to take to the Grandstand court at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center for a lesson from defending US Open champion Serena Williams and world No. 4 Stan Wawrinka.
“We jumped at the chance,” Teague said.
On Day 3 of the qualifying tournament, Elmcor’s summer camp program took part in Returning the Love, an outreach initiative designed to welcome in youth, families and nonprofit organizations from the surrounding New York and Queens community. As part of the initiative, which is now in its fourth year, the USTA welcomed 23 kids from the summer camp program, all under 10 years old, for a youth tennis clinic and a chance to volley with pros Williams and Wawrinka.
In the process, the campers got a taste of Williams' and Wawrinka’s worlds. The sound of camera clicks and flashes filled the Grandstand, but for the kids the focus was on the pros – and the game at hand.
“I always love coming out and supporting the kids,” Williams said after rallying with two female campers over pop-up nets. “It’s so good to the new initiative to get kids involved especially in the United States because that’s the future of tennis.”
Kelsey, one of the campers who was the first to play with Williams, lit up when describing her interaction with her favorite tennis star. “It was awesome,” she said. She also enjoyed the youth tennis right-sized equipment, adding that the foam balls used for the clinic were easier to hit over the shortened net.
Wawrinka, the 2014 Australian Open men’s singles champion, spoke to the advantages of the shorter nets, smaller courts and slower-moving, lower-bouncing balls. “When you’re really young it’s nice because you can play normally,” he said. “Most important is that they enjoy being on the court when they are that age.”
Through New York Cares, the city’s largest volunteer management organization, Elmcor was offered a spot as the participating program for the 2014 US Open. Elmcor is one of the largest nonprofit community-based service agencies in Queens and provides at-risk youth and adults quality recreation, education and social service programs. Teague said while the youth center has a gym ready, they hope to get professional help in establishing Elmcor’s own tennis program.
The goal for Returning the Love is to focus on creating a positive and lasting impact in the community. Players and staff will also participate in granting a handful of wishes to kids with life-threatening medical conditions through an annual partnership with the Make-A-Wish organization.
“I still look up to people and admire people,” Williams said. “The fact that people look up to me is really exciting.”
For Teague, the initiative presented an opportunity to gain momentum for her own tennis program and to get her younger campers an on-court experience they will never forget.
“A lot of them have never been to a tennis court, especially a professional arena,” Teague said. “So it’s a big deal for them. They will talk about this for weeks.”