When it comes to tennis, “love” usually means nothing.
But that certainly was not the case on a sun-splashed Grandstand court on Thursday for a “Returning the Love" lovefest between a bunch of starry-eyed kids from New York City and the reigning US Open men’s champion Marin Cilic and five-time US Open doubles champion and Hall of Famer Gigi Fernandez.
“The things that make me happy the most is when I can make people around me happy,” Cilic said before stepping on the court, which had been divided up into a series of youth tennis courts, to volley with the children. “That is absolutely driving me to do these type of clinics, to bring a smile to their faces.”
Around 50 children, ages 6 to 16, came from the Global Language Project based in Astoria, Queens, and Elmcor, a nonprofit community service agency also based in Queens. Both nonprofit groups work to enrich the lives of the children through a variety of educational, recreational and social service programs.
The Global Language Project uses language programs to broaden its children’s lives and get them better prepared for the global world. To have a chance to meet and talk with Cilic, of Croatia, and Fernandez, who was born in Puerto Rico, was a perfect extension of the program, said Executive Director Angela Jackson.
“Tennis is a global sport and this is a great model for our kids to aspire to," Jackson said amid the laughter and squeals of the kids. “They are learning and having fun at the same time. This is a huge gift for everybody here.”
Two special participants were Amanda Berry and Emily McCoy, members of the Newtown High School tennis team. McCoy was in awe of how tall the 6-foot-6 Cilic was in person.
“Usually, I see them from the nosebleed seats, and to be so close to them and seeing how tall he is, really makes it very personal,” said McCoy.
The person-to-person contact with the kids also made it more special for Cilic.
“To get closer with them, and with the game, and to bring them the desire one day to be a tennis champion or champion in any other sport is important,” said Cilic.
With a racquet in hand, 7-year-old Khaye Gravesande got the message loud and clear.
“I am very honored to be here with all of these champions. Someday I feel I want to be champion of the US Open,” he said with a big smile.