Pilot program helps Robinson Center youth pursue passion for tennis

Author: Erin Blasko

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Robinson Community Learning Center student Calise Harding practices her forehand at Lakeland Academy of Tennis in Niles, Michigan. (Photos by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame)

Ryleigh Crump walks the court in a bright orange top, Robinson Community Learning Center printed across the front, collecting fuzzy yellow tennis balls in a pickup hopper — a metal contraption with folding handles that doubles as a basket.

“Tennis is the best,” the fourth-grader at Kennedy Academy in South Bend says. She’s wearing dark slacks and tennis shoes. Her dark brown hair is up in a double bun. “I wanted to play tennis since I was like 5.”

Her favorite player?

“I like Serena Williams and Venus Williams,” she says matter-of-factly.

It’s Tuesday, and Ryleigh and a small group of other kids from the University of Notre Dame’s Robinson Community Learning Center have traveled the 11 miles north from South Bend to Niles, Michigan, for tennis lessons at Lakeland Academy of Tennis, an indoor training facility serving some of the best young tennis players in northern Indiana and southwest Michigan.

It’s part of a pilot program sponsored by the Lakeland Community Tennis Association, the nonprofit arm of Lakeland Academy of Tennis, in collaboration with the United States Tennis Association Northern Indiana chapter.

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RCLC students Chrisiah Holman, from left, Ryleigh Crump, Calise Harding and Valerie Crump head to lessons at Lakeland.

The kids, all students in the RCLC’s after-school program, travel by van to Niles once per week for the hour-long lessons, Youth Development Program Director Tyonne Johnson at the wheel. The kids perform drills, play games and practice shots alongside other young players of varying levels of experience.

Asked what she’s learned so far, Ryleigh says in a singsong voice, “I learned about my grip, I learned about tennis and … it’s my dream to be a tennis player.”

Nearby, Chrisiah Holman, a fifth-grader at Kennedy Academy, is taking a water break.

“We’ve been learning how to volley and we’ve been learning how to forehand and backhand, which is just hitting (the ball) but in a certain way,” Chrisiah says.

Like Ryleigh, he’s wearing a bright orange RCLC shirt. Dark slacks and red tennis shoes complete the outfit — part of his school uniform. It’s straight from school to the RCLC and then up to Niles for all of the kids.

Asked what he likes most about tennis, Chrisiah says thoughtfully, “It’s a really fun game because some sports either have too much running or too much things that don’t require focus, and I like having focus with lots of things.”

The kids were selected for the pilot based on a pre-existing interest in tennis. The RCLC also looked for kids who would be likely to complete the program. A positive attitude and tenacious spirit were essential. Lakeland Community Tennis Association is paying for the lessons. The USTA Northern Indiana donated the equipment, including balls and matching blue and yellow racquets for each of the kids.

"There are several groups that have been sidelined relative to the grassroots of this expensive sport ... and we're trying to up the participation."

Played by nearly 24 million people in the U.S. and more than 87 million people worldwide, tennis is a lifelong sport that promotes health and well-being for players of all ages.

For young players, especially, it also improves coordination, agility and balance; promotes teamwork and sportsmanship; develops strategic thinking and problem-solving; cultivates social skills; and deepens self-confidence, according to the USTA.

Susan Devetski is the RCLC’s director and a longtime USTA member.

“As an off-campus educational initiative of the University of Notre Dame, the Robinson Community Learning Center aims to provide academic support, enrichment activities and opportunities for positive social interaction for youth of all ages,” Devetski says. “Tennis is a terrific avenue for such endeavors. Among other things, it teaches lessons about teamwork, sportsmanship, discipline and perseverance that will serve our kids well into the future. We’re thankful to Lakeland Community Tennis Association and USTA Northern Indiana for making this pilot possible.”

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Robinson Community Learning Center student Chrisiah Holman listens to instructions at Lakeland Academy of Tennis in Niles, Michigan.

The Lakeland Community Tennis Association formed in 2022 with a single purpose: to bring professional tennis to the area in the form of a tournament — the now annual USTA Pro Circuit M15K at the University of Notre Dame’s Courtney Tennis Center/Eck Tennis Pavilion.

Since then, the organization has expanded to focus on year-round development and mentorship as well, with particular attention to individuals and groups that, historically, have been excluded from the sport because of lack of access, exposure, money or all of the above.

The organization hosted a Kids Day in conjunction with Juneteenth during this year’s USTA Pro-Circuit tournament. It later hosted groups of RCLC kids on back-to-back Fridays at the Leeper Park Tennis Center in South Bend in partnership with USTA Northern Indiana.

“There are several groups that have been sidelined relative to the grassroots of this expensive sport,” says Auggie Guimaraes, director of Lakeland Academy of Tennis. “A lot of people have been sidelined, and we’re trying to up the participation.”

This aligns with recent efforts on the part of the USTA to expand access to the sport among underserved and minority populations. Just this past year, the organization’s charitable arm, the USTA Foundation, contributed more than $7 million in support, services and funding for National Junior Tennis and Learning chapters. It also awarded scholarships to student leaders and donated equipment to schools. And it helped refurbish courts at public parks and tennis facilities.

A South Bend native, Sarah Stanchin is the tennis service representative for USTA Northern Indiana, where her job involves partnering with local schools and organizations to grow the sport at the grassroots level.

“A big thing with the USTA has been the grassroots and getting into diverse communities,” says Stanchin, a former player and coach.

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Robinson Community Learning Center student Ryleigh Crump takes part in drills at Lakeland Academy of Tennis in Niles.

To be sure, while participation in tennis among Black and Hispanic players has surged in recent years thanks, in part, to the success and popularity of players such as the Williams sisters and Coco Gauff, people of color still represent a minority of the tennis-playing public in the U.S. At the same time, wealth is perhaps the ultimate corollary of participation in the sport. According to recent data, a majority of tennis players in the U.S. earn at least $75,000 per year, while about 4 in 10 earn more than $100,000 per year.

Looking ahead, the RCLC hopes to expand on the pilot so that even more kids can benefit from the game. To that end, it is currently exploring the possibility of becoming a National Junior Tennis and Learning chapter. Among other things, this would allow the center to apply for grants and other assistance through the USTA Foundation, whose mission is to provide tennis and education to under-resourced youth in the U.S.

One critical area of need for the RCLC is in transportation. The center currently uses a minivan to get kids back and forth to Niles, limiting participation to just six passengers. A bigger van or funding for alternative modes of transportation would accommodate more kids.

Originally published by Erin Blasko at news.nd.edu on November 21, 2023.