Tennis' Rising Stars Share Their Passion
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
Of course, winning the U.S. Open or any of the other Grand Slam titles is the ultimate goal of a tennis champion.
But to develop a devastating power serve like Serena's or the mental steeliness of Althea, you need to learn the basics. And those fundamentals start in a place like this.
(Soundbite of balls bouncing)
MARTIN: I visited the Southeast Tennis & Learning Center. It is nestled in a part of Washington, D.C., known more for, let's say, its rough edges than country clubs. I wanted to know what it was like to play tennis here and what influence the Williams' sisters had on kids who view them as role models.
So I headed off to the court to talk with two young rising stars, Sarah and Elizabeth Means - yes, they are also sisters. But I also spoke with Cora Masters Barry. She is a former first lady of Washington, D.C. She founded the center. I wonder there are so many ways to connect with young people. Why tennis?
Ms. CORA MASTERS BARRY (Founder, Southeast Tennis & Learning Center): You know, whatever it takes to get young people to do what they should do, sometimes we have to give them what they like. And so I use tennis as a hook to bring them here, not only to play tennis and learn all the great lessons that tennis teaches children, but also to get here for the tutoring and SAT review and the chess and the trips that we take and the plays they put on and the books they read, and it's all kind of merged into one thing for them. It's all just really a good time to be here, and they do it every day after school.
MARTIN: Did you grow up playing tennis?
Ms. BARRY: Absolutely not. Didn't know a tennis racket from the banjo. Play tennis as a young adult, but more importantly, I just saw that tennis was a fun game that the kids in this community - which, by the way, for those of you who are not familiar with Washington, D.C., this is in the most undeserved area in Washington, D.C. It's like maybe Harlem used to be or Compton, or whatever.
So to see young kids playing tennis in run down facilities but still liking it enough to get out there, I thought it was an opportunity.
MARTIN: What difference do you think it has made to the game and to the interest that kids have in the game to have role models like Serena and Venus Williams?
Ms. BARRY: I'm sure had Venus and Serena - especially Venus at that time - had not been on the horizon, it may have been almost an impossible task. Because she was there, and so the possibilities and the probabilities that this could be something that's real, because many people say why not a basketball court? Why not a blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah?
But with Venus on the rise, a matter of fact, I could dig out in the archives one of our little books that we used when we first start showing the design for the building, and there's this real cool picture of Venus, I think, at 14 with braids and beads in her hair. And then, as a kid, at her computer. And I say, in order for them to get here pointing to Venus, you have to start here with just a computer. So I think the Williams sisters gave the voice and the face to what tennis could do and the young African-American poor kids could do it.
MARTIN: Tennis has not been perceived as the most hospitable sport for people of color, I mean, the success of an Arthur Ashe or a…
Ms. BARRY: Zina Garrison…
MARTIN: Or Zina Garrison…
Ms. BARRY: …and Althea Gibson. Mm-hmm.
MARTIN: …Althea Gibson, notwithstanding, who, you know, obviously, you know, played at the highest levels of the sport. But despite that fact, it was never really perceived as a sport that was welcoming to people of color. Do you think that's still true, in part? Is there any, do you think, lingering resistance to diversity in the sport?
Ms. BARRY: I think the lingering resistance to diversity in the sport is the lingering resistance to diversity in society. There was much, much too much space between an Arthur Ashe and an Althea Gibson, and an Althea Gibson and an Zina Garrison, and an Zina Garrison and a Venus and Serena, but that space is eliminated. And we have two young women here who are an example of what's going on all over this country with African-American kids and kids of color being able to have access now.
MARTIN: Okay. Well, let's bring the young ladies in. Sarah, let's start with you because you're the oldest by, what? Nine months? Ten months? Something like that?
Ms. SARAH MEANS (Junior Tennis Player, Washington, D.C.): Yes, a little less than a year. I'm 13.
MARTIN: And Elizabeth, how old are you?
Ms. ELIZABETH MEANS (Junior Tennis Player, Washington, D.C.): I'm 12.
MARTIN: And you are the Means sisters. Sarah, when did you start playing tennis, and did you start playing at the same time? Did you and your sister started playing together?
Ms. S. MEANS: No. I started when I was 4 years old, and Elizabeth started when she was six.
MARTIN: Okay. And what got you interested in playing tennis?
Ms. S. MEANS: My mother told me that one day she was in the gym and I always playing with the racket ball and the man just told her that I had good hand coordinations, so she took me on the tennis court and kind of went from there.
MARTIN: Did you always love it?
Ms. S. MEANS: Yes, it's always been really fun.
MARTIN: What do you like about it?
Ms. S. MEANS: I love how it keeps you fit, how you can play it from when you're tiny tot, which they have at the tennis center, or when you're in senior. It's always fun to get your balls, and when they expect you to get to practice. You're out here with friends and people who enjoy the sport with you.
MARTIN: Elizabeth, what about you? Did you have to be dragged into it, or did you like it also?
Ms. E. MEANS: I liked it. I mean, I had a racket and a sponge ball when I started, so I was just hitting with that. And then they just dropped me in a court, and I started playing then.
MARTIN: What do you like about it?
Ms. E. MEANS: I like the discipline about it. I mean, going out there, working hard, and you know, like, at the end of the day, you know, if you worked your hardest and then being able to hold a trophy up and saying, all the hard work paid off and (unintelligible) you'll be at the top.
MARTIN: Sarah, how would you describe your game?
Ms. S. MEANS: My game is in my legs. I have to move the ball because I'm not extremely tall. Like, I'm not as tall as my sister, she's taller than me. So I have to run down balls. I have to move and anticipate better to get to harder balls.
MARTIN: Okay. Elizabeth, how about you? How would you describe your game?
Ms. E. MEANS: I really like my backhand. I really drive my back into my shots, so I really set up my points to close off my backhand to like setting up my point towards my backhand.
MARTIN: What's your strongest shot?
Ms. E. MEANS: My backhand crosscourt.
MARTIN: I'm scared of them. I'm scared. I'm afraid. I'm not going to challenge them. Normally, I'm ready to talk yang, but I'm not even going to try. I'm not even going to try to do it. I'm not even trying to do it. Ladies, I'd like to ask both of you. Sometimes, sacrifices have to be made when you're pursuing a sport. Is that ever a problem for you? You know, sometimes, you can't go to the movies when your friends are going through the mall or you got to go to bed early.
Ms. E. MEANS: Well, we sacrifice a lot of weekends because of tournaments. We started doing home school so we stop going to school, so we stopped seeing our friends as much. And so those are sacrifices, because we want to go to the top of the game. And we know that we have to be disciplined and do what's supposed to be done. We got to practice early. We're out late. That has to happen if you want to go to the top.
MARTIN: And let me ask you a hard question. I hope it's, you know, doesn't your hurt your feelings. But sometimes when kids play a sport that a lot of other black kids don't play or people of their own, you know, group or whatever, sometimes people have things to say. You know, they say, or you think you're white or anything like that. And I just wonder has that ever happened to you?
Ms. S. MEANS: We've heard it before, but you don't listen to it. And that's what being Venus and Serena teach us, that not to listen to what negative things people have to say because we have talent and we know we're good, so we can go to the top as high as you want to go because we're focused.
MARTIN: Elizabeth, what about you?
Ms. E. MEANS: No. Nobody actually ever said anything to me, neither they have before. I mean, I won't really listen to them, because I know I have game, and me and my sister do have game. And that no matter what they say, they can't bring us down by their words.
MARTIN: Well, what about the other way? I don't know if you ever played in tournaments where people like act like, maybe, you don't really belong there.
Ms. BARRY: On a regular basis.
Ms. BARRY: In the junior tournaments. Yeah, we're just laughing about it today, about an incident, and it's very prevalent.
MARTIN: Give me an example.
Ms. BARRY: Well, they can give them to you.
MARTIN: Give me an example.
Ms. S. MEANS: Example. Sometimes, like maybe when you switches, sometimes, they're like, bump you a little.
Ms. E. MEANS: Or they might try giving your head. And if you see a call ball, they'll ask if you're sure, don't try and go get a ref, and things that they won't do to other children, like question…
MARTIN: Do you think - I just want to ask you, do you think that's because you're African-American, or just because they're competitive? What do you think?
Ms. S. MEANS: Let me think, because sometimes you watch, and if you watch them, you say they did that to me and they didn't say it to that person. It might just be because I am African-American, but sometimes you're not sure, because they might just not like you. But it's always in the back of your head if they don't do it to someone else.
Ms. BARRY: There's a lot of what we see comes from the parents. I think some of the incidents she spoke to, we've seen them before, and you don't know. But the parents…
MARTIN: Give an example.
Ms. BARRY: Oh, my God. They get you in the bathroom and they say things to you…
MARTIN: Like what?
Ms. BARRY: Well, like one of the parents told me, said, I really feel sorry for your child. I know that she's under, you know, doesn't have a lot of money and we've got our coaching, and we've got our doctor here, but don't let her feel bad when we beat her. And they ask - when you show up, they ask you tons of questions like with Sarah and Elizabeth, once they see how good they are, that's when the psychology comes in…
MARTIN: Oh, they're trying to psyche them out? Saying, oh…
Ms. BARRY: Oh, yeah. Once they see that these kids are something to be reckoned within, they get real curious and they kind of group up and they whisper and they point. It's been amazing. The best way you can combat racism is through excellence. And when they show up in their excellent, that's the end of it.
MARTIN: I still wonder whether do you ever worry that even though, you know, it's tennis - which is a traditionally elite sport - that it's still, you know, perpetuates this kind of over reliance on athletics as a vehicle for advancement for black kids.
Ms. BARRY: Well, you know, not that other sports aren't - tennis is a game that requires a lot of intelligence and a lot of thinking. So it's very difficult to be in a sport like tennis and not the totally emerged in other things like these girls are A students. So, no, I don't think it's over reliance on it. I do believe it takes a lot from you, and that you have to balance. So they're not one-dimensional.
MARTIN: Do you envision the time when you will have a recognized champion coming out of this Southeast Tennis & Learning Center?
Ms. BARRY: Oh, we've got three in the pipeline right now. Two are sitting near you, and you saw one now on the court. And, yeah, I think it's a possibility.
MARTIN: I know you'll make it to the Open. You think you'll see somebody from Southeast Tennis & Learning Center at the Open?
Ms. BARRY: In five years.
Ms. BARRY: In five years, easy.
MARTIN: Elizabeth, what's next for you?
Ms. E. MEANS: I want to go to the top number one in the world.
MARTIN: Okay. No ambition there at all. Sarah, what's next for you in the sport?
Ms. S. MEANS: Same. I want to be the best that I can be. And I know that if I continue to work hard and practice, that I will be able to achieve being the number one.
MARTIN: Okay. Scared of you. Let's - we'll make a date at the Open, five years. Let's see. Sarah Means, Elizabeth Means, Cora Masters Barry, thank you all so much for inviting us to visit with you today.
Ms. S. MEANS: Thank you.
Ms. E. MEANS: Thank you.
Ms. BARRY: Thank you.
(Soundbite of music)
MARTIN: And that's our show for today. I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.