An Urban Community Still Wild About Tennis When Venus and Serena Williams were on top of the tennis world a few years ago, the sport's boosters hoped they would draw more young and minority players to the game. Now the Williams sisters and other American stars are out of the international spotlight -- but one urban community is still wild about tennis...
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An Urban Community Still Wild About Tennis

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An Urban Community Still Wild About Tennis

An Urban Community Still Wild About Tennis

An Urban Community Still Wild About Tennis

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When Venus and Serena Williams were on top of the tennis world a few years ago, the sport's boosters hoped they would draw more young and minority players to the game. Now the Williams sisters and other American stars are out of the international spotlight — but one urban community is still wild about tennis...

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY to DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And I'm Alex Chadwick. Our regrets, American tennis fans, but Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick, and Venus Williams will not be appearing in any of this weekend's Wimbledon final matches. No American player has made it to the singles quarterfinals this year, the first time that has happened since 1911.

BRAND: But far from Wimbledon, on intercity courts in America, tennis is booming. From member station WSHU in Fairfield Connecticut, Tandaleya Wilder reports.

TANDALEYA WILDER reporting:

For most of his life, Marvin Tyler looked down on people who played tennis. When he was growing up, Tyler says all the boys in his neighborhood played macho sports like basketball, baseball, and football.

Mr. MARVIN TYLER (Founder, Slammer Tennis World): And I was one of those kids that thought tennis was just a sissy sport. It's for old men, old women - I'm not playing, this and that.

WILDER: But his image of tennis changed dramatically a few years ago when a co-worker at his interior design firm invited him to play doubles, and Tyler fell in love with the game. That match changed his life. Tyler eventually decided to become a full time-teaching pro. Three years ago, he founded Slammer Tennis World in Norwalk, Connecticut, which offers affordable tennis lessons to Connecticut youth.

Unidentified Child: Serve, backhand, forehand, overhead smash.

Mr. TYLER: Yes!

Unidentified Child: ...and volley.

Mr. TYLER: And volley!

WILDER: He also teamed up with the local recreation and parks department to teach a summer tennis camp in Fairfield County. Tyler says he makes sure the kids in his program realize tennis is a sport for everyone.

MR. TYLER: And I'm just trying to reach all the kids, anyone that want to learn tennis - is to get kids of the street. If they are on the tennis court for a hour or two, they're not out getting in trouble or anything like that.

All right, ready, and swing. Good swing. All right. One more time.

WILDER: On this summer day, an unlikely group of kids is learning how to hit a forehand on the slightly worn tennis courts next to a Norwalk housing project. These youngsters are being introduced to the game through a program sponsored by the United States Tennis Association called Norwalk Grassroots Tennis. It brings the sport to kids in the inner city. Kids like 14-year old Dante Polk(ph).

Why do you like to play tennis?

Mr. DANTE POLK (14-year Old Tennis Student): Because it keeps like - it something to do as a sport that I'm good at. And it could you get you fun, like.

WILDER: Children in the program receive free rackets, free lessons, and transportation to play matches in other communities. Art Goldblatt started the program 10 years ago with a few kids from the Norwalk project. Now he has hundreds participating. Goldblatt says this is a good neighborhood for tennis.

Mr. ART GOLDBLATT (Founder, Norwalk Grassroots Tennis): We're also very fortunate in Norwalk to have quite a few tennis courts very close to the place where the kids in the inner-city live, so the convenience and a good staff and the nature of the game itself has been very attractive to lot of kids.

WILDER: Programs like Tyler's and Goldblatt's are now offering a chance for kids of all backgrounds to learn tennis. And their just the kind of efforts the USTA would like to see more of. The tennis organization has developed a $50 million marketing program called The Plan for Growth, and they claimed their efforts have already resulted in a 20 percent increase of new Hispanic tennis players, and a 9 percent increase in African Americans entering the game.

Unfortunately, these new fans won't be seeing the Williams sisters, James Blake, or any other Americans in the final rounds at Wimbledon. The USTA President, Lee Hamilton says it's a lost opportunity, because when fewer young Americans play, fewer young Americans watch.

Mr. LEE HAMILTON (USTA President): If it's Sharapova versus Dementieva in the final, that's a different dynamic than if it's Venus and Serena. Venus and Serena in the final takes us off the chart.

WILDER: Still, Hamilton isn't worried about the future of the sport in America. The USTA commissioned a study about the tennis industry last year that showed equipment sales were on the rise, and the number of new participants increased by one million. And Hamilton says perhaps with more grassroots initiatives like those in Connecticut, the sport can finally shake old stereotypes.

MR. HAMILTON: Words that are used - have been used have been a elite, exclusive, country club, and we're blowing that up. That's not the image of today. Today it's everybody's sport.

Mr. TYLER: Excellent. Good swing! Excellent, give me five! Nice job.

WILDER: Back on the courts in Norwalk, these young fans seem unbothered by the American drought at Wimbledon, and that kind of enthusiasm is what the USTA wants. The group hopes American players make a recovery at the upcoming U.S. Open and that the buzz will trickle down to grassroots programs like this one, where new, young players imagine themselves someday starring on center court. For NPR News, I'm Tandaleya Wilder

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