Young Aces Open a Big Hit With Richmond School Kids
By John Packett
RTA Contributing Writer
The Cary Street Field on Virginia Commonwealth University’s campus was alive on Wednesday with the sound of youngsters laughing and having fun under a warm spring sun.
Those elementary school kids were playing tennis – some of them competitively for the first time – in the Young Aces Open, being held for the fourth year under the auspices of the Richmond Tennis Association and its parent organizations, the Mid-Atlantic Tennis Association and USTA-Virginia.
The students were playing doubles on 36-foot courts, with smaller racquets and lighter (and bigger) balls. Each team represented one of 26 elementary schools in Richmond, and balls were flying all over the 39 courts being used by 156 kids.
Some of them landed within the lines, while others hit the net or found their way onto other courts. It didn’t matter. The main objective was to enjoy the afternoon and have a good time swatting the ball back and forth.
And hopefully, in the process, get hooked on the sport of tennis.
The only scoring being kept were points awarded to each team for a winning shot. At the end of the six rounds of play, the points were totaled and the top three schools were awarded prizes.
“This is my first time playing tennis in a tournament [atmosphere],” said Quentin Elliott, a fifth-grader at William Fox Elementary. “I like playing. It’s fun playing different competition and meeting different people.
“I play basketball and football, and I used to play soccer. I could continue playing [tennis]. I would just have to learn to get better and more educated in tennis. That’s what we’re doing in PE [physical education] right now.”
His PE teacher, Marques Baytop, has seen the interest level in tennis rise significantly since the first Young Aces Open in 2010.
“I think this is a big kickstart for the revitalization of tennis in the city of Richmond,” said Baytop, a J.R. Tucker graduate who ran cross-country and outdoor track at Virginia State. “It starts right here. Not only are they learning tennis, they’re learning court concepts and skills that they need to be productive in their own environment.
“Our kids come from all different spectrums of life. From people that are well off to people that actually need public assistance. You can see the change in them. Learning better behavior. Learning how to deal with losing and winning. Learning etiquette.”
The team from Fox wound up as the overall champion of the tournament, averaging 19.3 points per game, to finish ahead of John B. Cary (18.4) and Mary Mumford (17.7).
In the individual category, the J.B. Cary duo of Jordan Taylor and Rob Barlow went undefeated to take home the top prize. Rachel Lillyman and Julian Rassenot from Linwood Holton were second and the Miles-Jones pair of Angel Bauman and John Allen came in third.
Not coincidentally, the Young Aces Open is held on the field next to the Mary and Frances Youth Center on the VCU campus, where Lobs and Lessons is conducted. Lobs and Lessons began in 2004 and is a youth enrichment program that strengthens life skills, promotes academics and creates a path to higher education through tennis.
“This is to grow the sport of tennis [in the city schools],” said Tina Carter, director of the Mary and Frances Youth Center who was helping to keep the games flowing smoothly. “To allow the elementary students to develop their skills and understand the sportsmanship behind the game.
“So as they move through their academic pipeline, they can continue to play tennis in middle school and maybe go on and play on their high school team. And of course, to have fun while they’re playing the game.”
Carter said some of the schools represented at the Young Aces Open send youngsters to the Lobs and Lessons program.
“We run programming from October until the end of May,” said Carter. “Monday through Friday. We also do seven weeks of summer camp. On Fridays, we have an open program, which offers group lessons for any kids in the city.
“We’re really focused on teaching life skills and helping the kids academically. Tennis is our hook to get them to participate in the program. The hope is that along the way, they will see tennis as part of their lifestyle for the rest of their life.”
Bringing the game into an urban setting is one of the goals of the RTA. Utilizing the Quick Start method (with smaller courts and racquets, plus lighter balls) pioneered by the USTA several years ago has become the best way to introduce tennis to inner-city youths.
“It’s a great opportunity for kids who have had little exposure to tennis to get some exposure to competition,” said Joe Grover, a volunteer at the YAO and a past president of the RTA. “For many of them, it’s their first opportunity to represent their school.
“They’re here to have a good time. The emphasis is on running, jumping and hitting, not so much on winning. This is more like ping pong, in terms of scoring. You just keep playing until the time’s up. Six 12-minute sessions against six different schools.
“We’ve found that a lot of kids have never played a ball-and-stick game. They have a lot of trouble running to the ball. So it’s one of their early experiences at that, and it’s healthy. We try to teach them good sportsmanship too. Shake hands after the game.”
Grover said the RTA has started tennis clubs for kids at two elementary schools in Richmond, Blackwell and Westover Hills, in an effort to develop interest in the sport. “It’s been fun, and it’s amazing how quickly they learn to play with this format,” he said.
Based on the enthusiasm displayed by the youngsters on Wednesday, tennis may be making a comeback.
“These kids need love and confidence,” said Baytop. “Once you give them that, they can do anything.”