RTA Junior Program Goes Back to the Future

By John Packett, RTA Contributing Writer

RTA Junior Program Goes Back to the Future

In the 1970s and ‘80s, the Richmond area was producing some of the top juniors in the Mid-Atlantic area – and even the nation.

That was due in no small part to the support of what was then called the Richmond Tennis Patrons Association, which funded an indoor winter program at St. Christopher’s School so juniors could practice and play matches during the cold months.

Tommy Cain, Mark Vines, Junie Chatman, Rodney Harmon, Kathleen Cummings, Betty Baugh Harrison, Leanne Seward, Wade McGuire, David Caldwell and Damian and Diane Sancilio were just a few of the talented youngsters who came through that program.

But once the funding dried up for the program, the local juniors went their separate ways to learn the game, and the majority of the top players began to come from northern Virginia and the Washington-Baltimore area.

Perhaps it’s time for a change in course – or rather going back to the future.

With the cooperation of the Association of Richmond Tennis Professionals and the Richmond Tennis Association, Eddie Parker and Cris Robinson began a program last summer called the RVA Junior Team Tennis, which is designed to help the best juniors in the area get even better.

“Without the RTPA winter program that so many players remember, we didn’t have any way to get our players practicing together,” said Ginny Wortham, president of the RTA.

When the program started last summer, there were 60-65 juniors involved. This year, the number has climbed to 90 who have registered so far. Most of the top players in Richmond have signed up for the training sessions.

“Cris Robinson and I were trying to get all the best players to start practicing together,” said Parker, co-owner and tennis director at Raintree Swim and Racquet Club. “We feel that the players are not going to excel unless they get to compete and practice with the best players in their area.

“Right now, they’re spread amongst all the clubs, which is fine. But we think occasionally they need to get together and train together, and try to be part of a team.”

To that end, Parker said, “We have put together a program for 2014 to participate as a Richmond travel team. We’ve already met once [in January]. We will do things like training sessions together and travel to go watch college matches.”

On Feb. 15-16, the RVA team will go to Virginia Beach to compete with players from that area. Parker said he has also talked with the Four Seasons Tennis Academy and College Park Tennis Club programs in northern Virginia and Maryland about similar competitions later this year.

“When Cris and Eddie came to us last year with this idea, we were excited about its potential for Richmond junior tennis,” said Wortham. “Both Cris and Eddie have done a tremendous amount of work creating this program and we are proud to support their work building a sense of RVA team spirit within the junior tennis community.”

The College Park, Md., facility began as a place to help players in that area but is now a USTA training site with 32 courts.

“We’re trying to make it a College Park academy [in Richmond] but without the facility,” said Parker. “College Park is probably one of the top training centers in the country, and we don’t see any reason why Richmond can’t have a training center like that because we have so many really quality players.

“They could all practice together [in one place] and be a part of a team.”

The program has been divided into three age groups so the competition will be equal.

The Competition Training Center for 12-unders is divided into two divisions, varsity and junior varsity. Among the top players are Damian “Little D” Sancilio, Chase Robinson, Talman Ramsey, Hatcher Butterworth, Evan Bernstine, Ryan Monroe and Nick Reynolds.

Some of the 12-under girls include Raine Weiss, Kirby Westerfield, Helena Huff and Nora Willet.

The next group is the RVA Champions (14-under) and features Ryan Bernstine, Spencer Whitaker, Karl Katlaps, Scott Phillips, Audrey Butterworth, Brooke Conaster, Alyssa Hahn, Anna Bradzik, Anya Sood and Alyssa McDaniel.

The final section is the RVA Elite, which includes 16 and 18-under players such as Chase Bernstine, Justin Cerny,IMG_0322 Greg Akerman, Carter Hayes, Josh Carnahan, Paul Mendoza, Bryce DePew, Arshaya Sood, Nina Sorkin and Keethana Sankar.

The workouts are being held at Raintree and Willow Oaks Country Club, where Robinson is the director of tennis, at least once a month.

The RVA team has attended a VCU-James Madison match at VCU and is planning a trip to Charlottesville to watch the top-ranked Virginia Cavaliers. The older boys have also worked out with the Hampden-Sydney team twice.

“I think these things give the kids a team feel and lets them play matches against different people,” said Robinson. “I think it’s very exciting.”

With support from Under Armour and the RTA, the program has created shirts for the juniors with RVA Junior Team emblazoned on the front.

“I’m getting reports from some of the parents that their kids want to wear it every day and they’re having to force them to take it off a day to wash it. That’s the sense of team unity and pride that we’re hoping to create.

“So they’ll be excited about it. Work harder. Push each other. Celebrate with each other. We hope those that aren’t involved will see the results and the excitement … and want to become a part of the program. So that everybody is pushing everybody.”

Parker remembers the program at St. Christopher’s and believes the 2014 version is similar if not better.

“I’ve been here 25 years,” said Parker. “John Hill and I used to travel over there every Tuesday and Thursday and work with the elite players. We think that was a very good concept because we weren’t taking kids away from their clubs and their own pros and coaches.

“But if you can get them together to train and play with each other, where they’ll get on the phone and call each other and say, ‘Let’s play on Saturday,’ we think that’s the best of both worlds. We’re trying to simulate what they did way back when with the RTPA group.

“Hopefully, we’re going to soon get a facility where we can do a lot more. We can do a lot more when we move outdoors in the summer and have more courts. Right now, we can’t bring 30 kids in to train on four courts.”

In addition to Parker and Robinson, other local pros who have helped include Damian Sancilio, Mark Bernstine, Ed Butterworth and Joe Cappellino.

“It’s more of a community program,” said Parker. “The only reason Cris and I are putting our name to it is somebody has to be in charge. But we do want all the pros and coaches around to help us make Richmond a tennis powerhouse like it used to be.”