“Control! Control! Fill that sweet spot,” Mike Ragland urged as dozens of boys and girls bounced balls with their rackets and marched in lines down a court. Ragland is director of tennis for the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation, which aims to fill the sweet spot in children’s lives. The court he was teaching on is one of 15 at the foundation’s new Southeast tennis center, which is designed to help fulfill that mission.
“There’s no facility like this in the country in an inner-city community,” says Eleni Rossides, the foundation’s executive director, noting the 45-foot-high ceilings above the six indoor courts, the technology-equipped classrooms and the multipurpose spaces she hopes will be adopted by the neighborhood.
Although the building opened just two weeks ago, the foundation has been around since 1955, enriching the lives of kids through tennis. That’s been tricky in recent years, as participants in the foundation’s Center for Excellence program — which provides 90 minutes of coaching and 90 minutes of tutoring Mondays through Fridays — have had to be bused for an hour each way to a facility in Northwest.
“We don’t want to lose people who can’t get on the bus,” says Rossides, explaining that the daily five-hour time commitment, and pressure from neighborhood kids (and gangs) presented challenges. Plus, there was little interaction between the program and the community.
That’s all set to change now that the kids whom the program serves can walk or take a quick trip to this $10.2 million facility next to the Benning Stoddert Recreation Center.
Longtime program director Willis Thomas Jr. says his students have achieved success even in sub-par facilities, so with this new center, “the vision is infinite.” He’s expanding the foundation’s reach with a new preschool program for all of Ward 7 starting in December.
“You have to start with younger kids,” he says. “They’re your thugs of tomorrow, but they’re not thugs if they go through this program.”
Thomas would like to see seniors using the indoor courts during the day and as many folks as possible taking advantage of the outdoor parts of the facility.
“This used to be a bad drug area — no one would come back here,” Thomas says. “We want this to be a true playground. We’re going to change this neighborhood through the children.”
Taking a break from singing about tennis scoring, Christopher Green, 11, seems just as thrilled about his new after-school hangout: “They did this for us. We don’t want to practice outside in the cold.”
But they definitely do want to practice, especially Carla Rowell, 12, who declares, “I’m going to play as long as I live. If I’m down and sad, this makes me happy.”
The more kids who feel that way, the better, Ragland says.
“It means the world for these kids to be able to succeed at something,” he says. “See kids hit a forehand, and the next thing is a smile.”
When Ragland coaches, his goal isn’t just to improve students’ skills on the court, but also to equip them for whatever comes their way.
“Tennis is an individualized sport. You handle and deal with problems one-on-one,” Ragland says. “That’s the same thing in life.”
And that’s when it’s important to win the point.