Eleni Rossides has spent much of her life on the tennis court. The Tenleytown native played at the Sidwell Friends School, earned a No. 1 ranking while at Stanford University and spent eight years on the women’s professional tennis tour.
But Rossides said it wasn’t until after graduating from college when she volunteered at the Washington Tennis & Education Foundation, a free tennis program run by her pro tour coach Willis Thomas, that she learned her sport could change lives.
“Growing up in D.C., you see the inequality and you see the lives of these kids born into something they didn’t expect to be born into,” Rossides said. “But through Willis and his staff, you think, ‘Wow, there’s a way I can help.’ ”
Now the WTEF has a new home in an area far more accessible to the kids who have had to travel across the District to participate in its programs. On Saturday, the foundation opened the $10.2 million, state-of-the-art space in Ward 7. The new location will be open to students year-round, offering weekend activities and extended after-school hours.
Rossides, who is now the foundation’s executive director, said the center’s location at the Benning Stoddert Recreation Center will provide children in the neighborhood with the same access to tennis facilities found in some of the more affluent areas of the city.
“To see them finally have something that’s very first-class,” Thomas said, “it lets them know that people are there to support them.”
The WTEF has provided free athletics and academic help to lower-income children in the area since 1955. Coached by U.S. Tennis Association-certified instructors, students have played in local USTA tournaments and the historically black American Tennis Association’s nationwide competitions, all while improving their grades through one-on-one tutoring with D.C. Public Schools teachers.
The East Capitol campus is the foundation’s second building in the District, joining the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center in Rock Creek Park. The 50,000-square-foot building features six indoor courts, nine outdoor courts, a weight room, three classrooms, a computer room, a study room, staff offices and a community meeting room, Rossides said.
The Northwest location, opened by the WTEF in 1991, hosts 20 tennis courts during the summer and four during the winter, Thomas said. Five corporate suites are used as classrooms for WTEF’s academic programs.
The new space in Ward 7 will host the foundation’s Center for Excellence college-preparation program and accommodate students in its Arthur Ashe Children’s Program, which teaches tennis, academics and life skills in 24 D.C. schools in Northeast and Southeast. The building will also hold the foundation’s literacy program and a new preschool initiative.
Rossides said the new building can accommodate at least 3,000 students, twice the current enrollment. Enrollment for the college-preparation program is also expected to double at the East Capitol campus, while participation in the Arthur Ashe program is projected to expand by at least 50 percent.
Getting to Rock Creek Park from where most WTEF students live in Wards 5 through 8 can take hours, Rossides said, adding that students have endured bullying from gangs when trying to board foundation buses to the Northwest facility. Integrating into the neighborhood creates a shorter, safer commute, increasing students’ likelihood of attending programs.
“There are a lot of solid programs out there, but they either don’t have the kids or the families or they don’t have a facility, and now we have both,” Rossides said. “We want this to be very much of a community center for the children and their families, and we do feel strongly that this absolutely has the potential to really transform this community.”
The benefits go beyond academic and physical improvement. Foundation alumnus H’Cone Thompson said playing in ATA tournaments nationwide shows students the world outside of D.C., while the programs place a high priority on discipline and goal-setting. Thompson participated in the WTEF from age 10 through high school.
“In running drills, you had to do at least one mile. You didn’t have to run it, but you couldn’t stop,” said Thompson, now 31. “It was about 12 laps, so if you were someone who wanted to rush, you had to learn patience. If you were a slower person, you had to make it through, you had to persevere.”
Thompson was raised in the Brookland neighborhood and attended Lafayette College on a full athletic and academic scholarship after the Center for Excellence provided him with college-preparation courses he would not otherwise have been able to afford. He now coaches tennis at the Woodmont Country Club in Rockville.