WTEF tennis center caters to youth in Ward 7

There are so many strokes to learn, not to mention the basics of strategy, when you’re starting out as a tennis player.

At 12, Kemoni Harris already has pinpointed the weakness of her game. And with help from Coach Mike, she’s working each afternoon to correct it.

“I’m trying to work on my attitude,” Harris explains. “If I lose a game, I would get mad and throw down my racket. Now, I don’t.”

Coach Mike is Michael Ragland, director of tennis at the Washington Tennis & Education Foundation’s East Capitol Campus, an immaculate complex of classrooms, tennis courts and a community center in the heart of Ward 7, just over the Anacostia River from RFK Stadium.

Open since November, the $10.2 million center reflects the crowning achievement of the foundation’s 55-year-old mission to serve the chronically underserved in Southeast Washington, where rates of teen pregnancy, unemployment, poverty and incarceration are among the city’s highest.

The goal is not to produce the next Venus or Serena Williams but to leverage the lessons of tennis to instill essential life skills — academic competence, confidence, self-determination and a vision of a productive future.

“With tennis, you’re out there on that island,” says Willis Thomas, 70, the WTEF’s longtime program director and a former doubles partner of the late Arthur Ashe. “Can’t nobody go out there and coach you! You have to figure it out. You have to learn how to plan ahead. All those good things that you need for life are right there on that court.”

Adds Ragland, 53, a product of WTEF programs himself who led Ballou to three consecutive city championships in the 1970s: “We’re not looking for the next tennis star. We’re looking for the next star as a person.”

At the WTEF East Capitol campus, the tennis lessons, equipment and court time are free, as is the one-on-one academic tutoring that’s an integral part of the after-school programs.

Barely six months after opening, the complex is a hive of activity, even on a rain-drenched Friday afternoon, with eight students and an instructor filling each of the six indoor courts. Nine outdoor courts sit out back.

Roughly 85 youngsters aged 5 to 18 are enrolled in the after-school programs. The hope is to accommodate 120 by the end of the year.

Founded in 1969, the WTEF offers similar programs to youngsters at its 16th Street site in Northwest on the grounds of William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center, which hosts the Citi Open (formerly Legg Mason) tennis tournament that benefits the foundation. The rest of its funding comes from a private gifts and grants.

But with the recently opened Ward 7 complex, the foundation has delivered its services to the doorstep of the neighborhood in need. It also has extended its reach, adding 45-minute classes for 2- to 4-year-olds from neighboring preschools, who are introduced to tennis with lightweight, oversized rackets on scaled-down courts.

“We start the kids very young and stand by them every day until they get to college or until they find the right trade or an alternative path,” says Eleni Rossides, executive director of the WTEF and a former touring pro.

With more than a half century at the task, the WTEF’s success stories are palpable, not a leap of faith. Among Thomas’s proteges are former pros Zina Garrison, Lori McNeil, Katrina Adams and Rodney Harmon.

Thomas came across them while teaching a clinic in Ward 8 four decades ago and was struck by their innate toughness. He sees the same quality in the children streaming to the new Ward 7 center.

“You can’t teach tough,” Thomas says. “Every kid I run into out here is tough. They just have to be to survive. These are mean streets, and you’ve got to know how to handle yourself to survive.”

They come through the doors each afternoon in droves, get a snack, then fan out among the three classrooms for an hour-and-a-half of schoolwork. That’s the price for an hour-and-a-half of tennis.

But the first order of business is rushing to the chart that displays everyone’s point totals. That’s Thomas’s mechanism for teaching discipline, which he regards as the prerequisite for meaningful teaching.

Coaches award points for good behavior in the classroom or on court and deduct points for bad behavior. The end game is qualifying for the bus trip later this summer to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where roughly 30 WTEF students will compete in a tournament run by the American Tennis Association. It takes 75 points to earn the trip.

With that as a carrot, points are an effective tool of discipline and a powerful lesson to the students that their fate is in their own hands.

Harris, a fifth grader at Houston Elementary, has 100 points but is taking nothing for granted.

“Coach Mike told me that if I had a attitude, he was going to take away my points,” she explained gravely.

Asked whether she wanted to be a professional tennis player, Harris’s eyes sparkled as brightly as her ruffled pink tennis skirt.

“Yes,” she said, clutching her racket to her chest. “But if that doesn’t work out, I want to be a doctor.”

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