Net Gain: The Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park Aims to Make Stars Out of Young Players
This is where it begins:
A daisy chain of children standing on the wide blue stage of an indoor tennis court contemplating a staggered line of orange cones. "Okay," Frank Salazar is saying, "I want you to run forward to the first cone, then backward to the second, then forward to the third, like this."
The man who a quarter-century ago was one of the best junior tennis players in the world takes small, quick steps up and back to demonstrate. A pixieish girl of no more than 5, almost lost beneath a mass of dark ringlets, is first in line. She flaps her arms like a sparrow and begins to twirl, spiraling dreamily toward the first cone. The boy behind her sprints in her wake, then ignores the cones entirely. The third child chooses to skip, instead of run. On it goes, a sweet, relentless exercise in creative misinterpretation of instructions. These children are here because their parents have responded to fliers advertising a "fun festival," which turns out to be the chance to win free tennis lessons from the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park. The tennis center is a 10-year-old nonprofit institution with the improbably ambitious mission of identifying talent in the very young, then turning them into world-class athletes. The cones are just the first of eight physical challenges that 150 kids have come here to attempt and, mostly, fail at dismally.
Until a tall, thin girl with a blond bob approaches the starting line. She overtakes the first cone with fleet, short steps, abruptly reverses direction in a series of balanced back steps toward the second, then, shifting forward again like a cornerback, sprints to the third.
The tennis center's head coach, Vesa Ponkka, is watching from the sidelines. "Frank, check this out," he tells Salazar. "We've got something here. See how she pumps her knees high, her arms move in synch, her head stays still?"
None of this may seem significant to the uninitiated, but Ponkka has seen this before, and he knows where it may lead.
A bright, breezy spring day in Paris on the red clay of Roland Garros.
It is late in the first week of the French Open tournament, one of four Grand Slams of tennis, which attracts some of the most beautiful people in the world and all the best players. Court 13 is just across a small lane from the looming Suzanne Lenglen stadium, where periodic roars from the packed crowd announce a match in progress. There are no seats on 13, but, nonetheless, fans are lining up 10-deep outside the fence. Three sets of television crews, stationed above a high wall in the far corner, aim their lenses at the empty rectangle of red clay. Venus and Serena Williams are practicing on the adjoining court, but few even notice the famous American tennis players; word has spread that Rafael Nadal, the charismatic No. 1 tennis player in the world, is scheduled to warm up for that evening's fourth-round match. A boisterous crowd, in which young women are amply represented, awaits the entrance of the famously buff, 6-foot-1, 192-pound Spaniard. And now the gate opens, and in walks... Denis Kudla, a slight 5-foot-10, 150-pound teenager from Arlington, blond mop of hair spilling out from his white ball cap. Nadal's own brown mop enters a few steps behind. Denis is one of the best 16-year-old tennis players in the world. He's here to compete in the junior half of the open, but right now he will be Nadal's hitting partner.
Denis caught Ponkka's eye eight years ago at the College Park tennis center. What Ponkka saw in Denis was no more dramatic than what he saw in the young girl who followed directions for racing through plastic cones.
"He walked on the court like he knew where he was going," is how Ponkka tries to explain it.
By the time they were 14, Denis and Junior Ore, another tennis center pupil discovered the same year as Denis at one of the fun festivals, topped the rankings for 14-year-old tennis players in the United States. Last December, Denis won the 16-year-old division of the celebrated junior international tournament the Dunlop Orange Bowl on Key Biscayne. Facing him in the final was yet another tennis center prodigy, a 16-year-old named Mitchell Frank from Annandale.