Robert Robinson has fond memories of throwing four kids into his car and driving to his school's tennis match. In those days, four players were enough, particularly since most schools had even fewer.
"That was in 1972, and the tennis program in the D.C. schools was just really getting started," said Robinson, the tennis coach at Coolidge.
"You only needed four kids, two for singles and two more for doubles. That was it. Now the program has expanded so, schools need buses."
The Interhigh League tennis program has improved almost tenfold. In the past decade, Wilson and Ballou dominated the tennis scene and usually won what amounted to the tennis championships. Now, all 13 of the D.C. public high schools, including Banneker and Ellington, have teams, and the overall competition level has also improved dramatically.
"In the past, most of the schools had one or two good players. Now the good tennis players are everywhere," Robinson said. "More kids are interested in playing the game and are getting good at it. A number of teams have more than two or three players. Even the No. 6 players are decent."
"One reason the level of play has gotten better is because the kids are playing more against better competition," said Ballou Coach Roosevelt Hairston. "And they will continue to get better as they play. Most of your better players are in the suburban and private schools, and our kids need to face them to get that tournament toughness. Competition will teach them to deal with pressure and teach them mental toughness."
The Interhigh League recently completed its tennis tournament and enjoyed probably its largest and most competitive turnout.
"We had 32 boys in singles, 16 girls in singles and 12 boys doubles teams," said John Freeman, Theodore Roosevelt coach and tournament director. "Ten of the schools were represented in the tournament. The Tennis Patrons Association supplied us with T-shirts, balls and got us court time."
Some of the more impressive players included Wilson's Nils and Hans Olsen, Ballou's Steve Brannum and Preston Edwards, Banneker's Robert Crawford, Wilson's Donna Fleming and Banneker's Crystal Swann.
In the girls singles final, Swann defeated Fleming, 6-1, 6-1. Swann was runner-up last year.
In the boys singles, sophomore Hans Olsen eliminated Crawford, 10-6 (10-game pro set), and senior Nils Olsen defeated Edwards, 10-5, to set up a final between brothers. Hans upset his older sibling, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7-4).
"This year's tournament is the best I've been in," said Crawford. "I think the quality of play has gotten better in the Interhigh. Mainly our matches are against one another, but I think the level of play would improve if we played the better teams. The players in the Interhigh just lack the experience of playing against better teams."
Many of the coaches have begun scheduling matches against non-District schools. Many of the younger players are also taking lessons full-time and competing year-round.
"I took lessons and now I play maybe five, six times a week," Crawford said. "I also play basketball, but only in my spare time. I would never take basketball over tennis now."
Hairston, in his fourth year as Ballou coach, tries to schedule as many matches as he can to give his players experience.
"The past few years, I've seen a lot of improvement in our kids' play against the suburban kids," he said. "I'd love for my kids to play indoors in the winter, but it costs money and they can't afford it. Lessons and court time cost money. Tennis is not a cheap game. Right now, I have 14 kids and all of them have a great interest in the game. Wilson is still the team to beat, but all of the other schools are coming up with quality players.
"Nothing replaces competition. These kids need that constant year-round competition. Many of the black kids only want to compete in basketball, and it's tough to get the better athletes out for tennis. It's changing some, though."
Most of the coaches agree that the biggest improvement has been in the play of the girls.
"Our tennis program has gotten much better over the years, mainly because we had coaches who wouldn't give up on the program," said Otto Jordan, athletic director for the Interhigh League.
In the past few years, golf, soccer, baseball, softball and track and field have not attracted the students needed to run a viable program. But tennis has survived.
Because of the summer tennis programs run by the various organizations and the recreation department, more students have begun to an interest.
"Those programs helped get a lot of the kids started," Hairston said. "My team has a number of sophomores, and they'll continue to get better. In fact, many of the better players in the league are underclassmen.
"We played Wilson twice during the regular season and lost, 4-3 and 4-2. I was very pleased. The tennis is improving, but like most things, it'll take time."