For the last 30 years, the Washington Area Tennis Patrons and the D.C. Department of Recreation have worked hand in hand to provide area youth an opportunity to play tennis. Both programs have turned what was once a game for the affluent into a sport affordable for all.
This summer, the WATP has provided 23 sites in the District of Columbia at which young people can practice and learn the game of tennis. The program has four all-day sites, and the other 19 locations offer morning or afternoon practice facilities.
What makes this program unique is the cost to the participants. The requested fee is $5 per program, but no child has been refused the opportunity to participate because he or she didn't have the money. "We try and let any kid participate because the program is set up for them," said WATP director Harriett Novar.
The U.S. Tennis Association and the National Junior Tennis League also work with the WATP. The summer program began in late June and will run until Aug. 14.
Tennis instruction and team practices are offered daily, except on selected days in which there is match play. Although tennis is an individual game, the program provides for team concepts. Teams from each site compete against each other before the program ends, and the tournaments create a competitive atmosphere.
"The tournaments aren't really that intense, but the kids really enjoy seeing the other kids they've been practicing with do well," said Jeff James, an instructor. "I wouldn't be surprised if some of these kids eventually earn a scholarship somewhere, too."
Although most of the youth who excel in the program eventually leave for private lessons, the main goal of the program is to get kids interested in the game. "We just try and get the kids started and try and help them learn the fundamentals," said Novar.
Because the WATP keeps the program inexpensive for most participants and free to some, it is constantly struggling to provide money to keep the program running. "A lot of our equipment is donated to be used by outside organizations," said Novar. "In fact, some of our equipment has been given to us by top-ranked professionals."
The WATP also works with the National Park Service with other tennis camps. This program is more expensive -- $35 -- and runs for two weeks. As with all of the programs that the WATP provides, the age limit is between 8 and 18.
For many years, the District of Columbia trailed Virginia and Maryland in tennis facilities and number of skilled players. The WATP, however, has helped shrink that gap.
"If we can provide some of these kids the opportunity to play a game that they probably never would have been able to afford, then we've done our job," said Novar.
"It used to be that if you wanted to play some of the top players in the area, you'd have to go outside of the District to compete in tournaments," said James. "But I think in a few years some of the same kids that are running around these courts may turn out to be some pretty good players. Wouldn't it be ironic if some of these kids who probably never could have afforded to learn how to play the game, turn out to have this same game provide them with the opportunity to go to college for free? That would be beautiful."
The program not only has given youngsters a chance to improve their skills, it has helped provide an understanding of what it takes to move up to a higher level of competition.
"I've enjoyed playing in the program, and I've been playing for the past three years," said Sandra Kelly. "I'm 15 and I'm able to play girls who are older than me. I think that has helped make me a better player."