The American Tennis Association Inc., the oldest black sports organization in the nation, is opening its first national office in Prince George's County.
The group -- founded in 1916 to give blacks a tournament so they could compete in tennis -- is moving into office space at the Prince George's County Economic Development Corp. in Lanham.
The office space will help the organization capitalize on the renewed interest in tennis among African Americans, said Sallie Elam, executive secretary of the American Tennis Association. Elam is a volunteer who works out of her home in Washington, where she also runs a separate business.
"We are growing," she said. "This is a great opportunity, especially at a time like this. It's just amazing how many African Americans in this area play tennis."
The historic 8,000-member organization, which has no full-time office staff, was the launching pad for such black tennis stars as 1957 Wimbledon winner Althea Gibson, 1975 Wimbledon winner Arthur Ashe, two-time Women's Open Champion Zina Garrison and rising tennis player James Blake.
Nearly every trophy-winning professional black tennis player, with the notable exceptions of Venus and Serena Williams, has come through the organization, Elam said.
The association chose to make use of a Prince George's address in part because it was founded in the area and because of an invitation from Prince George's County Economic Development Corp. President and Chief Executive Joseph J. James.
"It's almost our birthplace and the opportunity was extended to us," Elam said.
The association's roots in the Baltimore-Washington area run deep. The organization's first meeting was in Washington, and its first tournament -- held in 1917 -- was in Baltimore. Before the association's founding, black players on the East Coast participated in interstate tournaments, but there was no organized group or national tournament.
After the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association's tournament was integrated by Gibson in 1950, the American Tennis Association began developing players to compete in national tournaments. Until two years ago, the winner of the association's tournament was an automatic wild card entrant into the U.S. Open tournament.
County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D) said the tennis association is a good fit in Prince George's.
"It's obviously exciting for us," Curry said. "It's an attractive group to have with the significance that it projects in tennis."
The nonprofit organization's primary objective is to host its annual tennis tournament, which the was held in Prince George's for the first time in August and will be held in the county again next year.
The office and phone line will be helpful for marketing and giving members a central location to go to with questions.
"This is the first time we've had a live office space," Elam said. "This is a really big plus to be in a building."
The office, adjacent to the development corporation's 13,000-square-foot technology incubator, will give the association access to a receptionist, copiers and fax machines, as well as Internet connections and other high-tech amenities. The development corporation has even linked the tennis association's Web page to its site.
"They made us an offer that you could not refuse, along with all the assistance we receive by being there," Elam said. "They have gone above and beyond."
The association's small office has enough room for a desk, file cabinets and computers, Elam said. She will work from the Prince George's location about twice a week and plans to start a volunteer program to bring in association members and tennis students to work in the office.
The American Tennis Association "can receive services they could not afford to pay for on their own," James said. "We hope within a year or so to graduate them into regular office space."
Separately, the development corporation's technology incubator space celebrated its first anniversary last week.
"We started off at 11,000 square feet, knees trembling, and because of demand we added 2,000 square feet," James said. "We've gone from zero to 19 companies, and one company has gone from two to 20 employees."