Tennis Is Driving Success

September 24, 2020, Feature, by Mary Helen Sprecher

2020 October Feature Tennis Is Driving Success 410

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How the United States Tennis Association's free programs have helped three cities accomplish their goals

If you’re looking for a way to help propel your parks back to popularity in the wake of COVID-19, the answers have been with you all along, in the form of those green, 120-foot-long rectangles, surrounded by a high fence — your tennis courts.

It is on public tennis courts that many individuals picked up a racquet for the first time. It’s in the parks that countless others have rediscovered the sport during the pandemic. And, it’s on those same courts that athletes have found themselves able to enjoy the outdoors and stay engaged with friends — in one of the safest sports around, health-wise.

But maybe at the moment, your courts are looking a little worn out — and with budget cutbacks, maintenance and improvement projects have been deferred. If you want to use tennis to create new energy, you’re going to need some help.

A host of free services are available from the United States Tennis Association (USTA), the national governing body for the sport, that wants municipal and park projects to thrive as much as you do. From consulting on the design of a state-of-the-art multi-court facility with spectator seating, to helping with information about setting lines for 30-foot and 60-foot courts for youth play, to providing assistance with cracked courts, the USTA’s services are free.

The USTA has a proven history of success in the partnerships it has formed with organizations over the years — partnerships that are benefitting tennis, as well as the larger communities. Here are three examples of cities that leveraged a variety of benefits to help reconstruct, renovate and realign tennis facilities to achieve maximum impact and elevated community involvement.

Memphis, Tennessee: Creating a New Tennis Hub
Memphis, Tennessee, is looking at tennis as the catalyst for a number of programs, not only to create sports opportunities but also, ultimately, to elevate the overall profile of this Southern city.

The Leftwich Tennis Center will feature 24 outdoor courts and 12 indoor courts, a pro shop, offices and classroom space, as well as spectator and concession areas, and is expected to house everything from league play to college teams to mentoring programs for disadvantaged youth. In addition, the local convention and visitors bureau believes it has the potential to attract international tournaments and create a much-needed tourism boost for a city that, like others, has seen its economy ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic.

When the city’s biggest facility, the Racquet Club of Memphis, closed several years ago, it took with it the potential for tournaments (it had hosted the Memphis Open, an Association of Tennis Professionals Tour stop) and subtracted a number of courts from an already dwindling supply — something the city could ill afford, considering the demand. The University of Memphis, a growing force in collegiate tennis, needed practice and competition facilities, as did local high schools and middle schools. In addition, there was an enormous USTA League tennis population, as well as a strong National Junior Tennis and Learning (NJTL) program in the area. And, all those requests for court time were weighing heavily upon the city’s supply.

“We had other courts located around the city, but they were generally in banks of four or six — and it’s really hard to send people to different locations to play,” says Kevin Kane, president and CEO of Memphis Tourism. “We really needed one place that could serve as a hub for everything.”

One possible answer was found in the Leftwich facility, located just off the university’s campus. It had tennis facilities but, having been built in the 1960s, was too small and badly in need of updates.

“We looked at keeping the courts and rebuilding the clubhouse,” says Stephen Lang, executive director of Tennis Memphis, the organization tasked with managing the city’s public tennis facilities, “but we finally decided that getting the best use of the land meant starting from scratch.”

Lang, Kane and a group of others began exploring the concept, meeting with Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, City Council member Worth Morgan and Dr. David Rudd, the university’s president — all of whom saw the potential of the plan. The next step, however, was to create the plan to transform the existing building.

They found the help they needed in the USTA, whose Tennis Venue + Design Group’s Facility Services program was able to provide design assistance, budgets, operating standards, construction document review and business models. The Memphis contingent made a visit to the USTA National Campus in Orlando, Florida, to meet with representatives and to discuss the potential of the project.

Two-and-a-half years from inception, the old tennis center is coming down and the group hopes to break ground on the new facility in the next few months. Slightly more than $20 million has been raised, with a goal of adding another $2 million to $4 million. And, says Kane, the USTA helped provide the launchpad.

“We feel like we’ve orchestrated a perfect team here,” he says. “We are putting together the ideal facility.”

Orlando, Florida: Moving and Expanding
If a venue built in the 1960s sounds like a challenge, the city of Orlando, Florida, has been working with one built in 1932. It was, therefore, something of a relief when a parcel of land was donated approximately three miles away, and the Orlando Tennis Centre could begin its long-planned-for expansions and improvements.

The USTA assisted the city by creating profit/loss statements, cost recovery statements, business models and key performance indicators — all pointing to the need for, and the inherent reward in, building the new facility.

Scott Thornton, Tennis Centre manager and director of tennis, says that the new building will be Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessible, and will include 16 courts and updated lighting, as well as men’s and women’s locker rooms and covered seating for spectators. It will be able to accommodate tournament play as well as leagues.

More importantly, he notes, it will have plenty of space to host the community’s programs for disadvantaged youth — an integral part of the facility’s mission.

“We’re going to bus the kids over from the academic center of excellence in town and bring them out here between two and four days a week,” he says, his voice filling with excitement. “Having the extra space will also allow us to add another school or two to our programs.”

The program includes academic help, providing a listening ear and plenty of tennis play.

“Tennis is the vehicle for the tutoring and mentoring we offer. It teaches a healthy lifestyle, as well as sportsmanship,” he notes. “I would say 99 percent of the kids who come here have never played tennis in their lives, but a few of them have gotten really good at it.”

And, ultimately, it builds relationships.

“It’s fantastic how many hugs we get each day. We can’t wait to be able to get that program started up again,” he says.

Birmingham, Alabama: Streamlining Operations
In some cases, it’s not new courts that are needed, but the ability to optimize the ones you have. Birmingham, Alabama, had three large city-owned tennis centers that, put together, offered up a total of 30 courts.

The problem, says Shonae Eddins-Bennett, director of Birmingham’s parks and recreation department, was that all three facilities were managed separately, making it difficult to create consistency when booking large events or even scheduling routine maintenance work. Her vision was to have a more organized, streamlined system that would tie the facilities together and generate better usage.

“What we needed was to put all three of the tennis centers all under one umbrella, so that we would have one person to communicate with about everything that was going on.”

Working with the USTA, Eddins-Bennett was able to discuss and evaluate potential business models that took into account an overall management strategy for finances, programming and instruction, as well as the ability to create models for the economic impact that could be generated from regular use and from tournament use. The USTA assisted Birmingham in developing a request for proposals for the combined management of all three sites and was able to review the document to ensure it would attract quality applicants.

The new management will help elevate the profile of tennis in the city by connecting operations with multiple entities, says Eddins-Bennett, including bringing in inner city youth for tennis and mentoring programming. And, that’s only the beginning.

“We want to engage our colleges and all of our schools to partake in what we have here rather than going outside the city to play,” she notes. “We also have programming in place in our rec centers for seniors, but we need to get them more involved in tennis as well. We want to bring tennis back to life here.”

The USTA’s services, she adds, were invaluable.

“I learned a lot from talking to them. They’re just so engaged,” Eddins-Bennett says.

Growing the sport through grassroots programming and play opportunities afforded by public parks and schools is a prime directive of the USTA. Its services, which range from design, to business model recommendations, to assessment of current venues and more, are free. And, since parks are an enormous driver of play in the United States, the USTA fully intends to continue its support.

“Public parks represent a key area of focus for the USTA as we look to grow the game and increase access to our wonderful sport,” notes Craig Morris, USTA’s chief executive, community tennis. “Our ability to service and support park agencies through trained providers, facility improvements, program opportunities and digital tools is critical to our mission and will remain at the forefront for years to come.”

Mary Helen Sprecher is a freelance writer and editor based in Columbia, Maryland.