The Racket Numbers

With tennis's popularity in a decadelong slump, the country-club set pins its hopes on the city

As a sea of heat-struck Grand Old Day revelers mill about St. Paul's Grand Avenue, John King occasionally peers out the window of his duplex to catch the passing spectacle. There is plenty of commotion inside the air-conditioned apartment, too. Assorted friends and relatives pop in periodically to chew the fat. Bleating children run from room to room. At 57, King is a welcoming, soft-spoken guy, stout-chested, with a shock of white hair and a ready smile. For the occasion, he has laid out an ample spread of snacks, soda, and beer.

But today another event is competing for King's attention. The retired English teacher's eyes periodically dart toward his television as one of tennis's biggest tournaments, the French Open, draws to a close. The American stars Venus and Serena Williams are playing for the doubles championship, paired against the imposing tandem of Martina Hingis, the world's top-ranked woman player, and Anna Kournikova. Since bursting onto the professional scene, the sisters Williams have transfixed the professional tennis world with both their tough, muscled play and their cocksure court theatrics.

But they have drawn notice for another reason as well. Unlike most of their peers on the tour, Venus and Serena cut their teeth on public courts, far from the leafy and exclusive clubs that still generate a majority of the best American tennis players. Their ascendance has been hailed as a watershed moment for the sport, not unlike the emergence of Tiger Woods in golf--a heartwarming (and market-boosting) symbol of millennial integration. For King, who, as head of the booming St. Paul Urban Tennis Program, has labored to introduce the sport to minority kids for the better part of three decades, the spectacle is especially pleasing. "Believe me," he says, wagging a finger at the TV as Venus expertly drops a topspin lob into the backcourt to seal the championship, "that is a big push for inner-city tennis."

The son of a milkman and a beautician, King grew up on the west side of St. Paul, where he learned to play the game on public courts. Back then, he says, there was scant formal instruction available to working-class kids. But King quickly became part of a ragtag group of racket enthusiasts who spent their long summer days hanging out in city parks, honing their games. "We were court rats," he says. "There wasn't anything organized, but we used to play eight to ten hours sometimes. We got pretty good." Occasionally, King entered regional and city tournaments--sometimes with his dad, a former semipro hockey player who played with "a high style of determination."

Though King loved the sport from the start, he was also aware of the pronounced class division that has long lingered under its genteel veneer. At tournaments, King says, a lot of his rivals came from private clubs. "It was cliquish. You could just tell they were from a different world," he says. "They had the longer strokes. They had the disciplined shots. They had the training. And they had the right clothes. We were the odd element out. But we brought an aggressive, confrontational style to the court. We tried to hit the ball through people." King, who began studying for the priesthood in the eighth grade, did not play team tennis until his third year of college, when he left the seminary and transferred to the University of St. Thomas.

After graduation, he landed a few gigs working as a pro at various metro-area clubs. "People with a lot of money would bring their kids down and expect them to be baby-sat," King recalls. "I spent three or four years monkeying around with the country clubs before I realized it just wasn't that satisfying."

With that, King, not inclined to dwell on the negative, produces one of the many brochures he has assembled touting the virtues of the St. Paul Urban Tennis Program. When the project began in 1991, King and a small team of fellow instructors operated on just three courts, attracting 145 kids for a six-week summer tutorial. The group survived on a shoestring, with scant institutional support; the $2,000 budget was raised through individual donations. St. Paul City Hall showed little interest in his efforts, King says, despite the success of a similar program in Minneapolis with which he had been involved since 1970.

There was even talk, he recalls, of charging the kids for use of the courts, many of which had fallen into disrepair.

Things have changed. In recent years, the city of St. Paul has embarked on regular court-resurfacing projects, and this year it even kicked in $20,000 to King's $157,000 annual budget, the rest of which is cobbled together from a broad array of individual, corporate, and public sources. The fundraising success is a testament to King's organizational skills--as is his basement, which is stuffed with donated supplies including more than 300 tennis rackets, thousands of balls, and stacks of dry rollers and other tennis paraphernalia.

Now in its ninth year, St. Paul Urban Tennis employs 60 instructors at 26 sites scattered about the city. Last summer 2,100 kids ages seven through eighteen participated in the seven-week, Monday-through-Friday course. And 41 percent of those kids were members of racial minorities, King notes, the result of aggressive canvassing efforts that included the distribution of more than 50,000 flyers throughout the city, some of them printed in Spanish and Hmong. Though King officially charges $35 per participant, that fee is either fully or partially waived for some 75 percent of the kids.

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