The Racket Numbers

Christopher Peters

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.

The impressive growth of the program has come as tennis's larger fortunes went into a decadelong swoon. According to American Sports Data Inc., a New Jersey-based market-research firm, participation in tennis among Americans peaked in the mid-Seventies, when more than 30 million people played at least once a year. That figure has since dropped to about 17 million--which places tennis behind the perennial leader, bowling (50 million people), as well as basketball (42 million), golf (30 million), softball (19 million), even darts (21 million).

Explanations for the decline abound. "I think the tennis industry kind of sat on their laurels during the boom years," says Jim Larson, a sports sociologist at the University of Minnesota. "But it really was a combination of factors. Some of it is driven by the athletes at the highest level. The game has lost some of its most entertaining and controversial performers--players like McEnroe, Borg, and Connors. There's nothing like that now. It has also evolved into more of a power-serve game. I think most people would rather watch longer rallies." Tennis, Larson adds, has lost a lot of its fans, and hobby players, to golf--a sport that has benefited from savvy, aggressive marketing and the graying of the baby boomers. "You can have a bad hip, a bad heart, a bad leg, and be 80 years old and still play golf very well," he notes. "You can't do that in tennis."

The trend hasn't escaped the notice of national tennis organizations, including equipment manufacturers and the United States Tennis Association, which runs the U.S. Open. They have responded with efforts to broaden the fan base--and that meant heading into territory shunned by the country-club set of King's youth. Last year the USTA kicked off a five-year, $50-million nationwide campaign expressly designed to assist programs like St. Paul Urban Tennis.

"The industry looked around and saw that they had missed the boat," says Tony Stingley, the Multicultural Tennis Director of the USTA's northern division. "The bottom line is that we've got to get more people playing the game." This year, the St. Paul Urban Tennis Program was awarded a special $10,000 "excellence grant" for its success in bringing more minority players into the game. The project, says Stingley, is one of the best of its kind in the country.

Vin Chung, now a junior majoring in kinesiology at the University of Minnesota, started out as a player in King's program in its first year. He joined at the urging of his parents, refugees from Vietnam, who, he says, wanted to expose him to kids from different backgrounds. "I grew up through the program," says Chung, now head instructor at the Harding High courts. "When I started, I wasn't thinking of going to college, but the instructors were really good role models. They got me thinking about goals."

Tunde Abe, a 52-year-old Nigerian immigrant who was first bit by the tennis bug when he was a senior at UM, agrees that the program's virtues go far beyond sport--and even beyond integration, one of the program's stated goals. Because it takes even talented athletes ten to fifteen years to master the fundamentals of the game, the veteran instructor says, players must develop patience. "Tennis is a game that is against the typical philosophy of an inner-city kid. The inability to wait is something which plagues them--the inability to stay with something, and stay with it for a long time," Abe opines. "They have to abandon that philosophy in tennis." In many cases, Abe says, those lessons appear to have stuck, as a rising number of program graduates have gone on to play in national tournaments. Some, including Abe's 18-year-old daughter Bolu, have parlayed their tennis skills into full-ride scholarships.

As far as King is concerned, opportunities for inner-city kids to play and master the sport will only increase in the coming years, especially as government agencies and nonprofits jump on the bandwagon with plans to create more off-season practice sites. In Minneapolis, the groundbreaking for a $4.5-million indoor-outdoor facility--the Fort Snelling Tennis and Mentoring Center--is expected to begin by fall, with a tentative opening date slated for next spring. Funded primarily by Minneapolis philanthropist Fred Wells, the center will be run by a private foundation, Tennis and Mentoring Inc., with the land leased from the Minneapolis Park Board. Its five bubbles and two outdoor courts will be available to the general public, according to manager Dan Shannon. But low rates and reserved times will be set aside for kids--including those in King's program and its Minneapolis counterpart, Inner City Tennis, which last year served some 5,000 kids. (A similar plan has been proposed by the State Amateur Athletic Commission for St. Paul, though there is no financing in place yet.)  

All that, says King, will certainly help young players who have lacked adequate training spaces--and, perhaps, help dispel notions of the game as the sole province of "rich white kids."

"We want the sport to change its image," King adds. "To meet us."

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