The tennis ball flew high beyond the net, over the coach’s head, past the court baseline, as 7-year-old Taylor Ward packed a strong forehand — perhaps too strong.
Coach Doug Sime trotted toward Taylor (both pictured), then stood behind her and corrected her grip with his hands.
“Just a little punch,” he said, mimicking the appropriate motion by softly bending Taylor’s arms.
The next shot landed inside the play area. All in all, a smoother take.
The tennis action took place Wednesday afternoon not on the courts of Westville’s Connecticut Tennis Center, where the annual Connecticut Open tournament begins Aug. 15. It happened at the plaza outside the former Dixwell Community “Q” House on Dixwell Avenue — thanks to the folks who run the tournament.
Since last week, between 15 and 20 kids from the Dixwell and Newhallville neighborhoods have gathered to participate in “Tennis in the Neighborhood”, a free three-week summer program aimed at helping children develop skills on and off the court, be it literacy enrichment or a killer slice backhand.
The initiative, geared toward underserved neighborhoods, is directed by New HYTEs (New Haven Youth Tennis and Education). Rather than designating a defined set of target goals, it intends to foster interest in the sport of tennis. This enthusiasm, in turn, could be harnessed later on through more structured yearlong programs.
“We’re not really training the next Andre Agassi,” said Coach Doug, director of tennis for New HYTES. “We’re just trying to have fun. If the kids have fun, they’ll come back to tennis.”
After 15 days, or 30 hours, of practice and entertainment, the program will culminate in a family day at the Connecticut Open. Executive Director of New HYTEs Christian McNamara (pictured, in light blue) said children and their families will get to attend the open and participate in a special tennis clinic, where a pro player in the tournament might mentor the young players.
Alders, including Dixwell’s Jeanette Morrison, who showed up at Wednesday’s session, have worked together to bring “Tennis in the Neighborhood” — now in its third year — to their respective wards. McNamara said “priorities this year involve keeping the activities within the neighborhood,” instead of shuttling children to tennis courts in Hamden or the Yale varsity fields as in previous years.
A Tennis Afternoon
The children trickled into the plaza Wednesday, flocking to their pre-workout snack: apples, bananas and graham crackers provided by the instructors.
Soon enough, they were split into two groups. The younger half headed to the public library across the street for an hour of literacy exercises. The older kids took to the courts.
The equipment had been scaled down, in accordance with the United States Tennis Association’s play format for children lessons — smaller courts, pop-up nets, softer balls, lighter racquets.
The rookies warmed up by rallying balls over the nets.
On the left court, however, something intriguing was taking place.
Ronnie Washington, 13 (pictured, in white), had yet to miss a beat, passing the ball back and forth to the assistant coach. It was as if a spell had been cast on that yellow velvety ball.
His friends chanted his name, that is, until the ball sliced past his racquet as he lunged to the right.
“Eighty-six!” the coach yelled. The ball was hit over 80 times.
Ronnie was blasé about his newfound glory.
“I just play basketball,” he told the Independent with a shrug.
Now the players split up on either side of one court to continue their drills against each other, switching places with their teammates every time the ball was hit. If you missed a shot three times, you were out.
“How many bounces before you have to hit it?” Coach Doug shouted out.
“One!” replied the children in unison.
“Right. If it bounces more than once, it’s a strike,” Couch Doug said. “That’s tennis.”
The drill started out with a staccato rhythm of sorts, the flow of game play interrupted by either fumbling or overshooting. In time, though, the rally picked up steam. The ball bounced back and forth over the net in seamless fashion, but one by one, players struck out.
Jordan Hampton, 14 (pictured), and Nia Williams, 13 (no relation to the tennis superstars), eventually became the challengers for the final bout: a two-out-of-three match.
Round 1. After some decent volleying, Jordan lobbed a shot that will land long, but Nia deflects it out of the court. 15/Love, Jordan.
Round 2. Jordan’s serves lands long. A tie.
Final round. Good rally. Then Nia hits a ball in a low arc and, again, it lands long. Game, set, match! Victory goes to Jordan. The rivals shake hands over the net and sprint away with wide smiles.
When asked about his skills, the victor second-guessed himself.
“I don’t have any moves yet,” Jordan told the Independent. He paused. “But I’m gonna try to smash it next time!” He said he plans to stick with tennis after this summer.
After a short volleying game, it was turnover time. Lots of sweat, lots of water-drinking. The younger players were up next.
Taylor Ward, back from the library, began to help putting balls back in the basket.
Her favorite move?
“I like to do that” and she swung her pink racquet forward with a “swoosh” sound from her mouth. It was a formidable forehand.
But does she think she’s any good?
“A bit good,” she said, coyly. “A big bit.”