McClain Park Reclaimed Through Tennis

Allan Appel PhotoSouthpaw Jorge Sampedo’s current favorite sport is soccer. That may change now that he and other kids in the Hill have four sparkling new blue and green tennis courts right “in their backyard.”

Jorge and 30 other kids from the nearby Boys & Girls Club on Columbus Avenue were on hand Thursday afternoon for a ribbon-cutting at McClain Park, at the corner of Washington and Ella T. Grasso Boulevard. They helped celebrate the opening of new tennis courts with city officials and staff of the city’s annual tennis tournament, as well as the 26th-best women’s tennis player in the world, Andrea Petkovic.

In the run-up to Friday, the first day of this year’s New Haven Open at Yale tennis tournament, they celebrated the resurfacing of a community court that has been weedy and unplayable for years. They also marked the creation of three half-sized, 36-foot courts appropriate for kids under 8 years old.

The tennis courts, all redone in colors known as “U.S. Open green” and “U.S. Open blue,”  were paid for entirely by a $50,000 grant from American Express, secured by Anne Worcester, executive director of the New Haven Open.

When the city heard that the tennis courts were coming, officials threw in $75,000 more from the capital budget of the city Department of Parks, Recreation and Trees, and Recreation to completely redo two basketball courts and add a kids’ play apparatus and picnic table.

“Welcome to a newly renovated McClain Park, ” Worcester declared at Thursday’s ribbon-cutting.

Various speakers, including the Womens Tennis Association star Petkovic, cited the health and college scholarship possibilities of starting to play tennis at a young age. That opportunity is now possible for many more Hill kids.

McClain Park was targeted for the do-over because it’s walking distance from the Boys and Girls Club and six schools. “We already partnered with Truman School and Yale Athletics,” she added. Starting next school year an after-school program for Truman kids in tennis, tutoring, and mentoring will begin, she said. While it will take place at Yale, “Now they [the kids] will have their own practice court.”

Boys and Girls Clubs director of programs Seth Poole said the new courts will benefit his kids because 40 percent of them hail from the Hill.  “The non-traditional sports [like tennis] are not represented in summer camps, schools, or our community. It definitely makes [playing the sport] a realistic goal for them. It’s like playing tennis in their backyard,” he said.

Worcester has been instrumental in spreading the gospel of tennis to New Haven neighborhoods through programs and court improvements at East Shore Park and Edgewood Park. Click here for a previous story on the refurbishment of courts at Wilbur Cross High School.

The newest neighborhood to receive a tennis program through New Haven Youth Tennis and Education (NHYTE) is Newhallville, where a three-week summer tennis program recently concluded at Mill Rock Park, just over the border in Hamden.

Jorge, Demarques Stevens, Savannah Saunders, Jaline Barrios, and the other kids lost no time after the speechifying in trying out the new courts.They took tips on forehands and balance in a clinic that was part of the festivities.

It may take some time for tennis to take root in the Hill. Of a half dozen kids interviewed, only Stevens called tennis his favorite sport currently. He knocked a few forehands with the pros, and said he regretted not bringing his own racquet from home.

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