It's a well-known reality that Memphis' biggest sport is basketball, but tennis has also been a well-loved sport in the city's past. Fueled in large part by the popularity of the long-running ATP Memphis Open, the game has waned in popularity since the tournament relocated last year.
“It was a terrible blow when the tournament moved from the Racquet Club to Long Island, New York after 40 years," said Arnold Thompson, Tennis Memphis' outreach director. "It became incumbent upon us as an organization, Tennis Memphis, to totally carry the mantle for tennis in Memphis."
Tennis Memphis has managed the City of Memphis' municipal tennis centers since 2002, and affordability is a key tenant of the nonprofit's work.
Tennis Memphis' junior programming at Bellevue, Whitehaven, Frayser and Raleigh tennis centers are just $40 for eight weeks. That's $5 per week for roughly 12 hours of programming a week.
“We offer really affordable programing and really high quality programming as well. If you can’t afford it we don’t charge you. We have a lot of people in our program that don’t pay anything for tennis,” said Malone.
Shelby Callaghan, front left, practices hitting the tennis ball while Dianik Baldoquin waits her turn at Tennis Memphis youth program. (Tennis Memphis)
To improve the popularity of the sport in The Bluff City and attract new players, Tennis Memphis has launched the Play Tennis Initiative and Family Play Day events.
On August 3, Tennis Memphis held a Family Play Day at each of the city’s large municipal tennis centers — Leftwich, Wolbrecht, Raleigh, Eldon Roark, Frayser and Bellevue — to raise public awareness of its programming and get people on the courts.
“We took the approach of doing a project in one day that will impact every neighborhood in Memphis,” said Thompson. “The whole Play Tennis Initiative is all about finding different ways to get out in the community, plant the idea of playing tennis and getting more people in."
The event was funded by a $15,000 grant from the city’s Division of Housing and Community Development earmarked for projects that enhance quality of life in Memphis neighborhoods.
“We had a big tennis day," said Chip Malone, junior development program director and coach for Tennis Memphis at the Bellevue center. "All the programming was free. [Eldon Roark] had like 130-something come out. For the most part, a lot of them weren’t exposed to tennis before that day."
The event investment was small compared to the overall financial commitment the City of Memphis is making towards tennis for all Memphians, especially young people. The Parks and Neighborhood Division spends $250,000 annually for Tennis Memphis staffing and programming. It also covers utilities, maintenance and capital projects at the facilities.
INVESTING IN TENNIS
While turnout is key, capital improvement projects are also vital to maintaining and expanding interest in the sport.
In 2017, Parks and Neighborhoods began a $3.25 million multi-year program to upgrade its tennis centers by replacing outdoor asphalt courts with a more durable surface.
So far, Bellevue, Wolbrecht and Eldon Roarke Tennis Centers have been resurfaced. Raleigh and Frayser’s courts, meanwhile, are in the process of their makeovers. Eventually, all of the city’s courts will be upgraded, many of which are located at city parks and community centers but aren't part of larger tennis centers.
“We are thrilled to see tennis grow in Memphis and to be able to provide our community, through our upgraded neighborhood tennis centers, with a great space to learn and play,” said Maria Munoz-Blanco, director Parks and Neighborhoods.
In terms of investment, Leftwich Tennis Center will be the biggest beneficiary to the tune of $19 million.
Partnering with the University of Memphis, the finished facility will feature a 32-court complex with 12 indoor and 20 outdoor courts. In addition to its role as a public tennis center, it will be home to the U of M's tennis program.
Leftwich tennis center renovation announcement press conference on Aug. 5, 2019. Back row from L to R: Former interim U of M athletic director Allie Prescott, Tennis Memphis Executive Director Stephen Lang, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, U of M President M. David Rudd, Memphis City Councilman Worth Morgan, Tennis Memphis Board Chair Bob Mebane. Front row: The junior players and future stars of Tennis Memphis. (Tennis Memphis)
In addition to providing use of tennis courts for the general public through reservations and open play, Tennis Memphis has a variety of options available for youths, including after-school and summer programs.
While many public parks have tennis programs, in one form or another, some lag in consistent turnout. Frayser’s program, for example, has been severely under-attended for several years.
“Frayser has not been open and running as a daily tennis center for years now," said Thompson. "We just haven’t had the resources to operate it as a daily operation. We have had some after school programming in the Fall. We want to really get it going as a thriving [center], run daily in terms of activity [with] seasons allowing."
A new coach was recently hired to lead and promote Frayser's tennis program and likewise with Whitehaven's tennis center, but Whitehaven too lacks a steady flow of players to keep its courts full and coaches busy.
“We want to really expand outreach into the community there. At times, we hit goals in attendance with different individual kids in the neighborhood that are there, but it swings. We want to get it to where it’s steady,” said Thompson.
Raleigh’s center also needs promotion to improve attendance, while the South Memphis center, meanwhile, has a fully-functioning, high-quality program with coaching for all levels of play.
One way centers' staff members are working to improve interest in the sport is with door-to-door canvasing and talking to neighbors about their community's tennis center and programs.
“A lot of that is canvassing the neighborhood, really digging into the community and trying to get some people over to the center,” said Malone.
CHANGING HEARTS AND MINDS
On paper, tennis should thrive in Memphis. There are courts available throughout the city within walking distance of residential areas and the weather allows a nine-month outdoor playing season.
Tennis Memphis says most of the roadblocks are cultural or perhaps a matter of sports market economics.
In Memphis and across the U.S., basketball, football and baseball have a virtual monopoly on the sports loving public’s imagination. They carve out a large part of sports media coverage, and stars of these sports are cult heroes. Locally, these sports also draw a lion’s share of young athletes eager to learn the games.
“In the city in general, we are a huge basketball city. Football is big. Baseball is pretty big," said Malone. "Nobody really thinks about tennis starting out. It is a great sport, and it is a sport you can get really good at really fast."
Ella DeJesus. right, helps a friend hone her tennis skills. Peer teaching is very important to Tennis Memphis because it is an effective way to build skills and friendships. (Tennis Memphis)
Malone speaks from experience. He picked up tennis as a sophomore in high school. With some one-one-one coaching, he went on to earn a scholarship at Mississippi State University.
“I also played football and basketball, but I never even got close [to a scholarship],” said Malone, speaking to the competitiveness of college sports among the more popular sports.
According to Malone, part of the problem of attracting new and young athletes is one of perceptions. Not only is it less popular and seen as less glamorous by young people who idolize their basketball heroes, tennis is often perceived as a game by and for the wealthy.
“A lot of people all across the world feel that it has been excluding people since the beginning of the sport," said Malone. "As a public tennis center the mission should be to make it accessible to anyone who wants to play it."
To break that perception, Play Tennis promotes relatable stars of yesterday and today along with local players who have benefited from Tennis Memphis’ tutelage.
“At the Bellevue Tennis Center, I have banners up of Venus and Serena (Williams) and Arthur Ashe," said Malone. "These are people who grew up playing on public courts. They didn’t go to country clubs and academies like some."
"Serena and Venus’ dad dropped them off at the Compton Public Tennis Center," he said. "[He] trained them and read books [himself]. A lot of these kids can relate to that because they are not going to these expensive, $5,000 academies. They are getting public tennis training."