It is not uncommon, Charles H. Flowers High School tennis coach Rob Vinson said, for prospective players to come out to tryouts each March without tennis racquets and proper attire.
Ninth-year Eleanor Roosevelt coach Brendan O’Connell frequently encounters students who are unaware the school has a tennis team since the Raiders’ unplayable courts mean they practice and play matches elsewhere.
Maryland high school tennis is divided into eight regions. Each region sends two representatives to the season-ending state championship in each discipline: boys and girls singles, boys and girls doubles, and mixed doubles.
Neighboring Montgomery County (Region II) is perennially dominant; it won its 29th team title in 2011 by claiming four of five total titles.
The county’s 90 state titles account for more than 50 percent of total championships won since the tournament’s inception in 1975.
All-Prince George’s County Region III won its only team championship in 2000.
“PG County tennis is kind of a different world,” Vinson said. “We struggle to get good athletes, a lot of them don’t think it’s cool. It’s a different culture. Most of the kids [in Montgomery County] have been playing since they were 8 years old. Most of our players touch a racquet for the first time in ninth grade. It’s hard to do Tennis 101 and be able to compete with teams where kids grow up playing.”
There have, however, been many talented players to come through Prince George’s. But countywide competition is lacking.
Roosevelt is the eight-time defending region champion. The Raiders and Bowie are the only teams to have produced state champions.
Even at the county’s top programs, there is a significant drop-off between the top one or two players and the rest of the team.
Several factors contribute to this issue, including lack of early exposure to the sport, cost of participation and poorly maintained facilities.
In 1993, Brenda Gilmore co-founded the Prince George’s Tennis and Education Foundation to try and alleviate some of those issues. The PGTEF is a non-profit organization geared toward providing the county’s under-served youth with opportunities to learn and develop in the sport.
“Not everyone is going to be 250 pounds to play football or [6-foot-5] to play basketball. Tennis can be a means of getting to college if you get the benefit of a scholarship,” said Gilmore, current executive director of the PGTEF.
Through grants and fundraisers, the PGTEF is able to provide tennis instruction, equipment, transportation and educational support to people who otherwise might not have access to such services.
Prince George's Tennis and Education Foundation has had 76 of its students admitted to college, and 48 of them received either academic or athletic scholarships.
“Even though in theory you don’t need a lot of money to play tennis, just a racquet and can of balls and go out to a public court for free, it still costs money if you’re going to be good and take lots of lessons,” O’Connell said.
Gilmore and her staff also provide cost-free after-school programs at elementary and middle schools countywide to create early interest in the sport.
Changing the county’s culture and attitude toward tennis has been a long process, Gilmore said. But there has been notable progress.
Five of the county’s eight total state titles have been won since 2000.
Former Roosevelt No. 1 player Katelyn Stokes won the girls singles championship in 2007 and 2009-10.
Two-time defending region champion Myron Davis of Flowers, who is ranked nationally in the U.S. Tennis Association Boys 18s, has the potential to do well at the state level this spring.
Davis and Flowers No. 1 girls singles player Shante Lombre, along with Roosevelt’s top boys player Vijay Golla, are among those who train at the PGTEF.
“I get that all the time, where people don’t know we have a tennis team or think it’s a club sport and not varsity,” O’Connell said. “And that’s with us having a pretty competitive tennis program.”