If there’s one thing Rozzell Lightfoot knows, it’s the burden having a high-level junior tennis player can put on a single parent. The former DeMatha Catholic High School coach, who has been based out of Wheaton for five years, played college tennis on scholarship at Hampton University before traveling the world on the ATP Tour for three years in the late 1980s. None of that would’ve happened, he said, without the support of his extended family.
“I came from a single parent household [in Richmond, Va.],” Lightfoot said. “Without my mom’s brothers, I’d have a really tough time coming up through the tennis ranks. They spent a lot of time and money on me. Tennis is difficult for a lot of kids [to excel at] once there is a single parent, it almost eliminates them from being a tennis player. One, there is the financial burden. Then, a lot of single parents are working all the time and on weekends, how do you get to tournaments? In tennis, everything is individual. In order to get a college scholarship, you have to get a ranking and in order to get a ranking you have to travel and play tournaments.”
So, in 2002, Lightfoot set out to start his own high-performance tennis foundation primarily aimed toward helping children from single parent and foster home situations benefit from the opportunities tennis can provide — the sport is a microcosm of life, he said.
For five years Lightfoot’s One Ace One Foundation, which in 2013 was one of 10 community organizations nationwide awarded a Multicultural Excellence Tennis Grant from the U.S. Tennis Association, has been successfully housed at the tennis facility Wheaton Regional Park. As of Feb. 3, he and his approximately 30 students — more than 100 tennis players try out for his academy each year, he said — have no base facility. This comes at an unfortunate time as many high school boys’ tryouts begin next week.
In an sequence of events early this month, Lightfoot’s classes were abruptly evicted from the building — young children were allegedly asked to stand out in the cold, which Lightfoot said he would not allow — from Wheaton Regional after a child lifted a court divider net and walked across. In a statement made to The Gazette, Montgomery Parks Deputy Director of Operations John Nissel said Lightfoot’s organization has been suspended from using the department’s tennis centers due to ongoing violations of rules and policies, including failure to pay for court time, all accusations Lightfoot adamantly denies. The facility also recently underwent management changes, Lightfoot said. He added that he has supported Wheaton Regional with $100,000-plus worth of business during over the past five years as his programs are run from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday — he said he occupied three courts that otherwise would’ve been empty due to the off hour.
The result has been outrage from parents within the community. Many have sent letters to the parks department as well as Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett in an effort to have the program reinstated, but as of Monday, Nissel confirmed his decision. He added that the suspension is not a reflection on the students of One Ace One and that they are welcome any time as Montgomery Parks remains a firm supporter of community tennis programs. The facility does not, however, run its own high performance program and most local elite level programs are more costly, Lightfoot said. His prices are based on $15 to $20 per hour during the indoor season but said families only pay what they can afford; through grants and sponsorships, he has been able to support players with scholarships.
“The level of accommodation and commitment from Rozzell, there is just no way I could ever compensate him for all he has done to make my kids into very, very competitive tennis players,” said Alena Neves, whose 14-year-old daughter, Alana, is world-ranked. “Rozzell is extremely supportive and does so much more than just tennis. He really shuttles kids back and forth. His program is so in depth, it goes from 4-7, that’s three hours that gives parents a lot of time to get things taken care of. He goes out of his way to make it possible to help these kids play in the first place.”
Neves added that the recent eviction has thrown off her entire family’s schedule. Her son, PJ, a competitive USTA Mid-Atlantic Section player, also went into a tournament last week with nowhere near the preparation he is used to, she added, something that will quickly start to affect the program’s athletes.
Lightfoot, who has helped about 50 players find college tennis opportunities since he founded his organization, said he had hoped to discuss the situation in a meeting with Nissel, who was not present at the time of the Feb. 3 incident but was denied that opportunity.
“I was just trying to help people in their community,” Lightfoot said. “I’m just trying to help kids become better tennis players. I had never had any complaints, written or verbal, until the incident.”