Perhaps it seems fitting that Watkins Regional Park in Upper Marlboro is set to host the Prince George's County District 5 tennis championships this weekend and the 4A South Region tournament next week because the park's bubble provides local high school, middle school and youth players a primary venue to practice at.
In an era where sports specialization has led many athletes to participate in one sport year-round, county tennis coaches have urged their underclassmen to do the same. It's something that Watkins Regional Park Tennis Director Myron Davis would enjoy seeing as well. Each fall and winter, the park offers a free tennis clinic to middle school and high school students and even provides free tennis rackets and balls to upwards of 10 first-time participants.
“What we would really like to see is kids getting started playing tennis at a younger age and then playing year-round,” Davis said. “It's a sport that anyone can play for life. Some of our biggest local clubs are for seniors, not high school seniors but senior citizens. This is a public park, so kids or anyone can come and play here. It's a non-contact sport and it can provide a chance for some student-athletes to earn a college scholarship.”
Even among the upper tier teams in the county, such as Bowie, Eleanor Roosevelt and Charles H. Flowers, tennis is only a year-round sport for a limited number of players. For instance, Bowie senior twins Maddy and Tori Simmons and teammates David Markward and Quan Tran play year-round for club teams and pay to do so. Second-year coach Michael Fehn encourages all of his returning players to find somewhere to play each summer.
“The way I look at it, I'm going to start the best players I have,” Fehn said. “So, if a freshman comes in here and beats one of my upper classmen out for the No. 1 or No. 2 spot, that's who I am going to play. I try to remind the returning players that they could be watching a freshman play in their spot next year if they don't play all summer. I'd like to see more of my kids participate in camps and clinics.”
Even longtime Eleanor Roosevelt coach Brendan O'Connell faces the same situation each spring when the tennis season ends. O'Connell said that he normally has anywhere from five to eight players who compete year-round.
“Really, except for my top players, most of my kids don't play year-round,” O'Connell said. “My top players each year play club, they play in tournaments all summer, fall and winter and they come back ready to play. But a lot of my kids just put their rackets away once the season's over each May and they don't pick them up again until March. I would like to see more of my kids get involved in camps and clinics, but I'm not sure that's going to happen.”
But Davis expects to see a spike in tennis participation over the next several years as parents and athletes ponder the growing concern over concussions and other sports-related trauma.
“For the last 10-15 years, I think we saw a dramatic decline in tennis participation in this country,” Davis said. “But I think that trend will change. A lot of parents and coaches are concerned about the long-term effects of concussions. Not just among football and soccer players, but also among lacrosse players. Tennis is relatively contact-free, so anyone can play a long time and not be concerned about getting seriously injured. It's definitely a sport you can play your whole life.”