Female tennis players, aside — perhaps — from professional stars Maria Sharapova and Venus and Serena Williams, are not the highest-profile professional athletes. But as rising American star Sloane Stephens approached the Prince George's Community College tennis courts July 24, approximately 100 children immediately swarmed around the world's No. 22-ranked women's professional tennis player.
Stephens, who is in the Washington, D.C. area for this week's Citi Open at the William H.G. Fitzgerald Tennis Center, was in Prince George's County last week to take part in a U.S. Tennis Association Mid-Atlantic National Junior Tennis and Learning play day. Founded nearly 50 years ago by Arthur Ashe, NJTL includes more than 600 non-profit youth development organizations throughout the country that provide tennis and education support to underserved youth.
The 21-year-old Prince George's Tennis and Education Foundation is one of those organizations and many top Prince George's County Public Schools players, such as recent Eleanor Roosevelt High School graduate and two-time Region III boys singles champion Vijay Golla, are products of the organization's programs.
It's possible many of the children attending last week's play day remembered Stephens from last year's groundbreaking ceremony for the very courts on which they were playing — the day featured drills and games in which Stephens participated in as well as a question and answer segment.
A year ago, Stephens chose the PGTEF to receive the American Express Fresh Courts Grant, which funded the much-needed refurbishment of the PGCC courts the foundation uses.
In speaking to the children, Stephens stressed that if she could make it to where she is, they can, too. That message, PGTEF Co-Founder and Executive Director Brenda Gilmore said, along with the importance of education that her Harvard-educated mother instilled in her, was invaluable.
“[The fact that she was an NJTL kid] makes her the perfect role model. It doesn't get any better than that, someone you can relate to who can relate to you,” Gilmore said. “To have someone of this caliber come to P.G. County and not just spend their time, but use their influence to have courts renovated and build that relationship, it's outstanding and it's something we need a lot more professional athletes to do.”
While tennis has veered from its perception as a country club sport in the past 20 years, it is still costly. But Gilmore, who co-founded the PGTEF in 1993, said the foundation does not turn anyone away because they can't afford the programming — the organization itself is supported by grants, sponsors and fundraisers, and is run mostly by volunteers.
Gilmore is driven to connect with the county's youth early on to ensure they're guided toward a good path; she and her staff offer free afterschool tennis classes at elementary and middle schools across the county. That's how rising Fairmont Heights senior Roby White found a second family with the PGTEF, he said. Without the foundation, he said, he didn't know where he'd be, but it sure wouldn't be on a tennis court.
“We're not trying to make these kids the next U.S. Open champion and they may not all be a Sloane Stephens, but then they're a lawyer or a dentist; we have kids who became teachers,” Gilmore said. “[These kids] can be what they want to be, but we want them to understand there is a proper path to get there. You want them to stay out of trouble.”
More than 100 PGTEF athletes have gone on to college with the majority receiving some sort of scholarship, Gilmore said. Much of the PGTEF staff comes from that lot or parents of former players who want to stay involved, Gilmore said.
Zach Tobias, the PGTEF director of programs, is one of them. He has been with the foundation since he was 9 and upon finishing up his four-year career with the Temple University men's tennis team in 2008, returned to help the next generation of PGTEF youth.
“With a non-profit like us we [have to have players want to come back]. The only way for us to survive is by keeping the volunteer cycle and really keeping that culture,” Tobias said. “I always say, 'Each one, reach one.' If you make it, reach back. ... Having Sloane out here was truly an inspiration, especially for these young ladies to see a positive role model who looks like them. It makes them believe it's possible.”