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First Lady, Others Team Up to Expand Tennis in the Territory

Sept. 12, 2007 — Al Richards will never forget the day a few years ago when he walked out to the tennis courts at Charlotte Amalie High School and discovered them buried beneath some 60 feet of crumbled fence.
He had just managed to raise $10,000 to repair the courts, which were usable, but only just. Now, as he looked at the devastation from the previous day’s flooding, he knew his tennis program was over.
“I have 100 kids a semester who would play tennis,” said Richards, a physical education instructor at CAHS and previously the school’s tennis coach. "That’s 200 kids a year. They’re doing volleyball and softball now instead."
But Richards believes there's something special about tennis.
“Let me tell you something,” he said. “When you capture a kid in tennis, it’s like a drug. A good drug. They want it. I’ve had kids out there at 11 o’clock on Friday nights and at 6 o’clock in the morning. All they want to do is go play tennis. It’s a good drug.”
First lady Cecile deJongh agrees. A life-long tennis player herself, deJongh sees tennis as an answer for kids who don’t enjoy team sports and a great way to build coordination while leaving children with a sport they can play into their dotage.
The problem is, unless their parents belong to a private club, there are very few places for kids to learn tennis in the territory. But deJongh sees that changing. She has been working behind the scenes to figure out the federal bureaucracy in hopes of breathing new life into tennis in the territory.
“I want there to be public tennis courts all over the place,” she said during an interview Wednesday from her American Yacht Harbor office.
Thanks to her efforts, an application is now being made to the National Recreation and Parks Association (NRPA) on behalf of the Virgin Islands. Once membership is established, deJongh said, the territory will apply for grants in the association’s April funding cycle in hopes of securing money to begin constructing courts in the summer of 2008.
News of the territory’s pending membership in the NRPA was music to the ears of William McComb, president of the V.I. Tennis Association. There are currently a total of two tennis courts for the public to use on St. Thomas, both at Sub Base. Several others stand in disrepair.
“I’m glad to see the government will be joining the NRPA," McComb said. "That’s a real positive step for the government to take.”
McComb hopes to convene a committee within the next month to examine the possibility of building new tennis facilities on St. Thomas and St. Croix, with the aim of seeking funding from the U.S. Tennis Association (USTA). The territory’s membership in the NRPA will be crucial to his organization’s effort, because the NRPA and USTA work closely together on funding building projects.
“We have to make arrangements for land, for supply, for design," McComb said. "We have a lot of work ahead of us. If I do my job correctly, we probably could apply for funding within six months.”
With infrastructure in place, deJongh said, not only will the game blossom, but so will additional funding opportunities: “An example is the USTA hooked up with Nike and was able to give kids in one community tennis shoes.”
Membership in the NRPA will also enable the territory to focus on improving parks throughout the territory. “It’s more than just tennis courts, but development of parks in general," deJongh said.
The first lady sees the Virgin Islands as a natural training ground for tennis players, given the warm weather year-round, not to mention the long legacy of African-American stars, from Venus and Serena Williams today to Althea Gibson in the 1950s.
DeJongh recently traveled to New York to enjoy the U.S. Open, whose opening day was dedicated to Gibson, the first African-American to play in Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and the first to win both, in 1957 and 1958, respectively. In addition, deJongh said she got “chills” from one of the tournament’s exhibits, featuring congratulatory telegrams from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and baseball-great Jackie Robinson sent to Arthur Ashe in 1968. Ashe was an African-American tennis star from Richmond, Va., and winner of the inaugural U.S. Open in 1968.
Richards, who has coached children into competing in tennis tournaments around the world, joins deJongh in wanting to see tennis become a serious sport readily available to his students.
“We have a lot of kids that are interested, but without the facilities, what can you do?” he said.
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