Tennis racket outreach: Effort to help underprivileged, first-timers

The United States Tennis Association is giving away free tennis rackets to those who want to try the sport, with no strings attached.

Janay Oakland is the tennis service representative for USTA-Nevada. She looked at the Racquet Recycle Program — in place for about 15 years for newcomers to try the sport — and saw that it was pulling in only 15 used rackets a year.

A friend, attorney Phil Aurbach, suggested mounting a campaign to increase that amount. Oakland took it and ran with it.

“What I wanted to do was to get people started in tennis,” Oakland said. “With little kids, you’re going to want smaller rackets. If someone is new to (the sport), they maybe don’t want to put the investment forward, but they want to try it, and I also wanted to do it for underprivileged kids who are older and will need bigger rackets.”

She wrote a business plan, got funding and approached professional players and got them on board. She created a website, rrplv.com, and a Facebook page. She spent a little more than $250 to get 10 plastic receptacles and placed them in prominent locations, such as All American Tennis Park, 1651 S. Buffalo Drive; Lorenzi Park, 3333 W. Washington Ave.; Canyon Gate Country Club, 2001 Canyon Gate Drive; and Red Rock Country Club, 2250 Red Springs Drive.

Oakland approached Timothy To at Wilson Sporting Goods, who donated string and grips. Crombie Hatfield, the tennis pro at Canyon Gate, taught her how to restring the used rackets. Wilson also provided covers. She estimated that Wilson gave her more than $500 worth of product.

The push for used rackets was launched in September and coincided with the USTA’s Tennis Month and free tennis campaign. As used rackets came in — the first group had about 70 — Oakland glued on the new grips and restrung them. Some people who took advantage of the USTA’s Tennis Month promotion received some of the refurbished rackets.

Oakland was put in touch with David Wilson, the principal of Chaparral High School, 3850 Annie Oakley Drive. As an interim principal, he set up a tennis team comprising about 30 students after having the tennis courts resurfaced.

“He said that before, they looked like an earthquake had gone through there,” Oakland said.

She was there when the rackets were handed out.

“I kind of teared up, watching,” Oakland said. “The kids were so nice, so appreciative.”

Aaron Rouse, 18, was one of the students who received a racket. He’d joined the tennis team at a friend’s suggestion.

“I had a racket that was in my house, but he said it wasn’t a good one,” Rouse said. “I have a job, so I went out and bought myself a nice racket. If I get out of rhythm, I use the racket that they gave me, or I use it to warm up. (Switching between the two) helps you with your game.”

“We’ve always had the Racquet Recycle Program,” said Ryan Wolfington, executive director of USTA-Nevada, “but (Oakland has) really run with it and taken a personal interest in it, added a lot of new things. We basically used to just say, ‘Hey, drop off your used rackets at the office,’ and when people needed one, we’d hand it out. But she’s really stepped it up.”

The effort also provides rackets to parks’ programs aimed at disadvantaged youths.

“These are good rackets,” Wolfington said. “People will donate the one they got last year because they just bought the latest model, so these are really nice rackets … We’d get maybe 15 rackets a year, but because of her program, we’re bringing in like 150 rackets.”

Oakland packages the rackets with a list of tennis rules so beginners are less intimidated. She said supplying a racket to a young person was a small act that could shore up their self-confidence and provide them with sports achievements that might lead to other opportunities.

Wolfington agreed, saying, “One child that we did this with at Chaparral seven years ago really got into tennis. He ended up getting a scholarship to college and just graduated from Hartford (and) was captain of the tennis team. Back then, I think the graduation rate at Chaparral was 50 percent. The young man just went on a trip with us because he was with the Marty Hennessy (Junior Tennis) Foundation, and he told me, ‘All my friends at Chaparral are in trouble, in rehab, one is in jail, one works at Walmart, and none of them went to college. Had I not gotten involved in tennis, that’s where I would be.’

“It’s interesting how a racket can get someone started in a recreational sport that they can play forever, or it can actually get them on a path of just really trying to be the best they can be in a sport and open up other doors like college.”

Contact Summerlin/Summerlin South View reporter Jan Hogan at jhogan@viewnews.com or 702-387-2949.

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