Amiya Crockrom, 9, swings her racquet at Harrison Park. Crockrom said she enjoyed playing tennis with her friends.
Hector Escarzaga was posting signs along W. 18th St. on a recent weekday, promoting Anita Alvarez as candidate for Cook County state attorney. He had no idea there was a tennis pro giving a demonstration at nearby Harrison Park.
He said his fellow residents in Pilsen usually do not think about tennis. Ever.
“It’s just not in the Mexican culture here to play tennis or think about tennis,” said Escarzaga, 27. “You might see people playing during the school year, but there’s just no one to introduce it to the kids living here.”
Still, hundreds of kids attended the United States Tennis Association’s demonstration of QuickStart Tennis at Harrison Park last week. The new play format is targeted to children 10 and under, and uses shorter nets, smaller racquets and softer balls with less bounce.
Tennis instructors from Chicago's Midtown Tennis Club divided the youth into stations that focused on techniques and conditioning.Former tennis Olympic gold medalist Mary Joe Fernandez also helped demonstrate the new game and emphasized the importance of reaching out to urban, specifically Hispanic communities.
“Sports give you life skills and tennis is no different,” said Fernandez, whose mother is from Cuba and father is from Spain. “For Hispanics, there needs to be more families involved. My two kids like the game, but I have worked with them closely.”
There are tennis courts at nearly a quarter of the more than 550 parks managed by the Chicago Park District. Community workers say tennis goes beyond numbers. “The courts are there, but who is there to introduce it,” asked Lizette Torres, director of youth services at Gads Hill Center in Pilsen. “We’re dealing with many cases of obesity in the Latino community and tennis can help, we just have to show the kids there is more than soccer or basketball.”
Torres works closely with Pilsen youth in Gads Hill’s Club Learn program.
“Tennis is as much our sport as it is anyone else’s,” she said, citing Hispanic tennis stars such as Spain’s Rafael Nadal and Argentina’s Juan Martín del Potro.
Tennis professional and instructor Roger Boyer works as the executive director for Minneapolis-based Inner City Tennis, a non-profit organization that uses tennis to develop character and life skills from youth in urban areas.
“There’s a bit of a barrier with how cool tennis is compared to other sports in urban areas,” said Boyer. “What we do is not tennis as usual ... we go door to door to recruit kids, partner with parks and other organizations and get them on the courts.”
Similar organizations exist in Chicago, such as Love to Serve, a non-profit that also couples tennis programs with an academic focus.
Andres Cordova attends Orozco Elementary and played tennis for the first time at the USTA demonstration last week. He remains discouraged.
“Usually, we don’t play tennis because ... we’re not good at it,” Cordova said of his mostly Hispanic classmates. “No one plays tennis ... we see basketball and soccer more.”
Boyer said there are unique opportunities for urban youth in tennis and that it will require extra efforts to get more involved.
“With tennis, you have to rely on yourself and you have to develop a sense of problem solving on your own,” Boyer said. “It has to be more than tennis courts, it really just takes an organized effort.”