A group of tennis players who may never have had a chance to so much as pick up a racquet if not for the offerings of the Norwalk Grassroots Tennis organization are headed to the National Championships in Columbia, S.C. at the end of August. NGT is a nonprofit focused on helping children of low -income families with tennis and education.
The U14 team is making an improbable run from learning the game to dominating it. The U14 squad won state and the USTA Junior Team Tennis New England Sectional championships this month to earn a spot to compete to be the best in its age group in the country.
This team of beginners-turned-standouts on the court didn't lose a match in beating five other New England teams to earn the right to compete against the best of the best from throughout the United States.
"They not only win, they dominate," Ellen Simmonds, director of administration for NGT said of her reaction after the New England triumph. "We're stunned."
The Norwalk team defeated Madison to win the state title to qualify for the New England tourney. Unlike in traditional tennis, the junior tennis rules are such that girls', boys' and mixed team scores are combined for the overall team outcomes in matches.
"They make us all very proud," said Director of Tennis and Coach David Kimani. "I'm so proud of them and their parents for their dedication and the effort they've put in."
Kimani is joined by Coach John Sargent, Junior Coach Maurice (Reese) Thomas-Riley, and Parent Coach Jayashri Chinalapudi.
Players are Pratyusha Chintalapudi, Cierra Kitt, Catherine Duboulay, Yuuki Hosokawa, Taishi Hosokawa, Luis Gonzalez, Tyrone Lewis, Ju'Quaiill Banks, Duly Bolivar, Kent Hurtado, Richie Bienamie, Tes Dejaeger, and Anaelle Benjamin.
Simmonds points out that the players come from housing projects wearing sneakers two sizes too small and that the organization not only coaches the children but also provides them with necessary equipment and clothing to compete.
Simmonds credits Kimani for turning these children into solid players, and Chintalpudi for treating them as her own as most of the mothers cannot attend matches because they have to work (sometimes more than one job) to make ends meet.
Simmonds notes that Thomas-Riley came through the program and knows first-hand the difficulties of growing up in the housing projects. Volunteer coaches John Sargent and Debra Talwalker not only help them on court but also make sure that they have necessary clothes to attend tennis clubs, she adds.
For many of the U14 champs, this marks their first time staying in a hotel, and they are equally excited about the championships and the hotel swimming pool, Simmonds said.
NGT could not foot the bill of traveling to compete without the help of generous volunteers who donate their time and money on and off the court.
Ironically, these players -- thanks to the efforts of NGT and assistance from volunteers and contributors -- get more court time and coaching than many tennis enthusiasts can afford.
"These kids are on the court five days a week, sometimes six hours a day, and their tennis technique skyrockets," Simmonds said.
The U14 team needs $10,000 to make the trip for the national competition. For information on how to contribute, contact Simmonds at firstname.lastname@example.org.