When the stars of the tennis world descend upon UCLA for this week’s Farmers Classic, they do so in search of a championship and a share of the million-dollar prize money.
But there is another pot quietly growing at the tournament ““ and while it may be smaller, it is no less important.
All of the tournament’s proceeds ““ minus a portion which goes to UCLA for hosting the tournament ““ go directly to the grassroots programs of the Southern California Tennis Association.
The profits ““ which have ranged from $200,000 in 2011 to $500,000 in 2010 ““ help SCTA further their mission of, as SCTA marketing manager Anette Padilla put it, “bringing tennis out to all types of people, at all ages.”
In years past, tournament proceeds have been supplemented by concerts throughout the year, put on through a collaboration between SCTA and GRAMMY Foundation.
Although this year’s concert is still undecided, past performers have included blockbuster acts such as Keith Urban and Coldplay, providing additional funding and publicity to the cause of bringing tennis to the masses.
While this mission includes assisting those whose physical limitations make playing tennis a challenge through wheelchair and adaptive programs, it also aims to bring the game to those limited by social circumstance.
One of the primary venues for this mission is a program which brings together SCTA, the LA84 Foundation and National Junior Tennis and Learning ““ aptly titled the LA84 Foundation SCTA/NJTL. The program aims to bring the game of tennis to disadvantaged children in the Los Angeles region.
“The program operates from San Luis Obispo to San Diego, anywhere that a child wouldn’t otherwise get the opportunity (to play tennis),” said Melanie Bischoff, community development coordinator for SCTA. “Instruction, rackets, balls, a T-shirt ““ everything is paid for.”
At each of the program’s 150 summer sites, children participate in a six-week curriculum, learning the basics of the game from experienced instructors. The cost is $10, with scholarships available to ensure no child is ever turned away, but program coordinators say the benefits far outweigh the cost.
“It’s really a nice thing for the whole community,” Padilla said. “It’s about the development of character and education.”
Dee Henry, tennis coach at Biola University and a coach of the LA84 Foundation SCTA/NJTL program since 1983, agrees that the benefits of the program extend far beyond the court.
“Yes, they’re learning the game of tennis, but they’re also learning life lessons,” Henry said. “They’re learning how to get along with the person on the other side of the net.”
Henry’s experiences coaching the program have also come to benefit her college team. Many of her players, she said, were students in the program as children.
And while the Farmers Classic will offer its proceeds ““ which come from ticket sales and food court purchases ““ to SCTA’s program, tournament-goers also have the opportunity to donate more directly.
In the first half of the week, tennis aficionados are encouraged to bring and donate their old rackets, which will then be refurbished and donated to participants in the program.
Once these rackets reach the program, SCTA officials say there is a real chance that they may end up in the hands of a future champion.
From the program’s beginnings in 1969, many of its participants have stayed competitive in tennis, playing in college or even on a professional level.
“Venus and Serena were in (the program) when they were 6 and 8,” Henry said, referencing the Williams sisters, who have each ranked among the world’s elite for more than a decade.
“Clearly, these kids are learning something,” she added with a laugh.
And while not all participants end up as Grand Slam title winners, program coordinators are content with fostering a love for the sport in program participants.
“Over the years of this program, there are many kids that have gotten into college and continued to play,” Bischoff said. “It’s definitely something that leads them into playing for a lifetime. That’s the whole point.”