Gearing up for summer at Vineyard Youth Tennis

Reid Yennie
Reid Yennie successfully volleys the ball back across the court. Photos by Ralph Stewart

By Karla Araujo - May 17, 2007

They run, jump, hurdle, throw, catch, sidestep, slice, chip, drive, volley, and smash their way through their one-hour lessons twice a week at Vineyard Youth Tennis. During the colder months, you can hear their shouts and screeches echoing outside the protective bubble that rises each autumn to shelter the hundreds of Island kids between 4 and 18 years old who now count free tennis as one of their weekly activities year-round.

"It's a great program," Adam Bresnick says, his voice enthusiastic. An avid tennis player himself, his three boys - Owen, 5, Sam, 7, and Zach, 9, are all growing up with rackets in their hands. Now that the kids are playing, he says, his wife has taken up the game as well.

"How lucky are we to have this facility?" Mr. Bresnick asks. "I'm seeing a lot of kids switching to tennis from other sports on the Island. It's now part of the mix of kids' sports and it's drawing kids who otherwise wouldn't be able to afford to learn."

Hannah Hagen
Hannah Hagen works on her backhand.

Opened in July 2002, Vineyard Youth Tennis is located near the intersection of Barnes and Edgartown-Vineyard Haven roads, once known as "the blinker." Built and funded completely by private donations, the center's mission is to make tennis a life sport for kids by providing professional instruction, and to teach the values of sportsmanship, healthy competition and mutual respect. By all reports, it's working.

Joseph Serpa, 5, has been attending twice-weekly classes for nearly two years. His mother Lauren says: "Tennis has become so much a part of who he is. He's gained a huge amount of confidence and has learned not only about the game but about how to be a team player too. He plays with kids who are older and bigger than he is and he enjoys every minute."

While Vineyard Youth Tennis has been directed by several experienced tennis professionals since its inception, the facility's current Executive Director is Scott Smith. Mr. Smith brings with him 25 years of top-level credentials, including managing programs at some of Florida's most prestigious clubs as well as a stint at Nick Bollettieri's tennis academy where he helped train legends Andre Agassi and Jim Courier. He is assisted by Head Professional Michael Halisky, a former top junior player from Clearwater, Fla., who went on to become one of the state's highest-ranking open division players. Additional staff includes instructors Ry Yennie and Karla Araujo and Program Coordinator Nicole Hawkes. Mr. Smith plans to bring on additional instructors to handle the increased number of students in the summer.

Connor Downing
In the mid-serve is Connor Downing.

"I'm trying to create an environment where kids are welcome to hang out - not just come to take lessons," Mr. Smith explains. "We have a media room, ping pong, open court time that parents and kids can book, exhibition matches, parent/child drill days and tournaments. We have the Tennis Channel coming to film here in July and our first USTA-sanctioned tournament scheduled for mid-August."

Mr. Smith says he emphasizes keeping kids moving and motivated on the court. He entertains the youngest players with magic tricks and engaging games, at the same time teaching irrepressible four-year-olds how to hit a semblance of a topspin forehand with their miniature rackets.

"You start your forehand down low and finish where?" he coaxes. "High!" six pre-schoolers answer in unison. "Oh hi," he replies, waving at them. They dissolve into giggles although they've participated in this question-answer banter countless times before.

The program is offered throughout the year in four- to six-week sessions. Kids are welcome to sign up as frequently as they want, so those who are really dedicated become regulars. Nine-year-old Connor Downing is a great example. He's grown up at Vineyard Youth Tennis, beginning as a four-year-old. Today he travels off-Island regularly to compete in tournaments around New England and has won all but one. "He came in second," his mom reports proudly.

"It's had a huge impact on his life," says Karen Downing. "Connor doesn't like to run with a pack. He enjoys the one-on-one aspect of the game. If it weren't for the facility he never would have had a chance to learn tennis or to make so many friends from around the Island.

Gregory Ryden with Max Potter
Enough tennis: Gregory Ryden, left, runs with Max Potter.

Oak Bluffs resident Liz Roberts concurs. A tennis player since three years of age, Liz shepherds her three children, Jack, 12, Tim, 10 and Katharine, 7, to Vineyard Youth Tennis several times a week. "It's a great opportunity for Island kids. We're incredibly fortunate to have a facility that provides not only lessons but tennis rackets and clothing for any child who wants to play. I like the fact that the kids work with different pros, each of whom offers a different perspective and style on the court."

The compound features four clay courts, two of which are bubbled for winter play, and a clubhouse with locker rooms, media room, lounge, kitchen and offices.

"It's the only facility of its kind that I know of," Mr. Smith reports. Other places offer tennis programs for children, he says, but not a fully outfitted, dedicated facility like this one. "My initial goal was to get a racket in the hands of every child on the Island," he says. "But we've got such a promising group of eight- to 12-year-olds that we're encouraging those kids to develop into serious players."

Mr. Halisky, the head pro, travels with the kids to tournaments off-Island. While the young players are undoubtedly inspired by his larger-than-life skills on the court, it's their attitudes that have changed him. "A lot of these kids see us almost as mother or father figures," he says. "They look up to us. It's taught me to be more patient, to try to understand each personality. It's very, very fulfilling."

For more information about Vineyard Youth Tennis, call 508-693-7762 or visit www.vineyardyouthtennis.org.

Karla Araujo is a tennis instructor for Vineyard Youth Tennis. She is a contributing writer for The Times.