Coach Wants Tennis to Become More Accessible in Greater Williamsburg

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State champions like Jamestown's Anna Walter are bright spots for tennis in Williamsburg. (file photo)
State champions like Jamestown’s Anna Walter are bright spots for tennis in Williamsburg. (File Photo)

Historic Triangle schools sent six tennis players to the 2015 Virginia High School League state championships, all of whom attended either Jamestown or York.

While York is a relatively new tennis power, Jamestown has stood out as the premier tennis program in the area with the boys team not losing a Bay Rivers District match since 2006.

The advantage Jamestown has over other local schools is the majority of its players – nearly 80 percent, according to Eagles Coach Bob Artis – receive year-round instruction from private instructors at nearby tennis clubs such as Kingsmill Resort, Ford’s Colony and William & Mary’s McCormack-Nagelsen Tennis Center.

Warhill High draws most of its students from the more rural areas of Toano and James City County, which are farther from public tennis courts and include fewer families able to afford private tennis lessons for their children, said James Gomes, the Warhill girls tennis coach.

Because of the disadvantage, Gomes is working to provide more avenues for children throughout the Greater Williamsburg area to pick up tennis without having to break the bank for it.

Examining the state of tennis in the Historic Triangle, Gomes identified a hole in the development of youth players. While local high schools have seen success at the state level, Gomes is concerned with the lack of accessible instruction to children from non-affluent families before they reach high school.

To combat the issues with the tennis scene in the Historic Triangle, Gomes and the United States Tennis Association, or USTA, are trying to implement programs locally that would help introduce children to the sport at earlier ages.

The process is already underway in Williamsburg-James City County elementary schools.

Between November and January, nine physical education teachers in the WJCC school system became certified under the USTA School Tennis Curriculum, which ensures physical educators have the knowledge and equipment to properly teach tennis during their classes.

With certified instructors in place, after-school tennis clubs were organized at Stonehouse Elementary and James River Elementary for the first time this spring.

The clubs were part of WJCC’s School Health Initiative Program, which is a partnership between WJCC and the Williamsburg Health Foundation to improve the health and wellness of WJCC students and staff by supporting and promoting healthy lifestyles.

Adam Otstot, coordinator for health and physical education for WJCC Schools, said the two after-school tennis programs saw a good deal of success and reached capacity during the eight-week span. Similar after-school programs will be held for the first time in the fall during the upcoming school year.

Combined with the improved tennis curriculum, Otstot is hopeful the programs can be expanded to middle and high schools as the partnership between WJCC and the USTA, which is in its first year, continues to grow.

“In the first year of anything, you’re kind of feeling your way around and looking to see how you can use the partnership in the best way to fit the school division,” he said. “Having a staff that’s capable of providing those experiences is valuable.”

While Gomes is pleased with the advancement of the elementary-level tennis programs locally, he still sees holes in the Historic Triangle’s tennis infrastructure.

As a child growing up in New England, Gomes received tennis instruction from ranked players that volunteered their Saturdays to teach tennis to children through the local recreation department.

Gomes feels the same instruction and support he had as a young tennis player is lacking for young tennis players today in Williamsburg, citing the need for an accessible local tennis association in Williamsburg and more tennis instruction from local recreation departments.

Bob Dill, a tennis coach at Walsingham Academy, shares the same views on tennis in the Historic Triangle as Gomes and is working to help teach tennis to underprivileged children in the area.

Dill teaches a Kickstart Tennis Program for Williamsburg’s Parks and Recreation Department, which he said is mostly attended by children from more affluent families, who also have access to private instruction. The Kickstart Tennis Program teaches the basics to children from ages 4 to 7 and 5 to 12.

While Dill teaches tennis to children from more affluent families, he has recently started taking his lessons to those not as fortunate.

Every Wednesday this past summer, Dill and some of his tennis players from Walsingham Academy host an hourlong session called the Summer Youth Achievement Program, which provided an avenue for less privileged children to learn tennis, with Quarterpath Recreation Center buying rackets for the children who could otherwise not afford them.

Like Gomes, Dill feels the tennis scene in the Historic Triangle lacks the accessibility of other, more popular sports like football and basketball. In rural areas, Dill said the problems are exacerbated due to a lack of available tennis courts.

There are roughly 50 public tennis courts in the Greater Williamsburg area with most centralized in the county and none in the Toano area. One set of public tennis courts exist in Grove at the James River Community Center.

Each dot on the map represents areas where public tennis courts exist in the Greater Williamsburg area. (Ty Hodges/WYDaily)
Each dot on the map represents an area where public tennis courts are available in the Greater Williamsburg area. (Ty Hodges/WYDaily)

While public tennis courts exist throughout the Historic Triangle, players interested in improving their game are best served playing on nicer courts with instructors like those found at Kingsmill Resort and the McCormack-Nagelsen Tennis Center at William & Mary.

However, some of these learning opportunities are limited to members of the respective locations.

In order to use the tennis courts at Kingsmill Resort, one must either be a resident or guest of the resort. The club does offer daily tennis lessons that are open to reasonably skilled adult non-members, but at a price of $30 per course. Such a program for children does not exist at the resort.

At McCormack-Nagelsen, local non-members are allowed to use the tennis courts four times per year at a rate of $25 per person in an attempt to encourage locals to purchase a full membership.

In order to gain full access to the courts, one must sign up for a membership to the tennis center. The cheapest annual membership is for juniors 18 and under that runs $755, though it can be prorated for members who join after Nov. 1, the date at which annual memberships begin.

Donald Widener, a tennis professional at McCormack-Nagelsen, recognizes the expenses that come with playing tennis, such as equipment and instruction costs, and is trying to help those aspiring to play tennis cut costs when possible.

For players interested in joining tennis programs at McCormack-Nagelsen, an instructor will spend 15 minutes of on-court evaluation time with the player to determine which program is the best fit for them. These evaluations normally come with a fee, but Widener said most of the time the instructors will waive it.

An expensive aspect of playing tennis is having the means, whether travel or monetary, to play at dedicated tennis centers with certified instructors. That is why Widener, like Gomes and Dill, is a big proponent of holding play days in areas that lack accessibility to proper tennis instruction.

“If folks can’t commute here or get a membership here, go where kids are,” he said of the play days, which are currently held in conjunction with Ford’s Colony, Two Rivers and the Williamsburg Inn.

Spreading the word about the play days is mostly handled by the locations in which they are being held, but Widener said McCormack-Nagelsen also uses its social media platforms and its official website to promote the events when they are happening.

For Gomes, the Historic Triangle is making progress when it comes to making tennis more accessible for children in the area, but the work is not yet finished.

As the grassroots efforts to promote tennis to children begin to spread, Gomes hopes the next generation of tennis players in the area will be more prepared when they reach the high school level.

“We need to do more. The programs are available, but in a lot of way kids don’t need a 10-and-under format, they don’t need to always be on tennis courts,” he said. “I just think there’s a lot more that can be done. I want to see if we can get kids going for the future. My emphasis is totally on trying to instruct kids and see if we can get the level of play up in the area.”