Tennis Program Offers Lessons with No Strings

By MAX HART

In 2002 when he first walked onto the court at the Vineyard Youth Tennis center, four-year-old Connor Downing was barely big enough to see over the net, let alone hold a racquet.

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And like many of the dozens of aspiring Andre Agassis and Serena Williamses who shuffled onto the center's clay courts that year, when it came to the proper way of moving his feet, the right way of angling his racquet and the best approach to hitting the fuzzy yellow ball bouncing toward him, Connor was at a loss: they were not easy concepts to grasp for someone whose racquet was almost as big as he was.

Last weekend, the bigger yet still pint-sized player from Edgartown stepped onto an indoor court in Wayland in his tennis whites and tossed a serve into the air. Across the net from him waited Sam Lapidus, the 169th ranked junior tennis player in New England. Connor swung his racquet high over his head, struck the ball and watched as it sailed over the net.

While the suspense was eliminated early in the contest (Lapidus won easily), Connor's participation in that match - part of a United States Tennis Association-sponsored, under-12 junior tennis tournament - was a benchmark moment for this Island program that five years ago was struggling to secure a foothold in the Island community. It was proof that not only has the Vineyard Youth Tennis program grown since its first year when about 70 kids signed up, it has also begun to produce talented players who can compete on a regional level.

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In other words, the program is beginning to realize both of the core elements of its mission.

"Our primary goal here is to put a racquet in the hands of every kid on the Island, but I think the secondary goal, the ultimate goal, is to produce competitive players who can enjoy this game their whole lives," Frederic (Fritz) Buehning, the Vineyard Youth Tennis director, said on a recent afternoon. "We would love to have a graduate of this program some day be able to realize a college scholarship in tennis. I think that would really be a testament to level of quality the center provides."

While Connor may be the emerging face of the Vineyard Youth Tennis program, he is by no means alone. On any given afternoon you can find his buddy, 11-year-old Kent Leonard, smashing forehands just inside the baseline on court one. Kent also traveled to last week's tournament, and while only four kids participated in the round robin event, he came in second place behind Lapidus. Ten-year-old Julia Cooper, who like Connor is a four-year veteran of the center, is always on the courts as well, as are Brian Montambault, Jackson Koorse, Austin Stevenson and Samantha Potter - all Island kids who have found a love of tennis at the Oak Bluffs facility.

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"She picked up a racquet at 18 months old and has not put it down since," said Carla Cooper, Julia's mother. "She is more of an individual competitor as opposed to a team competitor and this really challenges her individually. This game, this environment, is perfect for her. It has helped give her confidence not just in her tennis game but in everything she does."

Connor's mom, Karen, agrees.

"He just loves to play, and he loves the competition. He wants to win, but he has learned that it is okay to lose, too."

Connor and Julia are just two of a swelling number of kids taking advantage of the center. The unique program offers free, year-round tennis instruction to every child aged three to 18 at a state-of-the-art tennis complex. More than 215 kids already have signed up for sessions in July, prompting Mr. Buehning to reconfigure the schedule and extend the center's hours of operation, which will run this summer from nine in the morning through dinner time.

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"This is an incredible situation for Island kids, one that you just cannot find anywhere else," Mr. Buehning said. "The belief here is that it shouldn't be available only to those who can afford expensive lessons. The facility here really is one of a kind."

Founded in 1997, the program was first offered to students in gyms and courts around the Island. It became more firmly established once the program moved into its Barnes Road location five years later. The facility features four, high-quality clay courts - two of which are encased in an inflatable dome for the winter months - and state-of-the-art training equipment - all through the generosity of an anonymous donor who not only agreed to pay for its annual operating costs in perpetuity but also footed the bill for the land and the facility's construction. This year, the center will even provide racquets, shirts, shorts and skirts for kids who do not have them.

The 2000-square-foot building has a large screen television where the kids can watch professional tennis matches; each court has its own Web cam that allows parents and other students to watch lessons live from any computer. The center also frequently records sessions on video and burns them to DVD so players can visually chart their progress.

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Yet even with the advanced technology, the quality of instruction has always been the top priority for the board of directors. The program's first director, Grace Bochicchio, was a former professional tennis player, as is Mr. Buehning, who once beat John McEnroe and was ranked as high as 21st in the world. Guillermo Varela, who has been the head tennis instructor for the past two years, has coached some of the best players in the world, including fellow Argentinian Gaston Gaudio, who is currently ranked 11th in the world.

"The tools are all there to become really good tennis players," said Mr. Buehning, who was hired last month as the interim director to replace Gordie Ernst, who left in May after three years. "Whether they step up and become those types of players is up to how much they dedicate themselves."

Dedication is taken seriously, too. While the center teaches students as young as three, all enrolled students are expected to follow the rules and regulations, including wearing traditional tennis whites and adhering to strict behavior and attendance codes.

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"This is a real privilege for the kids, and we do take this very seriously," Mr. Buehning said. "But it's not like we are one of those high-priced tennis academies. This is even better because it is more personal. Here, more kids will get the extra help and assessments they need to be better players."

To that, Mr. Varela added: "The kids build their own self-esteem by learning this game. You can see it in what they do on the court, and what they do off the court, too."

For Mrs. Downing, that may be the most important skill Connor has learned.

"This has become his second home," she said. "He just loves coming here."