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PHOTOS: VICENTE MUNOZ
KINGS COUNTY TENNIS LEAGUE | KINGS COUNTY TENNIS LEAGUE | KINGS COUNTY TENNIS LEAGUE | KINGS COUNTY TENNIS LEAGUE | KINGS COUNTY TENNIS LEAGUE
FORTY-LOVE IN BED-STUY
My new favorite tennis court, tucked inside Bed-Stuy’s Marcy Playground, has a chain-link fence instead of a net. Hit the ball a little too low and it might get wedged right into the mesh, waiting there for you to pluck it out. And if the ball grazes the top of the fence, instead of just glumly blooping over the way it would on a net, it might ping manically off in a random direction. It’s a thrilling new variable to me, but for this particular group of thirty-odd kids, who train outdoors with the Kings County Tennis League from April to October, this is home court. It’s exactly the kind of overlooked public tennis court prized by this nonprofit that works with kids who live in and around Brooklyn public housing. Tennis is a prohibitively expensive sport—add up equipment, instruction, court fees—and that is especially true of New York City, where a mere hour of public court time is so precious that I’ve seen people fight over it. KCTL clears away those barriers to access by recruiting volunteers and making use of playable space wherever they find it. The fence net and cracked court surfaces are all part of the charm.
One evening late in August, cooled by the first breeze I’ve felt in months, I watch the kids tune up for their Tuesday practice. Plenty of youth tennis clinics have a militant, metronomic feel, but this one is anomalously full of smiles. And clean hitting, too—the talent is tangible from the first few shots. As I talk to the kids in between points, I learn they’ve all got different backstories with tennis. Some have been playing with KCTL for about a year, some five years; one’s even been here for eight years, and I can tell by how fluidly he clocks his backhand. We chop it up about Carlos Alcaraz, Coco Gauff, Chris Eubanks, and Frances Tiafoe, who they’ll root for at the following week’s U.S. Open. Some kids are deep enough into the sport to have preferences about court surfaces. Sufi enjoys playing on clay, and I can see why; her movement and consistency would be killer on that surface. Devon, who plays for his high school team in Massachusetts, loves indoor courts, because there are no variables from the weather, and the ball pops off the court a little faster; he’s got a dash of Felix Auger-Aliassime in his aggressive game style, so that checks out.
Ten minutes in, after I’ve seen them play out some feisty points against the grownups, I’m thrilled by their technique.
Senior manager Jamie Anderson is peppering them with queries about their play. “How many long rallies did we have?” That’s his segue into a mini-lecture on tennis strategy. He lays out the handy concept of shot tolerance—the willingness to hit ball after ball without getting too aggressive or messing up—and describes a new drill intended to build their resolve. One kid takes a noncommittal swing; the ball flops into the net. “Accelerate, accelerate!” chirps Anderson. The kids get feedback on the micro and macro level; some New Yorkers would, and frequently do, pay hundreds of dollars for this degree of attention and care every week.
No tennis clinic is complete without some conditioning. Hit a few balls, then jog a lap. “To be more consistent, you need to have better preparation, you need to move your feet faster, you need to put your best effort into every shot,” says Anderson. There’s a lot of unglamorous work that goes into quality tennis; almost all of that has to do with feet. As much as I and every other tennis scrub wish that weren’t true, there’s no disputing it. The kids get the message, though. They set down their racquets and line up along the baseline, then sprint up the service line, hit a clean stop, backpedal to where they started. Then they do it all over again. And again. “This is what actual tennis feels like,” Anderson informs them. To hit the breezy stylish winners they all want to hit, they’ve got to have fastidious footwork.
As the evening sun goes gold, the younger kids file onto the handball courts, where nets have been set up, converting the unused concrete into DIY miniature tennis courts. They’ve been instructed to hit the longest rallies possible, and I hear one duo get all the way to 55(!) shots, squeaking out every number along the way. The bigger kids split up into two teams to play out some competitive points. By now they’ve worked up a sweat, and they’re easing into some quality trash talk—trolling each other about their dubious line calls, crappy feeds, or big feet. The tennis is getting better, too. One player, studiously draped in black from his visor to his tennis shorts, reels off stinging forehand after forehand. My awe turns into outright envy. I’d asked the kids earlier if they were excited for the U.S. Open, and one of the volunteers quipped that I’d be watching them there in ten years. Watching them construct beautiful 20-shot rallies of power and spin, I realize I wouldn’t bet against it.
Kings County Tennis League combines tennis and education to spark the potential of children living in and around brooklyn public housing. Learn more about them here.
"PLENTY OF YOUTH TENNIS CLINICS HAVE A MILITANT, METRONOMIC FEEL, BUT THIS ONE IS ANOMALOUSLY FULL OF SMILES. AND CLEAN HITTING, TOO—THE TALENT IS TANGIBLE FROM THE FIRST FEW SHOTS."