On Wednesday, eight former collegiate tennis players came together – albeit virtually – to begin their year of service to our country. 

The inaugural class of Tennis For America fellows attended the ITA Tennis For America Virtual Orientation where they learned the origins of the national service program, U-10 tennis coaching and social media training along with the ins and outs of the National Junior Tennis and Learning (NJTL) system from Sloane Stephens Foundation Executive Director Sybil Smith.

“This is truly a special day for me and the ITA,” Dave Mullins, ITA Managing Director of Community Engagement & Coach Empowerment, said. “What started as a grand idea is now a reality and we are very excited to see the impact the Tennis For America fellows will have on our partnering organizations and also to witness the impact this experience will have on the fellows.” 

The inaugural class of Tennis For America fellows gather for a virtual orientation on June 3, 2020.

The road to launching the national service program was not without obstacles. Despite there being numerous national service programs – such as Teach for America – it was unclear how to apply the basic functions of those programs to college tennis. Tennis For America is the first national service program created by a sport governing body.

The inaugural class of Tennis For America fellows chose to devote a year of their lives without certainty of what the program would look like. They will have a major role in shaping the national service program and will be the example that future classes look to when weighing whether the program is right for them.

Along with most of the world, Tennis For America was forced to change and adapt due to the spread of coronavirus. The pandemic hit at the same time as the fellows were being confirmed and plans finalized for their assignments. As public health concerns rose, orientation was moved to online and start dates became murky.

The start dates for the eight fellows are staggered throughout the summer due to the varying impact of coronavirus on different parts of the country. Three fellows – Gianna Insogna, Ivan Derrick and Natalia Munoz – will begin their year remotely on Monday, June 8th for the Sloane Stephens Foundation in Compton, California. Austin Russell will also begin working remotely on Monday for XS Tennis in Chicago.

On July 6th, Gabrielle Hesse and Ava Todd will begin their year of service in Maryland at the Junior Tennis Champions Center. The final two fellows – Justin Samples and Emily Lombardi – will start at the NJTL in the South Bronx on August 3rd. 

Sloane Stephens with children at her foundation in Compton, California.

As our partner organizations make the decision to open back up, the fellows will transition to in-person work to complete their year of service. The Tennis For America fellows will be tasked with enhancing the current tennis and educational programming at their respective organization, designing new curriculum, and helping our partners navigate a post-COVID-19 world.

Tennis For America is uniquely situated to serve America’s disadvantaged communities and reinvigorate our sport. Through partnering with organizations committed to bettering the communities in which they operate through tennis and education, the ITA aims to help tackle poverty through tennis.

The ITA hopes that Tennis For America can set a standard for future sport national service programs.

“The ITA is attempting to pilot the concept that a year of service program is possible for graduating student-athletes,” Mullins said. “We are starting with a service year for former college tennis players, but ultimately we hope that at some point in time service year programs for all NCAA sponsored sports will exist.”

Tennis For America will draw on the life experiences of the fellows and the lessons that they have learned through their collegiate varsity experience. The fellows have the opportunity to act as role models and inspirations to children in under-resourced communities across the country.

For many of the former players, the opportunity to help and serve others through the sport they love is what drew them to the program.

“As I write this quote I am at a sit-in protest in downtown Long Beach,” Natalie Munoz, a Sloane Stephens Foundation fellow, said. “So, now more than ever it is important to serve our communities and make sure everyone has access and resources to be able to achieve what they want. And with sport being the common language throughout the world I’m so confident tennis will play a factor in change!”

The Tennis For America fellows are days away from beginning to work in their respective communities. The impact they will have is unknown at the time, but Mullins and the ITA are confident that the empowering lessons they learned as a college tennis player will serve them well over the next 12 months.

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