Pavel Dzemianok for The Boston Globe
DORCHESTER —Just about every other high school tennis team in the state was sidelined on a recent rainy afternoon earlier this month. But inside the cozy confines of the Sportsmen’s Tennis Club in Dorchester, Latin Academy defeated its rival, the John D. O’Bryant School.
“I was actually hoping we were going to get rained out today because I was going to go home and sleep,” said O’Bryant No. 1 singles player, junior Tony Huang, after Sportsmen’s shuffled its schedule to squeeze the match into its indoor facility on May 1.
“But I think I appreciate that we have an indoor facility because we’re not going to be scrambling to get all our matches in at the end of the year.”
After defeating Haung (6-0, 6-1), Latin Academy junior Jimmy Ye recalled what it was like before Sportsmen’s started arranging for the teams to play indoors on rainy days. He said there was one season when they played a match every day for the final three weeks of the season.
“It was very time-consuming, very stressful,” said Ye, who is in the Top 50 of the USTA New England Under 18 rankings. “After matches you get home at 7:30 and have to do homework and have papers due at the end of the year.”
The two Boston Public School teams are likely the only teams in the state to have an indoor facility at their disposal free of charge. They are also two of the most dominant teams in the Greater Boston League, playing against the likes of Cambridge, Everett and Malden. In fact, Latin Academy boys’ team has only lost one GBL match since they joined the league in 2009. O’Bryant’s program only formed five years ago and both its girls and boys teams made the state tournament for the first time last year.
“The great part of this for me is I’ve been involved with youth tennis in Boston from a number of different angles,” said Latin Academy boys’ coach Andrew Crane, who was the program director of a Boston-based youth tennis organization called Tenacity for more than 10 years. “And what’s been perfectly obvious through all of these programs is that kids, once they get to know what tennis is all about, they love to play it.
“City kids love to play tennis. People think ‘well city kids all want to play basketball.’ Once kids get to know tennis, they love to play.”
And providing the two teams with free access to their club couldn’t fit more into the mission statement of Sportsmen’s, which was founded in 1961 as the first African-American non-profit tennis club in the country.
“Here are two teams that wouldn’t be able to compete if we weren’t doing what we are doing, so it really completely falls in line with our mission,” said the club’s executive director, Toni Wiley. “Our mission is for kids to be able to have access to tennis and access to quality coaching and courts and to be able to open up doors, whether that’s college scholarships or being able to play in the local or regional tournaments. So being able to support these two teams is a big part of that.
“One of the most fun events we have all year is when the two teams are playing each other. We typically do a cookout and a lot of parents come and we really try to make it a good time to support both teams and see some good tennis and really have fun.”
When the tennis program at Latin Academy started in 1999, Boston Latin School was the only Boston Public school with a tennis program.
Crane said he started a Saturday program for Boston high school students at Sportsmen's in late 1997 or early 1998 on behalf of the Boston Tennis Council. Most of the students who participated were from Latin Academy, so Crane approached the school’s headmaster about starting a team. After she said yes he helped find a volunteer coach. (It wasn’t until his role with Tenacity wound down that he took over the coaching reins of the boys’ squad in 2009.)
The team was co-ed for the first few years because they didn’t have enough players to field boys’ and girls’ teams. They didn’t even have uniforms in the beginning before eventually securing donated soccer jerseys.
“I said ‘Great, whatever, as long as we look like a team,’” Jimmy Hite, who recently stepped down as the Latin Academy girls’ coach, recalled.
After a few seasons, Hite asked K.D. Hicks Insurance Agency to donate real uniforms, which they did for five years.
The team wasn’t affiliated with a conference and had to scramble to schedule non-conference matches. Both Hite and Crane said some teams weren’t crazy about traveling to Boston for matches. Another issue in the beginning was that many of the players skipped the matches because they were too scared to play.
“I made it mandatory that every player had to come to every match so they could see what was going on, they could see ‘I could beat this one, I could beat that one, can I play next week?’” Hite said before adding, “They are tough and know how to fight and know how to suck it up. They don’t fold under pressure. They rise to the occasion. All you have to do is bring it up in them, make them realize you’re just as good if not better than these kids. These are inner-city kids, they are tough.”
After a while the players developed the confidence and skills they needed to win, which wasn’t such an easy pill for some of their suburban opponents to swallow. In high school tennis players call the match themselves on an honor system.
“I would see the anger, I would see a lot of goings-on as far as calls being made, a lot of them making calls with their heart instead of their eyes,” Hite said of some of the opposing players. “It was tough for them to accept.”
A few years after the program started it split into a boys and girls teams. And in 2007 a team was started at O’Bryant with help from a USTA New England grant. To this day, the two teams are open to players from every public high school in the city, with Latin Academy drawing from half of the city and the O’Bryant drawing from the other half.
O’Bryant remains Latin Academy’s little sibling when it comes to competing but on the way to qualifying for its first state tournament last year, the O’Bryant girls’ team beat Latin Academy for the first time in the program’s history. Even though they only won because one of the Latin Academy players forfeited the final match, O’Bryant still celebrated like they won Wimbledon.
“We were happy and were singing and dancing all over the place,” said O’Bryant No. 1 singles Jendayia Lubin.
Latin Academy and O’Bryant joined the Greater Boston League in 2009. Both the boys and girls Latin Academy squads have finished with the best record in the league each year; although, as an associate member of the league, they can’t be considered league champions.
The girls’ team has also qualified for the state tournament three straight years, making it to the quarterfinals of the North Division 1 bracket in 2010 while the boys lost in the quarterfinals to Andover in two out of the last three years.
“The point to be made is that there are a whole bunch of kids playing high school tennis having a great time and having some success and it crosses ethnic backgrounds,” Crane said. “It’s all kinds of kids. I got all kinds of kids on my teams whose families came from all different parts of the world. I truly believe this is a sport that kids, no matter what background or previous athletic experience, will enjoy. This is a sport for girls who don’t have a sport. They can learn to play and get good at if they are willing to work at it and have a sport they can play the rest of their lives. That’s the beauty of tennis.”
Work in progress
One of the reasons Latin Academy and O’Bryant have found so much success on the tennis court is because they are able to draw players from across the city, concentrating the talent on two teams. Expanding the sport to other schools throughout the district would dilute the talent pool but that is still Crane and Hite’s goal.
“It would be a lot of hard organizing work,” Crane, 65, who abandoned a career in state politics and as a trial lawyer to work in youth tennis fulltime, said of expanding into other high schools. “You have to go into some of the schools that aren’t getting players and really organize those kids because once you get them interested, they will play.
“I can guarantee you I could go into virtually any high school in the city and recruit the kids and teach them to play and have a team. We could do that if we had a real place for them to play for both a boys’ team and a girls’ team.”
That means having four or five suitable courts close to the high schools so students don't have to travel across the city to practice and play matches. Crane noted that there is no space between the courts at Boston English High and therefore they are unsuitable for high school matches.
Boston schools Athletic Director Ken Still, however, said money is also an issue and, as always, so is participation. Still said he would be open to expanding tennis in the city schools, but he hasn’t seen a consistent number of players trickle out of the Tenacity program and onto the Latin Academy or O’Bryant team.
“It’s a numbers game and the numbers aren’t there,” Still said before adding, “If [Tenacity is] teaching tennis to over 300 kids for the summer and they are all out of BPS middle schools, where are they at? Where are they going? Not everyone is going METCO. Not everyone goes to a private school.”
Some of the city’s best players have in fact gone to suburban schools through the METCO program or to private schools. And another issue is getting the players to play in the offseason. Crane said a recently created Tenacity middle school program will help. The program allows middle school students to play tennis three to four days a week during the school year, whereas before they just played in the summer.
Another issue is that the Tenacity players have a difficult time progressing beyond a certain point because they mostly play against other Tenacity players. Crane said he is working to solve that problem by starting a program that will allow at-risk youth to pay a discounted rate of $22 to $24 to enter regional USTA tournaments.
“It’s really an exciting development,” he said. “I think will happen. The truth is the cost of tournament play is extremely difficult for low income families to bear.”
Ye, Latin Academy’s No. 1 singles player, said his classmates don’t respect this sport and don’t realize how well he plays it.
“Nobody even knows about the tennis team, people just look at it as another sports team, they don’t recognize it,” he said. “It doesn’t have all the glamour that football and basketball get.”
Latin Academy sophomore DiAndrea Galloway has played No. 1 singles since seventh grade and is ranked No. 29 in the New England USTA Under 16 rankings. She worries that there won’t be anyone to pass the torch to when she graduates.
“I feel like some people might not want to take the lead because they are scared they might not be the right person for it,” she said. “I feel it will go down. I’ll help encourage people younger than me to help out.”
Coaching in the city is also a major challenge. Coaches have to strike a balance between working with a team’s top players and teaching the players who have little to no experience. Unlike suburban teams, assistant coaches are an anomaly, forcing a city team to use its top players as assistant coaches or sorts.
“It’s not easy at all,” O’Bryant girls’ coach Maria Velasco said. “You have to be patient. You have to have a lot of patients and be on top of the girls all the time.”
Her counterpart at Latin Academy, Hite, stepped down recently because the added paper work that is required of coaches in the city became too stressful after his mother died last month. But the 67-year-old still has high hopes for high school tennis in Boston.
“My hope is tennis will grow in a [huge] way here in Boston before I die,” Hite said. “I would like to see tennis in every high school in Boston. That’s the way it should be.”
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