By Solomon Crenshaw Jr.
For The Birmingham Times
Tyson Peoples was dressed as a baseball player, his brother Trent was a black-suited ninja and Eden Robinson, like her sister Waverly Robinson, was an anime.
Were these the Halloween costumes of kids going door-to-door, trick-or-treating for candy? No. They were participants in a fall tennis fest event, one of several held across Alabama and the Southeast.
USTA (United States Tennis Association) Southern is scheduling these events in October and November. Similar events were held in May during National Tennis Month and the regional leader of the sport didn’t want to miss the chance to have more fun while exposing more youth to the sport.
Saturday’s tennis fest was hosted by Birmingham Area Tennis Association, a LETT (Learning Excellence Through Tennis) program. Its mission is to improve children’s lives through tennis and education by developing self-discipline and self-esteem, increasing positive social skills and improving physical fitness.
The event at West Homewood Park held with a Halloween theme as some participants came dressed as their favorite characters. A skeleton with Jack-o-lantern glasses and a tennis racket greeted the young players as they arrived on the court.
Even lead instructor Leighann Morgan got in on the act, wearing a balding gray hairpiece and a white lab coat as though she were Albert Einstein. That was ironic, she admitted, as she wants the young people she teaches to “play smart.”
“I’m not telling them to play Einstein but we definitely want them to use the skills that we learned over the course of many weeks,” she said. “Tennis isn’t a sport where it’s just one moment. There are a lot of moments that build up to your match. We’re trying to build up their overall tennis knowledge so that when (they) step onto the court for a match, it’s like they’ve studied the test and they’re ready to ace the match.”
In that sense, each trip to the court is a test of one’s ability.
“You’re trying to show everything that you’ve learned,” Morgan said. “But a match is also different than just showing what you’ve learned because it’s been a whole mental game. Do I know what to do in this situation? And under stress? And a little bit of pressure? Can I figure it out?”
Suzy Harris is executive director of BATA (the Birmingham Area Tennis Association). The purpose of Saturday’s event was to add some fun to the program’s normal routine of teaching tennis, she said.
“This is to expose them to tennis. If they want to progress in tennis, we try to help them if they want to start playing JTT (Junior Team Tennis) matches. We don’t want to throw them into a tournament to begin with,” Harris said.
“Some of our kids have made their high school tennis team in the past year so they’re working on improving their skills for that,” she continued. “Some of them have other sports so they’re not always here.”
But it’s not just about competition. There’s also a social aspect, the BATA executive director said. “A lot of these kids have become friends but they don’t go to school together. They want to come out and see each other.”
BATA conducts afterschool tennis programs at a number of schools, including Woodlawn High, Putnam Middle and St. Francis Xavier Catholic. Those students are also invited to the weekend events.
Mercy Ndegwa has played tennis for four years and was going through drills Saturday. But she also enjoys teaching the sport to younger children. “I love kids and I love helping them grow, like the way my coach has helped me grow,” said the 16-year-old.
Mercy and her brother John attend Woodlawn High. Harris, of BATA, said efforts are under way to form a tennis team for the Colonels. She added that a teacher at Carver High works with BATA and hopes to form a team at that North Birmingham school.
“We did a tennis event out there,” Harris said. “We had about 50 or 60 kids show up. We had it out in the courtyard and they just came out during lunch. I think they want us to do another one so we’ll do it down at their tennis courts.”
Saturday’s event drew volunteer tennis players from Mountain Brook High School, Homewood High School and Vestavia Hills High. Some of them came dressed for the occasion.
“I think they were excited about the costumes and stuff,” Harris said.