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Steffi Graf Promotes Tennis in Harlem

By Jeff Mays | September 9, 2011 8:31am
Steffi Graf, who won 22 Grand Slam singles titles during her career, led a tennis clinic at the Harlem Tennis Center on 143rd Street.
Steffi Graf, who won 22 Grand Slam singles titles during her career, led a tennis clinic at the Harlem Tennis Center on 143rd Street.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

HARLEM—When Jaycen Murphy began playing tennis at the courts of Howard Bennett Playground on 135th Street nine years ago the place was in bad shape.

"The courts were cracked up. Weeds were coming out," said Murphy, 16, a junior at Winston Prep who is considered the top player at the Harlem Junior Tennis and Education Program.

But youngsters just getting involved in tennis won't have to worry about the beat up courts at Howard Bennett anymore. To celebrate the repaving of the court by the Department of Parks and Recreation, tennis legend Steffi Graf, 42, gave a clinic for young people at the Harlem Tennis Center on 143rd Street.

Graf, a spokesperson for the United States Tennis Association's QuickStart program, hit balls with kids on a smaller court with an oversized ball. With a court length equal to the width of a regulation tennis court and smaller racquets, the program is part of an effort to scale down tennis so that it is not so intimidating to kids just learning the game.

Graf, the winner of 22 Grand Slam singles titles, gave gentle encouragement to her young students.

Having an attractive public tennis court is one way to increase the involvement of minorities in the sport, said Katrina Adams, a former professional tennis player and executive director of the Harlem Junior Tennis and Education Program.

"There was a court right in the heart of Harlem, but it did not look like courts [elsewhere]," Adams said of the courts at Howard Bennett Playground, located between Lenox and Fifth avenues. "We brought the nets and poles everyday."

Now the courts are set up to accommodate the QuickStart program.

"We can adjust to the size of the kid. The community will be able to utilize the courts. It invites seniors to come back and play and allows adults to introduce their children to the sport," said Adams. "We want to show this is a sport for everyone, not just the rich."

Rising professional tennis player Sloane Stephens, 18, was involved in the outreach. After spending time with the kids, she hugged them as they lined up to leave.

"Are you gonna play again?" she asked each kid she hugged.

Stephens, daughter of the late New England Patriots running back John Stephens, made it to the third round of this year's U.S. Open, upsetting the 23rd seed, Shahar Peer, before being eliminated by 16th seed Ana Ivanovic. She is expected to break into the top 100 when new rankings are released after the tournament.

Stephens said programs like those at Harlem Junior Tennis give kids great after school activities while "keeping them out of trouble."

"Programs like this get kids interested so it's really important," she said.

Her presence as an African-American is also making a difference in changing the makeup of the game.

"Kids can watch me and say: 'I can do that one day,'" she said.

Adams said the programs' main goals are getting kids to graduate from high school and continue on to college, hopefully with college scholarships.

"What we instill in our kids is that if you work hard, good things will happen. If we get one kid on the pro-tour, that's dynamite," Adams said.

Murphy, who got his start at the program, said playing tennis has helped him learn about responsibility and increased his concentration while taking him to places such as Bermuda to play in tournaments.

He still gets some shocked looks when he tells people that he plays tennis.

"Oh really. You play?" Murphy said mimicking the response. "It's a big shocker to some people. Sometimes I'm the first African-American they've met who plays tennis."

The response doesn't bother Murphy. He already sees more kids eyeing the cleaned up courts on 135th Street. The next place he plans for tennis to take him is to a Division I university on a full scholarship.

"I would love to play professionally, but I'll wait and see how my game progresses— in college," he said.