Tradition of Excellence

I'm NOT the author of the articles. I'm chronicling the stories you may have missed.

Tennis-playing aces are out to carve a new path for inner-city

leave a comment »

By Carl Steward, Inside Bay Area


AT 12, LAURENCE ATKINS already has designs on playing college tennis at the University of Michigan. Interestingly, his 10-year-old brother, Joshua, is considering Ohio State.

They don’t agree on their favorite tennis player, either. Laurence favors Roger Federer, while Joshua prefers Rafael Nadal and James Blake.

They do agree on something, however — becoming successful tennis players on the biggest possible stage that their developing talent and training might take them. It’s a heady challenge for inner-city African-American children where the path to such success isn’t mapped out for them like it is for many suburban tennis prodigies.

“Joshua and I talk to each other about wanting to be the next Arthur Ashe and become No. 1 in the world,” Laurence said.

Up to now, the two have had the good fortune to have a tennis-playing father, Larry Atkins, who has instructed his sons impressively on the opportunities the sport offers and taught them well enough on the court that they’ll likely be candidates for scholarships to black universities someday.

Laurence already has followed in Ashe’s footsteps to a degree. Thanks to a grant from the United States Tennis Federation, he played at the all-black American Tennis Association National Championships in Miami in August. He made the singles semifinals and partnered with Fremont’s Garrick Dzoan (who won the singles) to capture the doubles title.”What really pierced my heart was seeing him play at the ATA at 12 knowing that Arthur Ashe first played there when he was 12,” his father said.

But what now? That’s the question Larry Atkins asks as he contemplates his own dreams: To give his own children the best possible chance to achieve their lofty goals competitively while at the same time helping create a stronger inner-city tennis environment where more black children can discover the sport’s advantages.

“I think a child should have an opportunity to see how far they can go, and that’s what I’m hoping for Laurence, who will open the door for Joshua,” he said. “Ultimately, that door should be open for all inner-city kids, who too often get told that tennis is a sissy sport and don’t get a chance to see it or play it simply because they aren’t exposed to it.”

Atkins knows better, having charted a difficult course pretty much on his own. He was the No. 1 player at Oakland High in the early 1980s, won the city championship, and after two years playing No. 1 at Alameda Junior College, earned a tennis scholarship to St. Augustine, an all-black college in North Carolina. He played professionally on the California circuit for a time but needed to earn a living and gave up the sport competitively. Those hurdles notwithstanding, he said he owes tennis for helping him earn a college degree.

Twenty years later, his sons have brought him back to it, and he has double-edged visions of advancing their ambitions while also creating a better infrastructure for the sport in his hometown. He has the experience and USTA training. He also has served as varsity boys coach at Piedmont High as well as assisting with various youth programs — Youth Tennis Advantage, Just Cause and the city’s own tennis program.

But financing is a critical issue on both fronts. While Laurence’s trip to Miami was paid for, Larry had to pay his own expenses. Both of his sons want to play there next year and beyond, but there is no guarantee the USTA will pay for Laurence or Joshua, let alone their parent-coach. Without the funds, it may be a no-go.

Locally, money for the city’s youth tennis program has dried up despite significant inroads that were being made conducting in-service clinics at Oakland schools. Larry lost his position as assistant director and now works as an account specialist in San Rafael.

Atkins hopes to “connect the dots” and envisions a joint effort in which the city tennis program and YTA are expanded and the USTA’s commitment to players who have reached the same competitive level as Laurence is beefed up. Thus, such players can get to the next level.

Atkins also wants to devise a private nonprofit enterprise in which corporations help sponsor both the competitive and introductory aspects of inner-city tennis. He said it’s being done in other cities and that Oakland’s youth deserve a similar chance. But he’s seeking help.

“Just from my own experience, if I could have just trained, trained, trained, there’s no telling what might have happened,” he said. “I’d like my own sons to have a better chance for realizing their dreams, and I’d also like to see kids in my hometown be exposed to the opportunities tennis can offer them.”

It’s a noble quest, one that deserves hard support and not just admiration for the vision.


Written by Symphony

December 2, 2008 at 6:12 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: