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Why Tennis? Why Now? : An Inside Look at SACTA and the 21st HBCU National Tennis Championships

Updated: Sep 24, 2022

By Pivotal R. Sales Pivotal Times

Updated 11:52 AM ET, Fri September 23, 2022

Coach Sam Kennedy, Director and Founder, South Atlanta Community Tennis Association - Image Courtesy of CAPS

Atlanta (Camy Arnett Production Studios) - It’s not often that I get the honor, the privilege even, of reporting feel good stories, the stories that keep the injustices at bay. But this weekend, the pre-production meeting for Pivotal Times was different. Instead of researching stats on the latest crime rates and challenging injustices, I was fortunate to cover an event that was the solution – the prevention even.

September 15 – 17, the South Atlanta Community Tennis Association (SACTA) and the City of South Fulton, GA hosted the 21st HBCU National Tennis Championship. I had a vested interest in the event in that ten of our twelve children played or are currently playing tennis for SACTA. More than that I had an interest in celebrating young people who had given themselves to athletic and academic excellence.

As I drove up, the sight of tour vans from around the country brought memories of the times I’d arrived in Washington D.C., Selma, Alabama or Jackson, Mississippi to protest some civil, or racial wrong. While this parking lot full of buses looked the same, it was not the same. Not this time. This time the buses from Maryland, Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, South Carolina and beyond, had not arrived in reaction to something gone wrong. They had transported students and coaches committed to keeping something right.

There were young people on these buses today headed to tennis courts not jail cells. Today they did not gather to tie teddy bears on stop signs and release balloons at classmates’ graves. Not today. Today I would be reporting different stats. UTRs (Universal Tennis Ratings) would be the numbers recorded today and not the reported numbers that didn’t make it out of a mass shooting.

As I made my way down to the center I could barely see the 24 court facility for the flood of collegiate players, college alumni, recruiters, and the next generation of players. I soon found SACTA director Sam Kennedy on the sidelines. Reluctant to leave his coaching post for the slightest of moments, he jovially agreed to answer a few questions. Since 1992, SACTA has been training Atlanta’s inner city youth in academics and athletics.

Why the need for the organization? Why the need for tennis in 2022? I wanted to know. Kennedy, a multi award winning giant in the community and the tennis world at large jumped on the question.

Coach Sam Kennedy and Kathryn Early, SACTA Images Courtesy of CAPS
Most of our kids are doing traditional sports like football and basketball. Tennis is a nontraditional sport and it gives the opportunity for students to play who may not be athletically inclined. Tennis builds character and sportsmanship. It was played by kings and queens at the beginning. We’re learning that.

As one of 19 excellence teams in the U.S., SACTA players won regionals and state tournaments this year. (In 2013 they went to nationals losing by one point.) Kennedy’s formula is working in a community of underserved young people, 90% of which are African American.

When asked how he’s making it work, he touched on the financial aspect of the game. “Tennis is a financial sport. It can put a strain on a family. We’ve been blessed to be able to get our kids rackets, equipment, shoes. You name it and we’ve been able to subsidize it. It’s working.”

With the exception of the pandemic, the HBCU championships have been going strong since 2001, and hosted by the City of South Fulton since 2013. Why this city? Why South Fulton – a city of 100, 000 residents in metro Atlanta? Cee Jai Jones, Director of Diversity NJTL and Grants for USTA Southern responded.

Cee Jai Jones, Director Diversity/Grants NJTL Image Courtesy of CAPS
That’s easy. Historical reference. Coach Carl Goodman started the HBCU National Tennis Championships in 2001. He was coaching the FAMU team at that time. The courts here at South Fulton have always been the best spot because of the 24 courts here and because of Coach Sam Kennedy. South Fulton is an area that wraps their arms around HBCU’s in general.

Jones also stated that the championship has received tremendous support from the national campus, from USTA Georgia and USTA Southern. “At USTA Southern, we find it important to focus on HBCU’s. 60% of HBCU’s are in the southern section.”

Image Courtesy of SACTA

The Director of Diversity also shed light on the recruiters’ showcase and the mini college fair taking place on the grounds. Of the fourteen schools present, Howard University, Clark Atlanta University, Albany State University, Savannah State University and South Carolina State participated in the fair.

According to Jones, “It gives high school juniors and seniors the opportunity to be seen by HBCU coaches and exposes them to collegiate play. Kids came here from Texas, Philly, New York, Kansas City and Arkansas to name a few. Both parents and students know the value. It’s a lifelong sport. We have to build on that, making sure that the underserved and under researched can get a racket in their hand and get out and play. Then we can expose them to more benefits.”

Kathryn Early, administrative coordinator for SACTA and a tennis parent chimed in. “Absolutely. Tennis is one of the few sports that is a lifelong sport. So if you can get young people involved earlier, it’s more likely that they will play in their adulthood and that their children then play. We have a lot of families that play. Typically what the parents get involved in, the children will get involved in. It’s generational.”

Tennis mom Sheryl Blocus agrees. She has two sons attending Tuskegee University on tennis scholarships. “It not only sets our children up, but their children’s children. Children do what they see their parents do. When the parents go to college, the children will go. It builds legacy.”

Ms. Blocus maintains that SACTA and the NJTL made it possible for her boys to take courses in financial literacy and to travel nationally and internationally to places like Puerto Rico, Canada and Necker Island. They’ve spent time with Richard Branson and other Fortune 500 company leaders. “Just from being on the court one day here at South Fulton, one of my sons got to hit with a corporate manager for the city who was able to assist him in job placement.”

So there you have it. The reality is that tennis for so many communities is so much more than a sport. It’s a change of trajectory. As the results came in that Alabama State took the men’s title and Xavier University of Louisiana won the women’s, I wondered what this day meant for the players that I’d spoken to. Did they see tennis as an opportunity to change the lives of their grandchildren, a platform for social change perhaps?

I had to know. The results I found could not be contained here as my forerunners of long ago stated in John 21 . So be on the look out for Part 2 of this two part series as I interview the players from Alabama A&M University letting us in on "why tennis, why now?"

Once again it’s been my pleasure to walk with you through the rapidly turning pages of social change. As always, Bow Before God. Stand before men. Be well. See you in Part 2.

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