When Ned Fennessy began coaching the Vineyard boys’ tennis team in 1991, he often found himself working with athletes who were at a disadvantage. Some lacked racquets, others lacked proper shoes and nearly all lacked a tennis background.
“I was having to teach basic fundamentals — this is how you hold the racquet, this is how you follow through,” he said on Saturday, sitting on the team bus as the Vineyarders returned home from picking up their second straight state title.
Things have changed in the past two decades.
Specifically, change began 16 years ago, with the founding of the Vineyard Youth Tennis Center in Oak Bluffs. The center and its programs, which provides free tennis lessons to all year-round Vineyard kids under 18, were the permanent gift of an anonymous Island benefactor. Six of the seven starters on the current championship-winning team took classes at the center at some point in their careers, with most continuing through high school. The seventh, Jackson McBride, worked with current youth tennis center pros Michael Halisky and Scott Smith when he began learning the sport at the Vineyard Haven Yacht Club.
“There’s no question that the tennis center created this situation,” Mr. Fennessy said. Because his players now enter the high school with their tennis fundamentals laid in place, he can focus his coaching more on game strategy.
“I think we’ve given them the groundwork, and it’s up to them to increase their play and improve,” said Mr. Smith, who is now the executive director of the center. “Everyone’s got their own personalities for how they approach their tennis.”
“It’s amazing to see how well it’s come together,” he said.
Tennis center board member Ron Rappaport agreed. “Some very good players developed,” Mr. Rappaport said. “It sort of culminated in [the state titles], although that wasn’t the goal . . . it’s just terrific that we’ve had that as an outcome.”
The original intention of the center, he said, was twofold: Create a space to provide positive activities for Island kids, and help them develop tennis skills, a lifelong sport. When the programs first began, Mr. Rappaport said, there was a perception that tennis was a sport for summer kids, not year-rounders. Before long, though, the tennis center kids were competing against teams from other local tennis clubs. And they were winning. The effect made its way up to the high school courts, where both the girls’ and boys’ teams boasted rosters of tennis center alums.
Over 300 kids participate in the center’s programs now, Mr. Rappaport said. The growth has been prompting discussions of expanding the facilities to meet demand, “which we didn’t anticipate [at the beginning], either,” he said.
“We’re blooming,” Mr. Smith said. “The thing to watch in a couple of years is going to be the girls’ tennis team,” he added. An “unbelievable” group of 11 and 12 year olds are currently making their way through classes, Mr. Scott said. He is predicting a state title for the high school girls in the near future.
“There’s nothing like [the center] in the country,”Mr. Smith said. “It’s one of a kind.”