For the last 10 years, San Francisco Tennis Club (SFTC) teaching professional Roberto DiGiulio has been scouting the city's Mission and Golden Gate playgrounds and even the public courts at Hunter's Point, a tough low-income housing project in the city's south side, for kids who just might become outstanding tennis players one day. DiGiulio has helped more than 300 youngsters during this time, providing them coaching and club access that would cost the kids' parents as much as $6,000 per year if it were not offered free of charge.
“We have launched a junior development program for the most promising kids already playing in free neighborhood playground programs run by the city and Youth Tennis Advantage (YTA), a non-profit organization that provides coaches for public facilities,” says DiGiulio. “These kids have plenty of room to grow, and we want to open their eyes to the bigger world of tennis opportunity. Right now, many of them are in high-risk lifestyle situations, but we can nurture them. Our efforts are turning heads in the city.”
Two of DiGiulio's best players today are Alexon Inocencio, a 13-year-old boy who started playing at Mission playground, and is now ranked No. 7 in his age group in Northern California; and Yulia Rivelis, a 15-year-old junior who began playing in Golden Gate Park, has a 4.0 grade point average and is the No. 1 player on her University High School team. DiGiulio says the youngsters he helps already love tennis and he just provides the opportunity to cultivate that love and improve their skills. They have withstood the playground peer pressure that favors sports like basketball, baseball, and football long enough to develop recognizable court skills and no longer have to drop the sport for lack of opportunity to keep improving. Jesse Inglerham, whom DiGiulio discovered as a 14-year-old at the Mission playground, is now ranked No. 5 in Northern California and is playing at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
FROM PLAYGROUND TO PALACE
With the help of SFTC Director of Tennis Tom Edlefson and teaching pro Billy Ball, juniors take lessons and play matches on the club's recently renovated 12 rooftop courts. Edlefson, Ball, and DiGiulio personally introduce them to older SFTC juniors who act as mentors. SFTC adults are also encouraged to “adopt” a DiGiulio junior and play matches with them and their family members.
Could the SFTC's program become a model for tennis outreach to other U.S. playgrounds? According to Kim Perino, club general manager, there certainly was no lack of opportunity for his private club to identify with the right community group.
“Several of our board of governors members, Lena Grotz (founder of the YTA), Ed Osgood and Mike Price are also on the YTA board. We have hosted YTA fundraisers at the club for more than 10 years and in 1999 established club policy of donating $200 monthly to YTA,” says Perino. “We decided last year to expand our support by adding Roberto to YTA's existing pro bono coach roster. It was this personal relationship that finally brought playground kids into our club, and isn't good-spirited play what tennis is about after all?”