As the young children gather round the tennis courts of T.B. McPherson Park, they ask City of Gainesville Tennis Director Mike Oransky about the famous tennis stars they watch competing on television. Admiring the talent and success of professional athletes, the players wonder how they, too, could ever become famous. As the children overwhelmingly favor Serena and Venus Williams, Oransky is eager to tell them how the sensational sisters started their tennis careers in a public park program, much like the one at McPherson.
Partnering with the Eastside Advocacy Group for Youth to bring the free summer camp to McPherson Park is part of Oransky’s personal mission to spread tennis to all avenues. Aside from high school tennis, the east side of Gainesville has virtually no options for young children to enjoy the sport in a structured environment.
“These are kids who have never even picked up rackets before,” Oransky said. “The program introduces the sport to those who might never have had the opportunity to play otherwise.”
Because other sports programs, like basketball and football, are more common in the area, a lot of the camp children view noncontact sports as outright foreign. Oransky said tennis teaches discipline and obedience, among other valuable skills. As a sport for individuals, tennis forces children to devise personal strategies and tackle the finesse of athletics.
Walking onto the court in flip-flops, some of the children begin their first lesson with the impression that tennis is a “sissy” sport, Oransky said. However, after a few blank swings, the campers quickly learn the pinnacle level of fitness tennis demands.
“They start by whiffing balls left and right, but eventually they really enjoy making contact with the ball,” he said. “You could see how proud they were to be able to finally get it, and being able to watch kids improve like that is always satisfying.”
When Oransky’s previous tennis program with the city, After-School Playgrounds, was cut, Davin Woody, an EAGY board member, approached him about adding tennis to its existing summer program that offers swimming, basketball and arts and crafts, among other activities.
“I had been looking to get kids on that side of town exposed to tennis, but it’s more than a one-man job,” he explained. “By tapping into their existing program, it was easy to get a lot of kids exposed to tennis at one time.”
Bringing in Oransky to instruct the group of 50 to 60 campers gave the program an opportunity to expose children in the area to a new world of sports, Woody said.
Because Oransky and his team of tennis volunteers bring rackets, nets and balls to the courts at McPherson, learning tennis is entirely accessible to all children in the camp. With activities instructing basic mechanics like swinging strokes and score keeping, the curriculum caters to a beginner. After some practice, players are able to develop their own strategies and techniques in one-on-one battles through “rallying.”
“Kids should learn how to play all sports if they’re athletically inclined. But the thing about tennis is, it gives you an opportunity to depend on yourself. It gives you structural skills; you know what your advantages are, and you know your disadvantages,” Woody said.
Both Oransky and Woody hope to keep the EAGY children involved in tennis by extending the camp into the fall. A new program called Fun Tennis Days is also in the works, bringing a carnival-type day to tennis players, which would house different stations offering fun prizes for contestant winners.
Oransky also runs a youth tennis camp through the Joyce Oransky Tennis Center at Westside Park. Open to the public, the camp is for players who range in ability from beginners to avid players. Beginning June 11, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, the public camp will provide all tennis equipment and offer scholarships to players who cannot afford the $35-a-day, $160-a-week fees.
“It’s nice to be able to inspire kids and give back,” he said.
“We’re here to spread the word that tennis is a sport kids can enjoy throughout their lifetimes. It’s a way to keep them happy and healthy.”