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Tuesday, November 30, 2021

East Gainesville tennis program aims to level the playing field

The program helps introduce East Gainesville residents to a traditionally inaccessible sport

<p>Lainey Norton (left), 6, attends a tennis lesson led by Christopher Scott Champion (right), 35, during the program at T.B. McPherson Park on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021. The pilot program offers discounted lessons for East Gainesville residents. </p>

Lainey Norton (left), 6, attends a tennis lesson led by Christopher Scott Champion (right), 35, during the program at T.B. McPherson Park on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021. The pilot program offers discounted lessons for East Gainesville residents.

Dallis Brimm, 7, walked up to the tennis courts at T.B. McPherson Park, racket in hand, ready to play a round of tennis. A quiet rainfall hit the blue tennis court floor, but that didn’t stop Dallis from doing what she loves. 

Historically, more expensive and higher maintenance sports like tennis haven’t always been accessible to Black children like Dallis. Historic barriers like income disparities and post-effects of segregation linger today.

Now, there’s a discounted program in East Gainesville that hopes to tackle the inequality gap. 

The T.B. McPherson Pilot Program launched Sept. 13 and has brought tennis classes to East Gainesville for all ages at the park, located at 1717 SE 15th St.

The program, sponsored by the Gainesville chapter of 100 Black Men of Greater Florida and Aces in Motion, hopes to bring more sports programs to children in East Gainesville.

Dallis’ grandmother, community leader Latashia Brimm, heard about the program on Facebook and immediately thought of Dallis who saw tennis players on TV and took interest in the sport.

“She’s been excited,” Brimm said. “She’s been asking when she’s gonna get to hit the ball.”

Even though Dallis was the only one in attendance on Sept. 21, she took full advantage of it. 

“She has not expressed any interest in any sport other than this one,” Brimm said. 

She hopes Dallis acquires new skills she can use down the road and will be able to say she tried something new. 

Tennis facilitator Ebony Wiggins, 28, coaches kids in the program and takes care of the courts. 

“We wanted to branch out and start tennis out here so more kids can learn tennis and love to learn the game,” Wiggins said.

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Tennis is generally a sport that requires families to have a disposable income, she said, so the program helps bring tennis to minorities generally underrepresented in the sport in East Gainesville.

Wiggins attended Abraham Lincoln Middle School in East Gainesville and was only ever familiar with basketball, soccer and volleyball. Her family didn’t have enough money for her to play tennis as a kid. Now, she’s excited to see children play tennis because of the discounted gameplay of $50 for six weeks.

“If they decide that they love tennis and want to play some more, then we’re here to give that to them,” Wiggins said.

Christopher Champion, head tennis professional for Play Tennis Gainesville, 35, had a one-on-one session with 9-year-old Lainey Norton, the only child that showed up for the 4:30 p.m. class on Sept. 23.

Champion collaborated with 100 Black Men of Greater Florida Gainesville and Aces in Motion to bring the program to life.  

“We want to inform and educate the community about what tennis is, and try to make sure that individuals know that it's accessible,” Champion said. 

He’s played the game since he was 3 years old and understands its influence on a person.

What separates tennis from other sports is the required decision making, Champion said. Because it is an individual sport as opposed to a team sport, the athlete must rely on himself or herself to make the complete decision. 

Jamar Hebert, the president and chairman of the organization, was approached by Play Tennis Gainesville to participate in the T.B. McPherson program.

“We may discover the next Venus or Serena,” Hebert said. 

Tennis is just one way to bring more resources to East Gainesville, Hebert said. 

Like Wiggins, Hebert recognizes a problem with the racial and socioeconomic makeup of recreational and professional tennis teams across the U.S. In East Gainesville, he said there are less sports programs offered to children in the area. 

“This is just one of many ways that we're trying to bridge that gap,” Hebert said. “The game of tennis provides important life skills, lessons and mental and physical wellness to all.”

His organization hopes to inspire and encourage young Black males in particular, pushing them to join non-traditional sports like tennis. 

The organization’s motto is “what they see is what they’ll be,” Hebert said. 

“We firmly believe that exposing our two avenues into these programs, they’ll see it,” he said. “And hopefully they’ll be it.”

The program hosts three different groups: Red Ball Tennis 4 Kids, Orange Ball Tennis 4 Kids and Love to Learn Adult Clinic. The red group runs from 4:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays for ages 8 and under. The orange group follows the red group from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. and hosts kids ages 10 and under.  The adult group is from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on the same nights.

Contact Faith at fbuckley@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @faith_buckley

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Faith Buckley

Faith Buckley is a first-year journalism student at UF and The Alligator's swimming and diving beat writer. She is specializing in sports media to one day hopefully work as an NHL commentator.


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