Tennis Lessons Teach More Than Good Sportsmanship

The Washington Tennis and Education Foundation aims to prepare students for life through tennis
Photograph By
Gerald Weston

Students in the Center For Excellence Program toured three universities in Nashville during a recent tennis playing tournament.

Ask Dallas Otigba, a precocious, athletic 14-year-old Ward 7 resident, what’s different about playing tennis at Tennessee State University and she’ll tell you it’s the way they play tennis. “They hit the ball different. They approach it in a different way. Some people attack it. But they just hit it differently. I’ve never seen anyone hit like that before.” Something else she had never seen before her trip down south was a rabbit. “I thought that was real interesting.” That one experience with out of town travel and touring has kindled her interest in other cultures beyond the District and she is eager to attend college. “I think college is going to be real fun.” 

For many of the students in the Center For Excellence Program at the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation, the recent trip to Nashville, Tennessee was a series of firsts. Dallas and her teammates got a chance to tour two other colleges during their visit: Vanderbilt University and Fisk University. They got a chance to meet and greet their peers in a non-competitive sequence of tennis matches. (They were victorious over their Southern opponents.) They marveled at the African-American historical artifacts stored at Fisk including shackles from slavery days and the Abraham Lincoln Bible. Chris Green, 13, said that was the best part of the tour. “I didn’t know he had a separate Bible. And we learned that some of the Bibles in slavery days were changed to keep them in slavery. They didn’t have any hope.”

Exposure to universities and cultures in other states provide youth with stimulation and ammunition to dream of life beyond sports. That’s one of the goals of the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation.  

Athletics and Scholarship

The Center For Excellence Program has approximately 100 students in the after-school program.  The students are divided into beginners and advanced players. Students know that this center values education over sports.  The rule is homework then tennis. The goal is to prepare the students for life through training and hard work.  Students must present report cards every quarter. Developing study habits is imperative. Gerald Weston, Counselor at WTEF, says schoolwork is of the utmost importance. “Some of them weren’t used to doing homework. We make it known that they are going to do their homework. And if it’s not done properly they will have to redo it.” 

Washington Tennis and Education Foundation aims to improve the lives of underserved children and youth through sports and academic support. Students in the Center for Excellence Program come in five days a week to the after-school program at the East Capitol campus off of East Capitol Street in Southeast. They receive homework support as well as math and reading tutoring.  Once their work is checked, they can practice their tennis skills on the courts indoors or outdoors. The privately funded program is free of charge (including racquets and tennis outfits) and no Ward 7 student is turned away. The center picks up students from various schools and remains open until 7 pm. 

Shifting the Focus

Although basketball and football are favored sports, WTEF tries to show youth that there are other sports that are just as demanding and rewarding. Weston says children today must look beyond traditional sports if they want financial assistance for college. “Most of our kids only know two sports: basketball and football. We try to explain that the chances of getting a scholarship for tennis are much greater than football or basketball.”  Many coaches from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) actively seek minority scholars who can play tennis.  

Parental support can be difficult at times. Moving from home to home, job demands or waning interest can present obstacles when trying to support their kids who are enrolled in the program. “Sometimes parents are in situations where they have their own issues. That can make it hard for them to support the kids and their endeavors. But we try to work around it as much as possible,” says Weston. 

Isn’t Tennis for White People?

African-American athletes can be found in just about every sport imaginable but because African-Americans players dominate the National Football League and the National Basketball League it is easy to miss diversity in other sports.  “There are two things we hear from the kids about tennis. It’s a sissy sport and it’s for white folks. Neither of which are true. You might be on the court for three to four hours with very few breaks in between sets. And it’s not a team sport where you have help out there. It’s just you. So it takes a lot of stamina to be able to play.” 

As for a sport for white people, not so much. Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe, Zina Garrison and the famous Williams sisters are proof that African-Americans excel at this sport. Black neighborhoods are seeing more tennis courts being revived or created such as the South East Tennis and Learning Center on Mississippi Avenue in Ward 8. Thanks to the efforts of former first lady of DC Cora Masters Barry, the SETLC opened in 2001.

WTEF plans to continue the program for students in Ward 7 in the upcoming fall. Adults are also welcome to visit the center for fitness classes and tennis lessons. Creating more opportunities for exposure to other cultures and sports and building stronger athletes and even stronger scholars is the way WTEF invests in the future. 

For more information about the Washington tennis and Education Foundation, visit

Candace Y.A. Montague is the health reporter for Capital Community News.