Last month, Highland High sophomore Nico Razo stood in amazement inside the Bakersfield Racquet Club. The first-year tennis player had never seen so many racquets in one place at one time.
“It was great. I didn’t understand at first though that some of the equipment was actually going to be ours,” he said in disbelief.
Coaches and players from 20 area tennis teams came that day to pick up donated racquets, shoes, balls and equipment bags provided by the Kern Community Tennis Association. KCTA launched the “What’s in your closet?” campaign last summer in an effort to get refurbished high-quality gear into the hands of deserving players, some of whom had never held a racquet before.
To date, 290 pro racquets, 2,000 practice balls and other gear with an original retail value exceeding $50,000 have made it into the hands of aspiring players with the greatest need at 23 local high schools.
“We are grateful for the Kern Community Tennis Association’s program that provides gently used tennis equipment to our student-athletes and schools,” said Stan Greene, director of school support services for the Kern High School District.
The Kern High School District is the largest in the state with more than 40,000 students. In all but four of the schools, the portion of the student body that qualifies as socioeconomic disadvantaged ranges from 53 to 90 percent, according to KCTA board member Jerry Matthews.
“The situation in outlying communities around the county is even worse. There are huge gaps in the quality of the programs at different schools, making it difficult to build a competitive tennis team. Many schools have players join without a racquet of any type,” he said.
Or students buy a cheap one from a big-box store.
“It’s not the same. It is hard to explain techniques without having technological equipment,” said Frontier High tennis coach Elton Evans, who had high praise for the KCTA giveaway.
For coaches like Evans, allowing players to see what the game of tennis is like using a high-end piece of equipment with control and power is a game changer.
“New players don’t know anything in the beginning, which is why this program is so beneficial,” said Highland High boys and girls JV tennis coach LaDawn Royer, who discourages them from purchasing one right away. “If they start out with a pro-level racquet, their chances of excelling in the high school competitive sport are good.”
Local talk radio host and tennis player Scott Cox restrung the racquets. Tennis Warehouse donated 100 and Barber Honda, Sequoia Sandwich Company and McDonald’s underwrote the drive.
In a thank-you letter, Kennedy High boys tennis coach Mark Booc wrote: “My dream is to keep the young men and women of Delano active and out of trouble. You (Sequoia) have made a positive impact on these students’ lives. This gesture means much more than a racquet. You have given them confidence, determination, grit and inspiration.”
One young woman was reportedly moved to tears when her damaged Walmart racquet was replaced with a refurbished Babolat. Highland freshman Tomas Ochoa said the difference in his game is like night and day.
“I bought a poor-quality racquet, then I was given this racquet and it was a big improvement in terms of grip, control and durability,” he said.
The high school teams that participated in the racquet and gear giveaway will be recognized March 13 at the KCTA Awards Night during the 6th Annual USTA Men’s Future Pro Tournament.
McFarland boys varsity coach Jaime Bravo plans to bring his student-athletes to watch the Bakersfield Tennis Open March 11-17 where top-flight players from around the world will descend on the Bakersfield Racquet Club.
“We are grateful for this caliber of equipment (and exhibition play),” he said. “It is a step for-ward to improving our program.” ￼
Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lisa Kimble.