Thursday, April 24, 2014 6:02 AM
Photo by Kayla Faria. Sloane Stephens — the women’s tennis star who defeated Serena Williams in the 2013 Australian Open — plays tennis with children at the Prince George’s Community College tennis courts after honoring former national top 10 wheelchair tennis player Brenda Gilmore, second from left, on Friday. Gilmore joins Stephens to hit a few sets with the children.
Published on: Wednesday, July 31, 2013
By Kayla Faria
Grass has sprouted in the cracks of the eight green concrete tennis courts at Prince George’s Community College. But the nation’s second-best woman singles player is refurbishing the court to grow the game.
Professional tennis player Sloane Stephens, 20, partnered with American Express and the U.S. Tennis Association through Fresh Courts philanthropic program to “break ground” at the community college tennis courts, lead a tennis clinic and honor the county’s tennis and education foundation Executive Director Brenda Gilmore on Friday.
Gilmore was invited to the US Open and received the Fresh Courts community leadership award, but the former U.S. top 10 wheelchair tennis player was more excited about the new courts.
Photo by Kayla Faria. Professional tennis star Sloane Stephens shows children how to hold a tennis racket at the Prince George’s Community College tennis courts on Friday. Stephens partnered with American Express and the U.S. Tennis Association to refurbish the community college’s cracked courts.
“This is my grand slam,” Gilmore said. “I’m sitting next to Sloane Stephens!”
Sporting bright yellow sneakers, neon-painted nails and a crucifix, Stephens flashed the grin heralded as the best smile in women’s tennis.
“I love you guys,” the superstar athlete, who signs her autographs with a giant swirly heart, said to the group of tennis enthusiasts. “I’m just so excited that you guys are letting me give you guys some new courts — if that sounds alright.”
Fresh Courts has refurbished 80 courts in communities nationwide since 2010 to “create a better experience for all those that play,” American Express Director Michele Carr said.
Photo by Kayla Faria. Tennis pro Sloane Stephens signs autographs for the long line of children after running an informal youth clinic Friday at Prince George’s Community College.
The new Prince George’s County tennis space will feature nine expanded and refurbished courts, including two smaller 36-feet courts designed for younger players.
“When it’s a large court like this, it’s really hard for them to learn,” Carr said. “They can learn on a smaller surface, and (that) will help them grow and love the game more versus being frustrated in a larger court setting.”
“Their skills won’t be stunted by the way the courts are configured,” she added.
Like many professional athletes, Stephens’ athletic development was fostered through quality facilities.
“When I started playing, I had really good courts to play on and a really safe environment,” the 2013 Wimbledon quarterfinalist said. “I know you guys are going to have the best.”
Court renovations start July 26. It is projected to be completed before the US Open starts on Aug. 26.
Stephens said she hopes to return when the courts are finished. Gilmore plans to call it the “Sloane Stephens’ Court.”
Stephens’ decision to choose the court stemmed from a connection with community tennis head Nic Askew, the 2010 USTA Mid Atlantic Coach of the Year.
Askew “stuck by her,” offering help and advice when Stephens was a young teen finding her place in competitive tennis at Bollettieri Academy in Bradenton, Fla.
Carr said it was this connection to the Prince George’s Community Tennis Foundation and Gilmore that led Stephens to select the community college’s courts.
“For (Stephens), it was really important to do something special given the amount of time that Brenda has given to this community and how many children’s lives she’s impacted,” Carr said.
Gilmore started playing tennis after she became paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident. In 1993, she launched the Prince George’s Tennis & Education Foundation, a program to provide underprivileged youth with a chance to go to college through athletic scholarships in a “nontraditional sport in this county,” Gilmore said.
The plans for the new courts extend Gilmore’s vision to increase access.
“Everyone is going to have a great opportunity to come and play here and it doesn’t matter how old you are,” Stephens said. “It’s an awesome opportunity. It’s encouraging because I know that the kids are going to be safe and they’re going to have fun, and I think that’s all that really matters.”
The cracks in the courts are an injury hazard that has stopped some from playing the game, Carr said. “The growth of the game is naturally hurt by that.”
When asked about the decision to partner with the 20-year-old tennis professional, Carr echoed sentiments of growth.
“She is such a bright star on the rise and we really want to support tennis players at their earliest stages and watch them develop and grow.”
It is the capacity for growth that brought many to the tucked-away community college courts on the warm afternoon.
“When you take the great game, the talent, the dedication of young people, and then, the kind of world-class facilities they deserve, we know that the game of tennis is going to continue to grow and grow and grow,” USTA Director at-Large Mark Ein said. “I can’t wait to come back here next year and see future US Open Champions being produced right here on the courts of Prince George’s Community College.”