Just beyond the large statue of Althea Gibson, a throng of kids eager to play the game she dominated fill up nearly 18 courts named after the tennis icon.
It’s a Wednesday evening, one of four days they practice at Newark’s Branch Brook. There’s no time to waste, either. They’re up on their toes with a bounce in their step, anticipating the direction of balls tossed at them from instructors at the Essex County Althea Gibson Tennis Complex.
This rarely happens at the courts, unless there’s a high school tournament, and there aren’t many. Hardly anyone from the neighborhood, which borders Belleville, plays there, either, making Newark a tennis desert like many urban communities.
Not anymore. This organization – the National Junior Tennis and Learning of Trenton – started a Newark chapter three years ago with a free program for kids in the city and surrounding communities. Since then, the Newark members of the group moved on and formed the Greater Newark Tennis & Education organization.
Under the new name, the program is still free, receiving funds from private donations and corporations. While financing is a challenge, the program is flourishing.
It started with five kids and finished with 70 after the first year. Now 130 are registered, but on any given evening, 50-55 kids learn the game for two hours Monday through Thursday and for another two hours on Saturday morning.
“We want to give kids the idea that there is a bigger world beyond than what they may know,” said Charles McKenna, the executive director of the program.
Camps big. University big. Globally, big. That’s how far the organization wants them to go.
Historically, they get to learn that Gibson, an East Orange resident in her later years, became the first African-American to win a grand slam title, the French Championships in 1956. The following year, she won Wimbledon and the Nationals, which was precursor to the US Open, then did it again in 1958. Overall, Gibson won 11 grand slam tournaments, including five singles titles, five doubles titles, and one mixed doubles title.
The courts where the kids play were named after her by Essex County in 2002 and the statute was dedicated in 2012. Dozens gathered, including Gov. Chris Christie and tennis great Billie Jean King.
“Greater Newark Tennis & Education continues Ms. Gibson’s legacy by bringing the game of tennis to a new generation of players and using the game to help develop tomorrow’s leaders,” said Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo.
And, if all goes right, this program could be the impetus to spark a comeback of the game in city high schools.
Bob Bynum, a Newark native and the program’s lead instructor, would love to see that happen. He’s always wanted to be part of a tennis program in Newark, having taught the game full-time in suburban communities since the 1980s.
“This is a dream come true. Newark has always been close to my heart,” said Bynum, a South Side High School graduate, who played his first tennis tournament on these courts in the 1970s.
He remembers when Newark high schools had teams, but they dissipated over the years because there were no feeder programs to bring kids into tennis.
“That’s what we’re trying to do,” he said. “We’re hoping that some of these kids who go to high school in Newark will be able to rekindle the tennis programs.”
So, they’re starting them out young. Most of the kids are 5 to 12-year-olds, but the program teaches kids up to 18. The participants are mainly from Essex County, and have taken to the game, learning from Bynum’s staff, which numbers about 13 instructors, who are high school and college students and parent volunteers.
The kids want to play and have improved. Jason Honore, 11, said it was hard at first when he started three years ago. He had no control over the ball, his strokes sending it high over the net. Practice change that.
“Sometimes when you hit the ball really well, you say, ‘I hope that can be my knew normal,’” he said.
His older brother, Julian, 13, said he is motivated by playing against good players to get better.
Ten-year-old Darren Cordero, 10, of Belleville, agrees. He hasn’t beaten Julian, yet, but is looking forward to that day. He’s really into the game, too. After spending all day in summer camp, his parents said he’s on them to get him to the courts on time.
“He doesn’t miss a day,” said Lewis Cordero, his dad.
The Whitest brothers – Marvin III, 12 an Courtney, 10 – like tennis so much that their dad, Marvin Jr., brings them from New Brunswick. They take the train, getting off at the station across the street from the courts.
“It’s good for me, too,” Marvin Jr. said. “It helps me get back active. Now, I’ve gotta hit with my boys. They want to show they can play.”
All of the kids, whether they know it or not, have breathed life into the community. People stop to see what’s going on. With their play — the program runs until October — perhaps others will take up the game and use the courts.