Last week Serena Williams defeated Spain’s Garbiñe Muguruza to win the sixth Wimbledon championship of her career, further solidifying her place as one of the greatest athletes to ever pick up a tennis racket. In August, she will come to Queens in the hopes of winning her seventh U.S. Open and fourth Grand Slam event of the calendar year — a feat achieved only once before, by Germany’s Steffi Graf.
But while the Compton, California–raised Williams, along with her older sister Venus, have come to lead the sport professionally over the years, a stereotype persists that tennis is a game largely reserved for white suburbia. Though the sport’s top players will all compete in front of thousands of fans in New York City next month, affordable public tennis courts are painfully limited in the five boroughs. Especially if you’re a kid.
Brooklyn’s Kings County Tennis League aims to chip away at this problem by making the sport free and accessible to children living in and around public housing developments in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Founded in 2010 by Michael McCasland, a 32-year-old forensic scientist originally from Wilmington, North Carolina, the nonprofit seeks to use tennis as a means of mentoring children from low-income communities.
The organization, which operates only on weekends, isn’t as interested in grooming future stars as it is in building character.
“I realized that we’re not going to make the next Venus and Serena Williams with this, but I did notice that I was making a positive impact on the kids,” McCasland tells the Voice. “They were coming back on time, they were into it, they were thinking about the class when they were off the court, so I kind of envisioned the program being more of a way to expand the child’s worldview and to use tennis to impart life skills on kids living in public housing.”
KCTL has its roots in Bed-Stuy’s Marcy Houses and has expanded over the years to include clubs from the Tompkins Houses, the Lafayette Houses, the Sumner Houses, and, most recently in May, Jackie Robinson Park on Malcolm X Boulevard. The organization raised the money to renovate the tennis courts at Marcy Playground, but in neighborhoods where traditional courts don’t exist, clubs have at times made do with portable nets and chain-link dividers. The classes target children ages five to fifteen, and graduates of the program are encouraged to stay on and become mentors themselves.
Despite the image that often exists around the game — that it’s inherently WASPy and elitist, that it lacks physicality and grit — McCasland maintains that tennis is uniquely positioned to help children build self-reliance and mental toughness.
“There’s a little bit of irony to it because of the way tennis is perceived, but tennis is a sport that is perfect for mentorship,” he says. “When you hit a good shot on the tennis court you earn that, that’s all yours. Nobody can take that away from you. And if you lose or if you mess up on the tennis court, that’s your responsibility. And what I tell people is that’s the perfect metaphor for life.”
McCasland himself comes from a middle-class background and played high school tennis before going the intramural route in college. He moved to Bed-Stuy in 2008 and quickly noticed that the tennis courts at the nearby Marcy Playground were being underutilized. He thought the sport could be a way to give back to his new neighborhood. He got the idea to start a tennis program and passed flyers around inviting neighborhood kids to participate — no one showed up the first class. He passed out more flyers, and at the second class a few players turned out. KCTL was born.
Though in the early days of the program KCTL was given a two-year, $25,000 start-up grant from the United States Tennis Association — the sport has recently made a concerted effort to be more inclusive — McCasland says the game historically has not been marketed successfully toward urban communities. The limited number of public courts in the city, as well as the cost of lessons and permits, have also been factors in the sport’s stunted growth in lower-income neighborhoods.
The hope is that the barriers preventing children from participating continue to break apart, both in Brooklyn and beyond.
“We’re definitely changing the perception of the sport because we’re making the sport more diverse, and when I say the word ‘diverse’ I mean a heterogenous mixture of people,” McCasland explains. “We’re showing that tennis can be for everybody.”