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Idaho Tennis Association courts players of all ages

Teresa McDonald of Boise plays in a mixed doubles match. (Photo by Brad Talbutt)

Teresa McDonald of Boise plays in a mixed doubles match. (Photo by Brad Talbutt)

Note: Idaho Tennis Association is just one of many organizations planning to participate in the Boise Rec Fest June 26-27 in Ann Morrison Park. The association will offer clinics throughout the event. Other organizations offering participatory activities include Wing Center, The First Tee and the Boise Skate Board Association. See www.boiserecfest.com for more information.

Years before he was the executive director of Idaho Tennis Association, Matthew Warren was just a 14-year-old hitting tennis balls against his parents’ Orlando, Fla., garage, dreaming of the big leagues.

The teenage Warren went to his first tournament unschooled and unprepared, and suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of a talented 10-year-old.

That 10-year-old turned out to be Andy Roddick, who went on to be the No. 1 tennis player in the world.

As for Warren, he ended up with a different goal: To bring affordable after-school tennis to every one of the 150,000 elementary school students in Idaho, and to share tennis with thousands of regular Idahoans who don’t play it now. Through several new programs at the rapidly growing Boise-based organization, Warren plans to spread the word about tennis to every Idaho community, large and small.

For Idaho, Warren wants no less than a social movement of tennis – a sport that captures a piece of every lazy summer evening or brisk autumn afternoon and turns it into an opportunity for personal growth and connection.

“Tennis has the ability to transform lives,” said Warren, a former college tennis player for Trinity University in San Antonio.

Tennis is not about reflexes, speed, or strength, he added.

“It’s about the people you meet, the places you visit, the health benefits, and the experiences you have,” Warren said.

Idaho Tennis Association serves as a local office for the New York-based United States Tennis Association, the governing body of tennis in this country. The mission of the nonprofit is to promote the sport.

Until recently, Idaho Tennis was primarily a vehicle for organizing adult tennis leagues in southern, central and eastern Idaho. Northern Idaho tennis is overseen by the Pacific Northwest Tennis Association, which covers Oregon and Washington as well.

When Warren came on board in 2006, he expanded the mission, creating programs called Tennis 101 for families and Tennis is Elementary for grade school children and putting a new emphasis on junior team tennis. Idaho Tennis also provides support for nine community tennis associations throughout southern, eastern and central Idaho.

Tennis is popular in Idaho. The state ranks in the top 10 in the nation for tennis players per capita, and is No. 2 in the Northwest in that category, said Wendy Nielsen, the communications coordinator for Idaho Tennis Association. Colorado is No. 1.

Nationally, tennis is growing, according to the Tennis Industry Association, a trade group. Using data collected by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, the TIA reported U.S. participation in tennis had increased 43 percent from 2000 to 2008. The group said 27 million people played tennis in 2008, and sales of youth racquets increased 88 percent from 2003 through 2008.

Warren hopes to see that kind of growth in Idaho, where league tennis participation and tennis association membership has increased 11 percent in the last year.

“And we’re on track to beat that this year,” said Nielsen.

Soon after joining Idaho Tennis, Warren, who has a master’s degree in nonprofit administration from the University of Notre Dame, held a dozen public meetings around Idaho and used individual reports from each one to create a strategic plan, with his board, for extending the reach of tennis. The result was a commitment to focusing on community support and networking; making a stronger commitment to the association’s core programs; and turning Idaho Tennis into the go-to place for information about matches, pros, and anything else relating to tennis.

The group is starting with children and families. Unlike competing activities such as soccer, tennis can be played with just one partner, or with just a few. Also, “8-, 9-, and 10-year-olds are starting to get tired of soccer,” said Tina-Shea Sinclair, another spokeswoman for Idaho Tennis Association.

Two years ago, Idaho Tennis presented a pilot program for Tennis 101, its low-cost group clinics, at two Treasure Valley sites and attracted 200 people. Last year it expanded to three sites and had about 1,100 participants, said Warren. This year, Idaho Tennis is offering Tennis 101 at eight sites in the Treasure Valley, Sun Valley, and Twin Falls, and is expecting 2,000 participants.

Tennis is Elementary, a statewide after-school program for students age 10 and under, was held at three schools in fall 2009 and 13 in spring 2010, with more than 300 participants. Warren wants to see the program eventually find a place at every elementary school in Idaho, and is committing money from Idaho Tennis – itself partly supported by the U.S. Tennis Association – for equipment, instructors and scholarships to help low-income children participate.

“No other state has that now,” said Warren.

One of the fastest-growing areas for tennis in Idaho is Idaho Falls, where the community tennis association recently put on a free tennis camp for 500 children.

Tennis court use and club play has increased about 10 percent over the last two years in Idaho Falls, said Holger Nickel, a board member for Idaho Tennis who has been tennis director at the Apple Athletic Club in Idaho Falls since 1989.

That’s no accident. A cadre of volunteers and professionals is working hard to promote the game.

“We’re continuously running adult beginning lessons at a very, very low rate,” Nickel said. New players form teams and enter tournaments. “We have had between six and eight new beginning ladies’ teams over the last three years.”

Word of mouth seems to help.

“Once people get fired up, they get their friends and neighbors involved, their family members involved; there are no age restrictions,” said Nickel.

Meanwhile, Idaho Tennis is lobbying city councils and other government entities to build more tennis courts. The city of Boise has 100 of them; Idaho Falls has 32.

The group has hired 40 instructors in Treasure Valley in the last six weeks and will hire about 150 more next fall when the school programs start, said Warren. In July, the group will run a three-day tournament that uses seven sites in Boise, attracting 1,500 players and a host of others from out of town who will use hotels, restaurant, and other local businesses.

Warren wants to double his organization within three or four years, hiring more staff in Boise and adding satellite offices around Idaho.

“Our identity has emerged as an organization that is trying to grow the game from the grassroots level on up and support tennis associations across the state,” he said. “The potential is huge.”

About Anne Wallace Allen

Anne Wallace Allen is the editor of the Idaho Business Review.

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