Baltimore's Big Break

Heading into the final match down 15-16, Frances Tiafoe, a member of WorldTeam Tennis' Washington Kastles, stepped onto the court to face Dennis Novikov of the New York Empire. Tiafoe, who quite literally grew up at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Maryland where his father worked as a custodian, burst onto the professional tennis scene this year with big wins over established players such as Juan Martin del Potro, Milos Raonic, and Tomas Berdych. Now, though, Novikov stood in the way of the Washington Kastles' 4th win of the season, and our Baltimore ACE-ers watched on the edge of their seats as Tiafoe lifted his game for the occasion. "They hit so hard!" the kids commented in amazement, impressed with the 20 year old's ball-striking abilities. Though a few of the ACE-ers in attendance also joined us for field trips to the US Open and Citi Open in previous years, this opportunity to experience tennis in a whole other way made it even more exciting. The building tension was relieved when Tiafoe took control of the match, winning 5-2 over Novikov and elevating the Kastles to a 20-18 win. We applauded and cheered as the players shook hands, but it wasn't the finale to our own summer season. The ACE Project was just getting started.

In 2015, a couple of days after the uprising in Baltimore City following Freddie Gray's death, Susan Klumpner, Executive Director and Co-Founder, met with area principals to ensure social workers were on site to support students, parents and staff. It was an uncertain time for the community, and though Baltimore was the focus of national media, there was still a significant need to assist youth as they coped with increased fear, anxiety, and confusion. With our successful launch in Riverdale/Dolton well underway, The ACE Project saw an opportunity to replicate our efforts in expanding the joy of tennis in Baltimore. Three years later, there has been a significant boost of interest in the sport, and we have worked diligently to connect youth to programs that get them on the tennis court.

This summer was no different; it was a transformative experience for many. Following our field trip to the Washington Kastles match, The ACE Project hosted a 3-team tournament at the youth courts behind Ashburton Elementary. Last year, the team from Calvin Rodwell Elementary took home the top honor, but with all the kids working hard during the school season and a new team from the Kids Safe Zone in the mix (more on them in a bit), the oddsmakers didn't know who to pick. Of course, with tennis being relatively new to many of our ACE-ers, this wasn't your typical tennis tournament; we focused on testing the kids' agility, balance, and coordination with a dozen mini-events including Lobster Catch (when a player has to "catch" a ball between two rackets) and Bounce Up (when a player has to bounce a ball with a racket as many times as possible without losing control of the ball and letting it hit the ground). For more advanced players, we challenged them to use their developing forehands, backhands, and volleys to hit red balls over the net. It was an incredible afternoon full of camaraderie. Each team really wanted to win and cheered on their respective teammates. Since the Calvin Rodwell and Ashburton teams have had tennis programming for 3 years now, they were the front-runners, but that did not hinder the Kids Safe Zone team's competitiveness. At the end of the tournament, the Ashburton team earned the top prize overall, and individuals from each team brought home awards for their success in the mini-events. 

The most inspiring part of the afternoon, though, was seeing the progress in skills from the Calvin Rodwell and Ashburton youth. Having just a few seasons of practice under their belts, they took to the court with a new confidence and determination. It was a major shift from the time the kids first held a racket or bounced a tennis ball in 2015, and it renewed our resolve to connect more youth to the sport. This is where our partnership with Kids Safe Zone fits so well! Over the summer, nearly 60 kids had a chance to try tennis among other daily sports and enrichment activities at their camp. Thanks to interns from Coppin State University, we were able to provide basic tennis instruction on-site and help grow excitement for the game. The ACE Project had a chance to speak with Ebonye Jones, head tennis coach at Coppin State University, about what it meant to spearhead this opportunity.

ACE: What has been your involvement with The ACE Project?

In previous years, I worked closely with The ACE Project to implement new programming for young girls in the Baltimore area. In the winter of 2018, I took the tenure as the head tennis coach at Coppin State University, where my goal is to engage with the local community through sport and mentor-ship, and it was only natural that we partner with The ACE Project.

ACE: What have you been involved with this summer in Baltimore?

This summer, I coordinated with The ACE Program to organize an internship opportunity for Coppin State students who implemented tennis and STEM programming in a West Baltimore community center. It's been a personal joy seeing these young adults flourish in this space, making real life connections with some of the most at-risk students in the city. I am looking forward to connecting with more community partners in this way to create more opportunities for students to learn work-place skills. 

ACE: What have you learned as a result of your time spent with The ACE Project so far? 

In my short time with The ACE Project I have learned that through sport we can begin to build a better community. Starting with positive parent involvement, it was great seeing parents being so hands on within the ACE after-school programming.   

ACE: What has been your favorite memory in Baltimore with the kids?

Favorite memory hands down would be Coppin Tennis volunteering at the Serve & Connect program at Calvin Rodwell Elementary School. 

ACE: How do you believe ACE is making a difference in the Baltimore community by offering these types of summer programs? 

I strongly believe that ACE is making an impact especially in West Baltimore by providing an opportunity for positive role models to serve as mentors during such temperamental time as the summer. With the summer spike in crime and the  vast shortage of youth programming The ACE Project is definitely making waves of change in the city of Baltimore.