In Greenville, a Jr. Team Tennis Upswing
by Jonathon Braden
GREENVILLE, S.C. – Team tennis for kids has been revived in this Upstate city.
The program, unpopular or nonexistent for decades, has become one of the biggest in the South in recent years because of its new leader.
Ashlyn Cousins, a mother of two tennis-playing boys, has convinced tennis pros to help recruit and lead JTT teams. She has marketed the program through old tactics – word of mouth – and new ideas – a Facebook page. She and her cadre of volunteers also have made tennis fun for hundreds of families.
And her work isn’t finished: She expects more growth in the near future.
“Kids are just really looking forward to playing JTT, whereas before we couldn’t really get kids interested,” said Tim Driscoll, director of tennis at Greenville County Recreation District. “That, to me, is simply (because of) the hard work of Ashlyn and the organizational skills she has.”
Jr. Team Tennis is a six-week season of team practice and match play for kids ages 6 to 18. The programs exist all around South Carolina and the country, and kids from all skill levels participate.
In the mid-1990s, when Greenville previously had such a program, attendance was inconsistent.
Some meet days, only a few kids from a team would show up, Driscoll said. Other times, more kids would show but they would be from different skill levels, and play was rarely evenly matched.
In 2009, when Cousins started the Greenville JTT program, Driscoll was wary.
Cousins, however, saw a chance to get hundreds of families playing tennis, including her own.
Her boys had been taking lessons for about a year but didn’t want to play in tournaments and questioned why they were practicing so often.
“I thought they were going to give it up,” she said.
Cousins asked Greenville’s tennis pros, including Driscoll, to help recruit kids and teams. She encouraged her friends to spread the word. She started a website for the program.
But Cousins didn’t buy months of billboard ads or dozens of 30-second television spots.
She wanted the program to last for years, not be overrun with participants in year one. She also thought the program would grow quickly enough if families enjoyed it.
In the program’s first year, word was already spreading: Driscoll was telling his tennis students and parents to get involved, including Wendy Simmons and her four children. At the time, Simmons’ children, like Cousins’ boys, weren’t excited about tournaments. But Simmons, like Cousins, wanted to keep her kids involved in tennis.
Robert appreciates JTT because he meets new kids and sees old friends at practices and meets.
Trip Crowley also has enjoyed the camaraderie of JTT.
He had never played tennis when he was asked to join a team in fall 2009. But now he plays some 15 hours a week, including during his JTT matches on Friday nights.
Both Robert and Trip said they like consistently playing against people at or above their skill levels at JTT matches. Cousins makes sure that happens by organizing a rating day before every season in which kids are grouped by skill level.
Cousins also ensures the players have fun.
She organizes end- of-season parties at destinations such as Gravitopia Trampoline Arena in Greenville. (Think: A warehouse packed with trampolines.)
At the recent invitational Greenville JTT hosted for advanced teams and players, kids walked on a red carpet and devoured a candy bar buffet. They also could go to the Greenville JTT Facebook page and view their photos.
“It’s a really good thing to do,” Robert Simmons said of JTT.
This spring, he will play high school tennis four nights a week and still make time for JTT on Friday evenings.
His mother, Wendy, also has stayed involved: She organizes Greenville JTT Beginner level tennis for kids ages 11-18 and new to tennis.
She, too, enjoys the camaraderie of the program, the chats with parents at the Friday night matches and the team dinners that sometimes follow meets.
Driscoll, who was initially skeptical, also favors JTT these days.
He especially likes how JTT lets tennis, an individual sport, become a team sport. He thinks JTT will become only more popular with junior players of all skill levels.
Cousins envisions that as well.
This year, she has appointed a schools coordinator to work with Greenville area schools and help them form JTT programs. Eventually, Cousins said, the programs could serve as feeder programs for the area’s high school teams.
“I think it could double our program.”