For eight girls at Excel Academy Public Charter School, an all-girls elementary and middle school in southeast D.C., learning how to play tennis goes beyond proper footwork and working up a sweat. The lessons teach them about good sportsmanship, hard work, and good eating. They also teach the girls about building character.

LaSandra Taylor, 11, one of seven girls on Excel Academy’s tennis team, readies to return a tennis ball at Anacostia Park. (Photo by Lenore Adkins)

The girls belong to the school’s nascent tennis team club, which their science teacher, Gregory Dwyre, started earlier this year. The squad is comprised mostly of beginners, who play once a week for an hour on public courts at Anacostia Park in southeast D.C. Dwyre said he eventually wants the girls to compete against other schools, but for now, he’s focused on getting them excited about the sport and honing their tennis skills.

The girls have already bonded. Several girls said they play with their best friends who are also in the club. Shelby Taylor, 11, who has played tennis for four years, said she is helping the girls perfect their strokes.

“It builds all of the teammates up,” Genora Gray, 11, told the AFRO. “Teamwork makes the dream work.”

Dwyre said he loves tennis and wanted to expose the girls to a sport they could possibly play for the rest of their lives. “I’ve been wanting to do this for a while since I’ve been at the school, because they don’t have a lot of sports teams,” Dwyre, who played tennis at Eckerd College, told the AFRO. “It’s important they have access to activities that are in some way active.”

The club is in keeping with the school’s new focus of promoting and boosting athletics, said Matthew Evancho, the school’s director of creative arts. In addition to the tennis team, the school also offers basketball, soccer, track, Double Dutch, dance, and cheerleading teams.

The programs keep the students engaged at school and help them forge closer relationships with their teachers. “It helps the students involved, especially the middle school scholars . . . who generally weren’t as invested,” Evancho said.

Meanwhile, Dwyre operates the club without much of a budget. Local tennis players donated the rackets. The school paid for two ball hoppers and a box of tennis balls. There are only eight girls in the club because that’s the number of girls who can fit in Dwyer’s and co-coach Teya Green’s cars. Dwyer and Green, a social studies teacher, drive the girls from the school to the tennis courts and back, which is about a 10-minute drive, each way.

The girls said they are grateful that their teachers are sacrificing so much so they can play tennis. “It’s something active for the kids instead of being out on the streets,” Anna Hyman, 14, club captain, told the AFRO. “I like when we come together as a team and show sisterhood.”

The girls are learning tennis isn’t as easy as it looks. Before practice begins, Green tells the girls to run a single lap around the nine caged tennis courts.

Danielle Chatman, 10, told the AFRO that she’s already seen progress in her physical fitness. “The first time, I was dead,” she said.

Practice only lasts an hour. After the run around the courts, the girls stretch, do various drills, play tennis games such as doubles and king of the hill.

“The teachers don’t fight, we don’t fight, and they’re great role models,” Jordyn Terrell-Thomas, 11, to the AFRO.

When it’s raining outside, the girls watch videos of Venus and Serena Williams, who continue to dominate tennis well into their 30s. Between them, the sisters have won 30 Grand Slam singles titles from the sport’s four most important Grand Slam tournaments, such as the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open. Like the girls, they are Black and learned how to play tennis on public courts.

Though the Williams sister go hard against each other on the courts, they always hug after one of them wins. According to several of the girls, the Williams sisters are an inspiration for the girls and serve as examples of strong, positive women. “Of course they’re African American and of course they’re sisters,” Thomas said. “Just because we’re competing . . . at the end of the day, we’re still sisters.”