Could the next Serena Williams or Arthur Ashe be hiding in the District of Columbia? The D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) is determined to find out by looking for kids to groom for tennis, especially those living in low-income parts of Washington, D.C.

DPR held a free citywide tennis celebration July 8 at the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center in Ward 8 to expose kids to the sport and show their parents that it doesn’t have to be an expensive country club sport, thanks to people and sponsors at the center who often donate rackets, shoes, and other equipment.

Ryan Walthall, 5, of Fort Washington, Md., hitting a forehand at the DPR Citywide Tennis Celebration, held July 8 at the Southeast Tennis and Education Center in Ward 8. (Photo by Lenore Adkins)

“Tennis is for everybody no matter what your skill level is or who you are,” said John Stokes, DPR’s director of community engagement. “I don’t care who you are, tennis is a game of life, for life. It doesn’t make a difference if you’re 8 or 80.”

The inaugural citywide celebration on July 8 attracted about 300 people, which means DPR will organize another one that’s “bigger and better” in 2018, Stokes said.

The day included free food, music, a mascot dance-off, a bounce house, an opportunity to hit with tennis instructors, a serving contest, and free tickets to the upcoming CitiOpen Professional Tennis Tournament from July 29-Aug. 6 at Rock Creek Park in Northwest D.C. The CitiOpen lineup includes past champion Gael Monfils of France. The celebration also served as a way to kick off “tennis month” in the District. The center also held a youth tennis tournament indoors for people to see the sport as it’s played inside.

“To have this over here speaks to the fact that tennis is accessible or available to underserved communities, people of color and they can start accessing the sport from 3 years old,” said Cora Masters Barry, the center’s president and founder.

The District takes tennis very seriously, as the celebration came just as the city kicks into high gear for tennis. The Washington Kastles, with a squad including tennis champion Venus Williams and Frances Tiafoe of College Park, is scheduled to begin its new season on July 16.

Representatives from the CitiOpen and the Washington Kastles were on hand at the celebration to pass out information about the upcoming events. United States Tennis Association officials from the Mid-Atlantic district also attended to share information about youth tournaments, leagues, and related events for children in the area.

“Tennis players from all over the city should come together to grow the game and get some instruction and get introduced to the game,” said Jeri Ingram, vice president on USTA Mid-Atlantic’s board of directors.

Rashaud Thomas, 16, won one of the center’s youth tournaments on July 8 and won a serving contest at the celebration, serving up a ball that clocked in at 111 mph. Thomas lives in Ward 8 and learned how to play tennis at the center when he was 6-years-old. Not only is he perfecting his mental and physical game there, but he is developing leadership skills by coaching the younger kids. “I just love it because it helps us all out,” Thomas told the AFRO.

Arielle Thompson, 5, has been enrolled in the center’s Tiny Tots program for two years and spent part of her afternoon hitting with a coach and playing with other kids in the program. Arielle’s mother, Ashley Stephens, introduced her to tennis because she wanted something different for her daughter, as opposed to dance or soccer.

“We don’t have that many African Americans (in tennis) and I’m not saying she’s going to be rich and famous, but I just wanted to instill something in her that she wasn’t seeing,” said Stephens, a Ward 8 resident.