Junior tennis for youngsters from ghetto to farm

Bihn Diep's family fled Vietnam in 1978. Settling in New York City, Binh found it difficult adjusting to the new country, language, and life style.

One sultry summer day a member of the National Junior Tennis League invited him to play a little tennis. Bihn loved it. By joining the league's team, not only did he become a good tennis player, and make many new friends, he won a scholarship to attend a private boarding school in Connecticut.

Bihn's story isn't unique. For the past 13 years, the National Junior Tennis League (NJTL) has been teaching children to play tennis - children from crowded inner cities to sparsely settled rural areas all across the country. There are now over a quarter of a million children on NJTL teams.

The league started in 1969 with the help of two of the game's great players, Arthur Ashe and Charlie Pasarell. These two, one black, the other Puerto Rican, were concerned that tennis was still a ''country club'' sport. They sought to make tennis available to youngsters who normally wouldn't have the opportunity to learn to play.

That's still the goal of the NJTL. In the past 13 years it's expanded from pilot programs in New York, Philadelphia, and Richmond, Va., to more than 900 towns and cities in 46 states. NJTL's chapters are as diverse as the children on their teams.

NJTL stresses recreational tennis only. ''We're not highly competitive,'' says Mary Rowley, national director of the organization. ''We're not like little league. We don't allow high pressure parental involvement. Everyone gets to play. In fact,'' she adds, ''you can't get kicked off our teams.''

But the NJTL does foster a healthy sense of ''low-key competition,'' along with fun and teamwork. Community chapters organize teams of 12 to 21 members. Children are grouped according to ability, and, in communities large enough to support several teams, are also grouped by age. Team leaders encourage challenge matches between team members, and also with teams from other areas.

But this competition doesn't aim to boost players' pride or leave less experienced players wallowing continually in defeat. Instead, according to Arthur Ashe, chairman of the NJTL's National Board of Trustees, such activity offers youngsters the opportunity to understand the importance of fair play and good sportsmanship in competition. The few bonuses offered by the teams, such as a team shirt, are earned, not by winning, but simply by participating in a minimum number of events.

Ashe says he believes in starting children early - as early as age eight. In line with the NJTL's goal of getting children interested in the game, chapters place primary emphasis on the novice level. Scoring is simplified, and tradition takes a back seat to the main concern that everyone has fun.

Ashe says that not only can younger children enjoy the game, but habits of good sportsmanship and a positive outlook on competition can be more easily learned at an early age.

NJTL is finding new ways of helping make the lifelong benefits of tennis available to children of all races and classes. Some are being sent to summer tennis camps under league sponsorship. A few grants are also available to fund special tennis programs to serve mentally and physically handicapped youngsters.

In a new program that Ms. Rowley finds especially exciting, a few inner-city children have been given the opportunity to attend college preparatory schools. This is the program Bihn Diep participated in. The selections are based on academic ability and financial need, not on the ability to play tennis. As Ms. Rowley enthusiastically notes, one of these students just graduated from high school and was accepted at Yale University.

Since its beginning, the league has tried to supplement local public recreation programs. But the efforts have been strictly local affairs. The national office, supported by a grant from the Congoleum Corporation helps chapters get started, uses collective purchasing power to obtain tennis supplies at lower cost, and runs a national advertising campaign in tennis magazines.

But as for raising funds, individual chapters have been on their own. Now that many city budgets are being cut, chapters are being forced to be more creative to find the necessary funds to continue the programs.

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