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Building Young Lives 

Brenda Slade teaches tennis and a whole lot more

Garinger High School Tennis Coach Brenda Slade is into the construction of lives. Through her summer program, she seeks out kids from some of the lowest-income neighborhoods in Charlotte to teach them the game. To expose them to more opportunities, to help shape their lives in a positive way. And she's good at it.

In 1998, Slade had more kids (approximately 250) go through a one-day free grassroots tennis program than anywhere else in the United States. Because of that, a marketing group, the Tennis Industry Association, recognized her as a Funded Market Success Story, one of about a dozen programs nationwide that excelled in using United States Tennis Association (USTA) grant money to expose inner-city kids to tennis.

This spring, the Southern Section of the USTA picked her to win a $1,000 scholarship to attend the 2001 USA Teaching Conference in New York City, an outstanding event featuring top names like teaching pro Dennis Van der Meer and sports psychologist Jim Loehr. The event emphasizes boosting multiculturalism in the sport. Nominated by the Charlotte Tennis Association (CTA), Slade attended the teaching conference in late August, which is held in conjunction with the US Open tennis tournament.

When I sat down with her recently at Garinger, she was still enthusiastic about the people she'd met, the kids she'd worked with at Arthur Ashe Day and the experts she'd heard. She'd even gotten to watch Serena Williams win an early-round match and seen Hillary Clinton, whom she calls my hero.

But her enthusiasm has been tempered by the tragedy in New York, which struck two weeks after she left, only a few blocks from the Grand Hyatt where she stayed. I still worry about whether anybody I met was killed or is missing, she says.

That she zeroes in on the well-being of others is typical. Coach Slade definitely goes the extra mile for kids, says Angela Steele, the family services director at the Johnston YMCA, which sends children to Slade's summer program. If there are transportation difficulties, she figures something out. She will even start the program later if needed. When Garinger was being renovated two summers in a row, she found other facilities.

Beyond being flexible about teaching, Slade takes the most important step: She invests energy in the youngsters.

She introduces inner-city kids to a nontraditional sport, but she teaches discipline as well, Steele says. We've noticed that our kids have increased in that area, as well as increasing their skill in the game. Each year she takes the kids to tournaments, and they've started watching the pros on TV.

The Johnston Y sends about 200 kids through Slade's program each summer, which consists of free clinics, instruction and competitive opportunities. It's a USTA Pathway Program designed to introduce kids to the sport. Funding comes from USTA grants, CTA's Jeff Adams Youth Foundation and other sources. The children range in age from pre-schoolers to teenagers and receive tennis racquets to keep at the free clinics.

Not surprisingly, they clamor for the racquets that come with cardboard advertisements of the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, who recently made history when they played each other for the US Open singles' title. Not only had two African Americans never faced each other in the final, they were sisters, marking the first time sisters had squared off in more than a century.

They want the Venus racquet most of all -- even the boys, says Pattie Smith, who oversees USTA's grassroots tennis program on behalf of CTA. She coordinates local teachers like Slade, who is one of a number who work with inner-city kids. This past summer, William Brown had the most kids (about 400) come through his program, many of whom were from the McCrorey YMCA.

When Smith teaches sessions herself, she asks kids their favorite players and they quickly shout, Venus and Serena. Once when she told them, Let me see some Pete Sampras' sweat, they turned to her and asked, Who?

Not only are the kids impressed that African American sisters have risen to the top of the game, they pick up on the details of their lives. That's the most powerful influence, Slade says.

These kids know if you can come out of Compton (a rough, low-income area south of Los Angeles) and achieve your dreams, they can, she says. You work hard like the Williams sisters, then you can be successful. You don't have to go to a Florida (tennis academy) and have a lot of money. You don't have to play all those junior tournaments, which also costs a lot. The Williams family did things in an unconventional way, and they made it.

Slade sees Richard Williams, the sisters' father, as similar to the overbearing fathers of Jennifer Capriati, Jelena Dokic and Mary Pierce. He isn't much different than many other tennis dads who are sometimes out of line, she says.

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