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Louisiana Tennis Program Takes Off!

July 20, 2005 10:55 AM

Tennis program takes off

When a friend asked her if she wanted to go play tennis a few months ago, Traci Crossno thought she must have been joking.

After all, Crossno had never picked up a tennis racket in her life. But the 32-year-old Shreveporter was game, and she went with her friend to Querbes Park Tennis Center on a Saturday morning last month for a Fun, Friends and Fitness program clinic.

"I thought I would make a fool of myself," said Crossno, a stay-at-home mom who works part time at her church. "And she said, no, it would be fun."

Her friend was right, and Crossno was hooked.

Clarence Grant (right) returns a shot to instructor Byron Hardy at a Fun, Friends and Fitness tennis program held recently at East Ridge Country Club. (Robert Ruiz/The Times)

Crossno is one of several dozen people who participate in the grass-roots program. Local public tennis centers and private clubs alternate as hosts Saturday mornings. The next summer session program is Saturday at Pierremont Oaks Tennis Club, and another session will get started in September.

The Northwest Louisiana Community Tennis Association started the program in the fall of 2003 as an effort to get more people involved in the sport.

It targets people like Crossno who are interested in taking up the sport as well as people like Shreveporter Jill Lampshire who may have played in the past and want to get started again. It also serves as pathway for people to get involved in adult league team tennis.

Area pros and volunteers provide low-key instruction in the fundamentals of the game, ranging from how to grip a racket to how to keep score.

"The way the clinic was set up and the way it was organized was great," Crossno said. "It's so nice because they don't make you feel intimidated in any way. If you hit the ball backward or straight up in the air they didn't make you feel like that's something you couldn't overcome."

According to NLCTA community coordinator and instructor Cal Schexnider, the program really got rolling in August of 2004 when 74 players showed up at Southern Hills Tennis Center.

In the spring, Schexnider said about 60 people a week participated. A record 95, including Crosso, signed up for this summer's first session at Querbes.

"The program brings adults of all ages and different walks of life together in a fun, healthy and social activity," Schexnider said. "For those beginners who have never picked up a racket, we make you feel relaxed, comfortable and not intimidated."

Lampshire, a 29-year-old graduate student and nanny, played tennis in high school and college. She hadn't played in almost 10 years when, like Crossno, she heard about the program from a friend.

"It was a good opportunity to get back on the court," she said. "We have a great bunch of pros here in town, and they're doing a fabulous job with the clinic. I've met a lot of wonderful people through it"

The program has been cited as an example of how to grow the sport by the Southern Tennis Association, which includes nine southern states, and has received monetary grants from that organization to help defray costs.

According to Querbes pro Richard Verzaal, it's one reason the Shreveport-Bossier City area has become the largest growing tennis community in the South in terms of membership in the United States Tennis Association, the sports national governing body.

The program has gotten such positive feedback, Verzaal said, that it is being used as a pilot program for other cities in the state.

Verzaal said the idea of putting a large group of people together came after the "old way" of doing things with smaller groups of less than 10 failed to keep players interested.

"In the old way, if you put six, seven or eight people on the court and you had two or three drop out and then two or three that became infrequent participants, you were left with two or three and they didn't relate to the other people," he said.

"What Fun, Friends and Fitness ended up doing is, if you have 40, 50 or 60 people in a group setting they will find somebody to relate to. Then they'll gravitate toward some people who maybe want to play three days the next week. In a group of 60, if you want to find somebody to play three times a week or once a month, or go to Superior Grill on Thursday, you're going to find it."

Southern Hills pro David Kimball, named the 2004 Southern Tennis Professional of the Year by the USTA, said the program has also had an unforeseen benefit.

"One thing it's done is it's shown a unity among the tennis pros," he said. "Pros have a tendency to be territorial, and this has helped everybody see a bigger picture than their facility."

While there's no hard sell, the ultimate goal is to funnel players into league team tennis, which has been popular in the area for many years.

"Team tennis is where tennis gets plugged in," Kimball said. He added that adults may be looking to join a team for some of the same social aspects they enjoyed playing team sports as children.

The instructional part of the Fun, Friends and Fitness program normally runs from 10 a.m. to noon. After that, players who want to can participate in team competition for a couple of hours.

"People who have taken a little instruction can go out and test their skills in a game-situation," Verzaal said. "It's sort of a sandlot baseball situation. They realize, 'Hey, I can hit balls; I can get my serve in.' Then they can moved into organized league play. All we've done is provided them with a pathway."

Lampshire has used the pathway to join a league.

Crossno isn't quite ready for that yet, although she's started playing occasionally during the week with a friend she invited to the program.

"She loved it, too, so we've started going up to the tennis courts in the evenings and playing around," she said. "I've had a real good time and met some new friends so I think it's appropriately named."




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