Ypsilanti Community High School (YCHS) freshman Hayley Tennyson could barely hit a tennis ball when she joined her school's revived varsity girls' tennis team earlier this year. But in just two months, she and her seven teammates learned how to play tennis and competed against other varsity girls' tennis teams throughout the region.
"I would totally miss the ball or if I hit it, it’s going over that fence right there," Tennyson says. "I didn’t know how to do anything. Now I can serve, I can return, I can get the ball over the net, I can do all of that. So imagine me in four years. I’ll be playing actual tennis at a higher level."
The team currently consists of eight YCHS freshmen and sophomores, and two coaches who are experienced tennis players. From mid-March to mid-May, the team practiced or played matches almost every day. None of the players won any matches during the regular season, but some of them won games and sets, and they've seen a lot of improvement.
This is technically the first varsity girls' tennis team at YCHS. The last time a tennis team for female students existed at the city's public high school was in 2010, before the Ypsilanti and Willow Run school districts merged to form Ypsilanti Community Schools (YCS) in 2013. YCHS athletic director Lawrence Reeves says the decision to revive the team this year was driven by a "the sooner, the better" mentality. YCS administrators are consciously trying to expose their students to new or nontraditional sports.
YCS communications coordinator Taryn Reid, who has played tennis since age 2, was the main catalyst behind the team's revival. When Reid started working at YCS, she told superintendent Ben Edmondson that she wanted to bring back the varsity girls' tennis team. Edmondson gave Reid his blessing but the project took a couple of years to come to fruition. As the team's head coach, Reid visited classrooms and lunchrooms at YCHS and Washtenaw International High School (WiHi) in February to recruit students. Around 30 girls initially expressed interest, but only a quarter of them ended up joining the team when the season started in March.
Reid asked retired Ypsi Township resident Maurice Thompson, who frequently plays tennis with friends on the YCS courts, to step in as the team's assistant coach. He primarily focuses on teaching the players the fundamentals of the game and the importance of footwork.
From the very beginning of the season, Reid let her all-black team know that tennis is considered a predominantly white sport. She says she wanted the players to be prepared to be the only people of color on the court when they play against other teams. She warned the girls that they might get some stares or encounter people who don’t take them seriously because of their race.
"I think it’ll bring good character for them too because you’re going to have to deal with racism – period – in this world," Reid says. "It’s just how the world is."
Some of the girls say they enjoy being able to increase representation in tennis and defying stereotypes associated with YCHS.
"There aren't many black girls that you’d expect playing tennis, especially at the high school level and especially at a school like Ypsilanti Community High School," sophomore Kylia Garrett says. "That’s why I also like playing, because it’s breaking those barriers."
Reid doesn’t think many students would be willing to try a new sport on the varsity level. She believes the girls on her team have guts and she's proud of them for sticking with it.
Thompson thinks the girls have been working hard and that their improvement is "really remarkable" considering the short amount of time they’ve been playing. Reeves thinks the team's youth will be an advantage in the long run because the players will have a few years to improve and grow.
Reid hopes there will be enough interest to form a junior varsity girls' tennis team next year. She plans to implement a weight and conditioning program to help the players boost their endurance on the court.
Thompson thinks tennis can instill good life lessons, like teaching a player how to rely on himself or herself. He also sees tennis as a good escape, especially for teenagers who are navigating adolescence, because it can help relieve stress.
"I usually tend to stress over my grades and stuff, so I just can’t wait until I go to practice so I can let some of this stress out," Tennyson says. "It’s a good way to pass my time because I don’t like to just sit at home. I like to be out and about."
The team has experienced enthusiastic support from the players' family members and friends, who cheered them on during practice and matches. Reid says many of them weren't familiar with tennis beyond Serena and Venus Williams, so the experience exposed them to a new sport as well. Some of the girls on the team plan to teach their parents or siblings how to play tennis so it can become a new family activity.
Reid's long-term vision is to strengthen the local tennis community and grow different programs beyond the varsity girls' tennis team. She and Thompson have talked about starting an African-American tennis club and summer tennis programs for kids, both of which could serve as feeder programs for the high school tennis teams. The coaches will start by leading weekly tennis lessons during Parkridge Summer Camp on Fridays in July and August on the tennis court at Parkridge Park.
Reid disagrees with the closure or conversion of tennis courts in the area, especially in historically black neighborhoods, which she's noticed for at least a decade. She points to the closure of tennis courts across from the Ypsi Township Community Center, 2025 E. Clark Road, and across from the shuttered Cheney Academy, 1500 Stamford Rd. in Superior Township, as examples. She also fought a recent proposal to convert Parkridge Park's tennis court to a multi-use court. If more interest in the sport is stimulated through increased recreational opportunities, she believes the tennis courts will remain because more people will use them for their intended purpose.
"There are a lot of African-Americans in the community who play tennis," Reid says. "It's just not clearly as many (as) non-African-Americans. You just don't see us, but we're here."
Brianna Kelly is the project manager for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.
All photos by Doug Coombe.