Coach William Brown, right, works with a student at the Sugaw Creek Junior Tennis Program, where kids learn fundamentals of the game but receive a dose of summer academic as well. (Photo: Dartinia Hull)

On a muggy summer morning, one of the kids at the Sugaw Creek Junior Tennis Program – one of the smallest kids, in fact – needs help. His dad has bought a tennis racquet for him, but it’s not one that will work with his size.

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“I got one for you.” Coach William Brown, program director, opens the back of his truck and reaches in, finds a brand-new racquet, and bends back down to his student.

“Will this one work better?” Dad asks. Coach Brown demonstrates the proper tennis grip: Left hand on top, right on the bottom, slight angle. Brown attaches a clear plastic nodule meant to control racquet string vibration, and smiles. Dad returns the smile, then wanders away as his son runs toward the courts, where about 25 other children are starting their warm-ups.

“The kids know what it takes,” Coach Brown says quietly.

“It” is a yearning for the game of tennis, a need that surpasses worry and fear about the learning curve and court performance.

For the past eight years, Coach Brown – called either Coach or Brown but rarely Coach AND Brown – has run the Sugaw Creek Jr. Tennis Program. It is a rigorous, all-summer academy that starts the Monday after CMS closes for the summer and ends the week before classes start in August. Children enter the program at varying levels of expertise, fitness and ability, but they all leave with a working knowledge of the game, a few more muscles and a serious ability to hit. The camp started at a court on Tuckaseegee Road, then moved to Harding University High School, where Brown currently is the tennis coach, and finally landed at the Sugaw Creek site.

This camp is not simply about the game, the hits, or the scorekeeping. Brown keeps up with students’ school performance and spends part of the time trying to prevent summer slide. Every day, after morning lessons and noon lunch, each student spends an hour reading and on Fridays makes a book report to the entire camp. Brown has a number of students who have received tennis scholarships to college, an accomplishment he attributes partly to smarts and off-court endurance and partly to exposure to a sport that can be perceived as elitist and prohibitive.

“How do they know if they don’t try it?” he asks. “And how can they try it if we don’t help them?”

He looks across the court, which is filling with latecomers who are removing jewelry, stepping over wayward tennis balls and glancing his way. He waves them on to play. “Y’all warm up. You know what to do.”

Many of those college kids come back. Dominique Lindsay, a rising junior at Winston-Salem State University, started playing when she was four because her dad plays and coaches at Sugaw Creek, but Brown coached her at Harding.

“I was always out here,” she says. Now an aspiring nurse going to school on tennis scholarship, she returns to Sugaw Creek in the summer because she wants to give back. It’s her fourth year coaching. Parents know her, students know her. She spends long days in the sun, doused with sunscreen. She’s not paid an enormous salary.

Again, that’s not the point, Brown says. “It’s not about making money. The camp price hasn’t changed in eight years.” Even with the ups and downs of the economy, Brown has worked with families to help keep children involved.

And yes, they come back because they want to give back. It’s as predictable as Swiss clockwork, and Brown welcomes them from undergrad and graduate schools, finds places for them in the old-school rec center, gives them responsibility. They all have their own groups to teach, to nurture, to evaluate. They don’t have to worry about a summer job. They know the kids, and the kids are happy to have their familiar coaches, even when the coaches – at Brown’s prodding – push harder drills despite the humidity and stronger playing despite inevitable frustration.

But “he’s not tough,” says 11-year-old Dallas Russell. “He just works us hard.”

Dallas is OK with that. On weekends, when he’s home with his family, he’s fidgety. He misses the tennis. “I tell my parents I want to come out here so bad,” he says. He keeps his grades up – A’s and B’s – but his school doesn’t have a tennis team.

Dallas shrugs and is finished talking.

He’s missing warm-ups.

Editor’s Note: To learn more about the Sugaw Creek Junior Tennis Program, call Coach William Brown at 704-449-7897.
GETTING THERE: From the uptown Transit Center, take Bus 11, Tryon Outbound. Transfer at Tryon 4070 to 211 Outbound. Your stop is Sugar Creek and Hidden Valley Road. Cross Sugar Creek Road and look for the Sugaw Creek Rec Center across the road.

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