On a normal day, the indoor tennis courts at South Burlington's Sports & Fitness Edge are populated by grown-up players outfitted in neat tennis togs. It's quiet - except for the rhythmic thwack of tennis balls and the occasional grunt. But on a recent, sultry Tuesday afternoon, the space has morphed into a three-court circus, with nearly 30 squealing pint-sized players rushing around after balls tossed by instructor Jake Agna of Burlington. "Go for 20, go for 20!" yells Agna, coaxing his proteges to hit consecutive shots during their rapid-fire drill. "Keep switching!"
Burlington's Marlynn Serwili, 7, wears jeans and a sparkly black T-shirt, her braids swinging as her racquet connects with a spinning yellow sphere. "I love this," says Serwili, who moved to Vermont from Rwanda when she was 3 and has been playing tennis for more than a year now. "We just have fun -- it's a good place."
The tennis court has become a good place for hundreds of kids, thanks to Agna, who works with the King Street Youth Center introducing tennis to at-risk youth aged 4 to 14. This summer, Agna's "Kids on the Ball" program turns six, and Vermont's pied piper of tennis is celebrating by expanding his vision to include new populations around Burlington. He's transforming tennis from a country-club pastime to an athletic endeavor accessible to young people from Bosnia, Somalia and the Dominican Republic. For his efforts, Agna recently received a prestigious United States Tennis Association award.
Agna's populist approach to the game comes from his own upbringing, playing "pick-up" tennis in an Ohio public park. Instead of being carted off to organized lessons, says Agna, kids just showed up and played tennis the way they do basketball today. "I was with kids with from all different backgrounds at all different times," he says. "It was a great way to grow up."
After relocating to Vermont in 1984, Agna began running a junior development program at Twin Oaks, now Sports & Fitness Edge. Between coaching the girls team at South Burlington High School and teaching adults, he often worked 60-plus hours a week.
But Agna says that something was missing. "I was just around affluent kids most of the time," he notes. In the late 1990s, he received a letter from an instructor he knew from Ohio who was teaching inner-city kids in Los Angeles through a program founded by tennis champion Arthur Ashe. "I started giving serious thought to nonprofit tennis -- I wanted to introduce it to kids who'd never played it before," says Agna, now 52. "A public park for everybody."
The idea was a smash hit in Burlington. Within two weeks of mailing letters to his regular tennis clientele, Agna had enough funds for 30 scholarships for at-risk kids to learn the sport. Today, funding for the 35 winter and 50 summer participants comes through some large foundations that work with the King Street Youth Center, but also corporations such as the Coca-Cola distributor who donates PowerAde, and individuals who drop old Wilson and Prince racquets into the large bin at Sports & Fitness Edge.
"I run into hundreds of people who want to give 10 or 15 dollars," says Agna. He often recruits kids on walks through low-income neighborhoods. Players from more affluent families also join the clinics. "Sometimes, I take on so many kids, I say, 'This is just berserk!'" says Agna. "But I have three courts, and I have a hard time turning anyone down."
King Street Development Director Bonnie Ferro says tennis is the number-one activity of choice for the kids, who are shuttled on a bright-red bus to Sports & Fitness Edge and to exclusive clubs around the state on tennis field trips. Starting this summer, Agna will add new clinics for 35 more kids at Roosevelt and Callahan parks.
Instead of pitting the kids against each other in matches, Agna subtly teaches volleying and footwork by setting up targets and emphasizing continual play. Even between drills, he motivates the players by proclaiming that all the balls must be picked up in one minute; the mundane task becomes a game. "Kids pick up basketball because nobody's teaching them. If you make baskets, you're a good player," says Agna. "So I tell the kids, if you make 10 in a row, you're a good player."
In the "Kids on the Ball" world, a good player does not necessarily mean one bound for Wimbledon or the U.S. Open. While some tennis programs produce amped-up parents determined to produce the next Williams sisters, the few laid-back adults who attend Agna's sessions seem as captivated by his magnetism as the kids do.
At Sports & Fitness Edge, 7-year-old Hawa Adan of Burlington, wearing Somalian dress, takes turns with 6-year-old Ada Arms of South Burlington, attired in a tennis skirt and top. Ada's mom, Allison, watches from the sidelines. "They don't even realize they're learning to play tennis," she notes.
Several King Street players have made the Burlington High School teams, but it seems to please Agna just as much that he runs into twentysomethings on Church Street who say they're still playing for fun. "We've had kids bounce out of this thing and become good players, but it's not about creating a champion," says Agna. "It's about getting more people playing a lifelong sport."
Agna has played so much tennis that he's had two hips replaced. Nonetheless, he says the last few years have been the best of his career. He dispenses life lessons as discreetly as he does basic tennis skills. "This is a comfortable way of learning rules, learning how to get along and learning how to come back when you get down," says Agna. "All the things that are important in life, like discipline and being in control of your emotions, you can learn from tennis."
Toward the end of the Tuesday afternoon practice, the kids play a game of Elimination with Nerf balls; when they miss a shot, they're asked to put down their racquets and move to the other side of the net, to catch the incoming balls. One girl misses, scowls, stamps her feet and throws her racquet with a loud clatter. Agna keeps rhythmically tossing balls to the other kids and defuses the tantrum by announcing that the girl must be a temperamental genius.
"We have a softer, gentler way of getting into the game; we want it to be successful," says Agna. "So I really try to keep an eye on a person who looks like they're teetering on going off." The goal, he says, is to "to make something winnable" from the situation.
In February, Agna flew to Hollywood to accept the 2005 Eve Kraft Community Service Award; the evening was captured on a DVD. But his smile during his acceptance speech doesn't compare to the mega-watt beams he exhibits while handing out rolls of Lifesavers at the end of his Tuesday lesson.
Is the candy reward the best part of the afternoon? Marlynn Serwili tucks her treat into her jeans pocket and shakes her head before leaving to board the red bus. "Actually," she says, "the best part was just playing tennis."