ESPN's Chris McKendry explains why she supports the USTA Foundation

April 24, 2019 10:00 AM

By Chris McKendry

The USTA Foundation, the national charitable arm of the USTA, is celebrating 50 years of the National Junior Tennis and Learning (NJTL) network this year. caught up with ESPN tennis host Chris McKendry at a media roundtable and donor lunch in New York City. In her own words, McKendry (pictured above right with Billie Jean King and Chris Evert) shares her connection with tennis and explains the role NJTL played in her own childhood.

I grew up in Philadelphia, and I am a product of NJTL. 
I didn’t realize tennis could be a team sport until I moved to Philadelphia prior to entering fifth grade. We were new in the neighborhood, and I saw kids that summer going to the playground in matching t-shirts—very colorful t-shirts, not all white—and it was a big deal for me.
I played a ton of sports, every sport I could. I had three brothers, so it was just the rule of the house. But tennis then became a team sport to me, and that was a lot more fun. Every summer there after I would look forward to, "Are we going to be the purple team this year? Or the green team? The orange team?"
At the time, I didn’t understand the life skills that I was learning through tennis. I just knew I was having fun, and that was what mattered. I started in the beginner [team] and moved up to intermediate, and when you continue to have success in NJTL, your playground might be home to one of the advanced teams. And that was the goal. We’d have ladder competitions and everything was very traditional, tennis-wise, except you would play mixed doubles and against or with the boys. You'd travel as a team to different playgrounds throughout the summer, and have a great time doing it.
I played for Somerton Playground in Philadelphia. By the end of high school and into college, I went on to coach my own team at a different location in the city, and that was eye-opening.
As coaches, we would sweep the courts and hang the nets. I still remember what it was like to give a child who didn’t have much a racquet or a t-shirt and tell them he or she belonged. I'd teach them how to shake hands at the net and look somebody in the eye. These things matter, and they’re important.
Offering NJTL to these kids is priceless. A coach becomes somebody telling them they’re worth it. They’re worth our time. They’re worth our investment. They're worth a bright new colorful t-shirt. Tennis makes them special and different from maybe any other kid in their family or on their block.  
Although it was a job I really wanted and needed, when asked to coach my own NJTL team, I was naturally nervous and second guessed myself. But what I learned is that to be a good coach, a good mentor, just be accountable. Show up. Be somebody in these kids’ lives that shows up for them and works with them and cares for them. And that’s what I learned from tennis when I coached NJTL. And that's a life lesson.
I was never a champion. I didn’t get to the Grand Slam tournaments until I began hosting them for ESPN. 
Unlike Chrissie Evert's powerhouse public park in South Florida, my Philadelphia neighborhood playground didn’t send anyone to Wimbledon, but it sent a lot of people to college, including me. 
Mid-high school, I was told that NJTL coaches were selecting some kids to try out at a new indoor facility called the Arthur Ashe Tennis Center in Manayunk, a section of Philadelphia. Education wasn’t a part of the program just yet, but, it was a place for good athletes to have access to tennis year round. So I went and played at the Arthur Ashe Tennis Center, which is now Legacy [Youth Tennis and Education], one of the very important Foundation centers based in Philadelphia. That’s when I went from being a hobbyist to a real competitor.  And it opened doors for me.  
It was at the AAYTC (Legacy) that they held a college showcase. Some players were ranked. My college teammate and one of my best friends to this day—she was one of the highly ranked players. She played a lot of tournaments, and she was from a tennis family. I wasn’t. I was just a playground kid.
But we both played in the showcases and ended up at the same college. So you had kids who had competed at all different levels, and coaches would just come and watch you play matches, and they would see how you moved, how you competed, and it led to a college scholarship opportunity for me and set me on my way.
Before I knew it, I was a collegiate tennis player. My career including ESPN SportsCenter followed, and now ESPN Tennis. 
I have thanked Billie Jean [King], probably never enough. But everything she’s fought for I’ve been able to benefit from, be it tennis as a team sport, NJTL, Title IX and college opportunities. So when Chrissie [Evert] and [USTA Foundation Executive Director] Dan [Faber] asked me a few years ago, “Meet us in New York. We’re going to this great night that supports the USTA Foundation,” and Dan starts telling me about NJTL, I was like, “Hold on, I know exactly what you’re talking about.”
I’ve experienced it, and I can tell everybody that it works. It really works, and it means a lot. It does so much for kids, especially a lot of young women. And there’s a lot of opportunity for education because of Title IX, and there’s a lot of money there and equality to be had. Tennis is a great way to get it.
I sometimes look at my position—now hosting the Grand Slam tennis events and giving that big shiny trophy and the $3 million check at the end of the men’s championship—and wonder the picture people create. Do they imagine, "Oh, she had a lot of private lessons and then played in college and now gets to talk about tennis on TV?" Perhaps. Which makes this opportunity to tell my story, become more involved with the USTA Foundation and pay it forward important to me.  
At the end of the day, I’m a proud playground kid giving out the trophy and it’s really rewarding.


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