As is his custom, Bobby Austell awoke on morning and began reading his newspaper. One story leaped out at him: The Salvation Army Advisory Board for Greenville, South Carolina was set to make a bid to land a Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in the city known as “the Textile Center of the South.”
Austell, a tennis professional and long-time coach of the sport, read with great interest of the proposed amenities of the center—a pool, exercise room, performance theater; in short most everything envisioned by Mrs. Kroc in her bequest.
“I called a friend of mine on the board and told him, ‘Ben, you’ve been holding out on me! You have everything listed except tennis!’” Austell explains. “After he thought a moment, Ben said, ‘Well, Bobby, I guess we just didn’t have anyone to bring that up.’”
Austell asked his friend if it was too late to come “on board,” and thus began a feature of the Greenville facility that would make it one-of-a-kind in the 26 Krocs across the country—the Kroc Tennis Center.
“Bobby became the co-chair for the campaign to build the entire complex, and his passion for tennis was the genesis for what we have today,” says Steve Cook, who is now the Kroc Director, but for five years was the Tennis Center Director.
“He remains a key volunteer for the tennis program and his connections in the sport have brought several major figures—local and national—to assist in the program,” Cook says.
Eight certified tennis instructors, called “coaches,” share their expertise with kids and adults, many of which have never held a tennis racquet in their hand before.
“The people we have gathered here possesses a level of coaching that can be measured against any tennis staff anywhere,” Cook says.
The Tennis Center spans seven acres, with a most prominent tennis house overlooking 16 tennis courts. Inside the building is a welcome desk and a tennis store were equipment is for sale. Outside, a wrap-around deck overlooks all 16 courts.
“The arrangement of the 16 courts are in ‘quadrants of draws’ comprised of four courts each” explains Cook, who is no stranger to tennis facilities—his father built a 16-court non-profit facility in Midland, Michigan.
“The four quadrants are part of what we call ‘tight site’ so that anyone can watch tournament action in every court from that elevated position.”
The 16 courts nearly were not built, Cook says. The Salvation Army has nothing like this anywhere else, and it was suggested that only two courts be approved. Cook adds that the administration then offered six court; but a three-person committee (including Cook and Austell) shared their vision of what this program could be, and the concept of the Kroc Tennis Center was approved.
“This is not just ‘a couple of courts,’” Cook asserts, “it is a bona fidetennis facility who are being introduced to the Army in a way that Mrs. Kroc foresaw. It is a program staffed by professionals.”
Anibal Braga, Terry Palma, and Amale Allen are among these professional athletes.
Braga, who was promoted to Tennis Center Director when Cook moved on to oversee the Kroc program, has an MBA from the University of Auburn-Montgomery. He was a member of national championship teams, and was director of tennis at Clemson for both men and women. Palma was the women’s coach at Furman University. Allen is a former basketball Olympic athlete from Lebanon.
“Another instructor is nationally-known ecology work; and yet another has a law degree,” Cook says. “Who else can be so qualified to teach these kids about integrity?”
The Kroc Tennis Center boasts over 200 league teams annually (the local private tennis club has half that number).
The program has already garnered an impressive list of awards, among them the South Carolina Tennis Association Member Facility of the Year and the United States Tennis Association (USTA) Facility of the Year. The latter was presented to the Kroc Tennis Center during the US Open in New York.
“There are players here who live in families among the 90% below the poverty line,” Austell adds. “This is much, or more, about outreach than (it is about) tennis. Tennis is the vehicle!”
Every mentor is aware that “not everyone will play at Wimbledon” someday. That’s not the point. Success just doesn’t happen with a good work ethic. There is no “magic pill.”
Two annual events stand out for participants. The Kroc Junior Open is held in the Fall; and the Kroc Adult Classic is in the Spring. About 140 players participate in each tournament.
In addition, there are numerous USTA “Play Days”—a fun competition for children.
Wheelchair tennis is also a popular competition. In that version, the handicapped player can let the ball bounce twice.
Every group starts out on the bleachers, before they can retrieve their racquets and a bucket of balls to begin practice. The lead instructor for that day points their attention to one of 14 character-building words that are inscribed around each court.
The word today is “integrity.”
Lindsey O’Donnell is a physical education teacher at the nearby Legacy Charter School. She often brings her class over for tennis instruction and practice.
“This is great exposure for our students because there are no tennis courts at our school,” O’Donnell says. “This is a wonderful place for our students to come and learn about not only about the sport, but about life.”
—Major Frank Duracher