In The Swing of Things 

Tennis in Boise's neighborhoods

Tennis is a sport of contrasts. It's a sport of grace and brutality, distilled into a green and white expanse measuring 27 feet by 78 feet. It's a sport in which players compete in athletic conversation, displaying precision of body and mind combined.

That's highfalutin' talk for a sport played in our quiet, little Western town, but even Boise tennis players seem mesmerized by the beauty of their favorite sport. On May 20, the Treasure Valley Tennis Association (TVTA) hosted the sixth annual Block Party at Capital High School, drawing in tennis enthusiasts from all across Boise.

Robert Sterk is one of TVTA's members, and a professional tennis teacher at Boise Swim and Racquet. "Tennis can be very competitive, but it can also be very social. Our goal is to get people to play more tennis, to get involved in organized tennis, to join a club," says Sterk.

And ... to have fun: hence the "magical" theme for the Block Party. Chad Vaughn is the co-founder and president of TVTA. His aim for the Block Party was to introduce beginning players to "the magic of tennis"--aptly cited as the theme of this year's event. "Hey guys, this happens in your town, on your block. Come on out and participate," Vaughn encouraged.

Tennis is typically associated with crisp whites and country clubs, while a block party brings to mind barbecued hot dogs and cul-de-sac volleyball. The "magic" theme was put into action by a magician rearranging colored tennis balls inside a closed tube, which would be a literal interpretation of magic, but organizers hope that anyone who attended tapped into the mystery of tennis through one of the hourly clinics that was offered.

"[We had] half a dozen tennis pros, one on each court. We split up the groups based on ability. It was a drop-in deal,"says Vaughn.

Vaughn has watched TVTA gather momentum since its inception in 1998, when the association was made up of only two impassioned players. Today, there are 15 people on the board organizing TVTA's various events, including tournaments, Rally Ball and the Block Party. Janet Chase is a volunteer with the organization and helps run the TVTA Rally Ball program. "I'm not a pro, but I can help children out with basic techniques," she says.

Vaughn's zeal for tennis is contagious. "I picked [tennis] up when I was 14. I started a little late in life. You couldn't tear me off the court. Except maybe to eat," he says, explaining his lifelong passion.

Even if tennis players and people interested in playing haven't met Vaughn and caught his zeal, the Block Party was a good excuse to get onto the courts and learn a little fancy footwork. Block Party sponsors, including Wilson Sports, Overhead Smash, the Idaho Tennis Association, Boise Golf and Tennis, Boise Swim & Racquet, Boise State University, Crane Creek Country Club, Hillcrest Country Club and the UPS Store on Milwaukee contributed to make the event a success. One lucky participant won a new racquet in the raffle, and all necessary equipment was available for use during the event.

Sterk explains that even though TVTA is grassroots and has a lot of focus on getting kids into the sport, the overall goal is more extensive.

"We want to promote tennis across the community. Our focus is on junior programs, but we try to hit higher level juniors and adults. We want to promote tennis throughout the population of the Treasure Valley," Sterk says.

TVTA is in cahoots with the Idaho Tennis Association (ITA), which helped promote the Block Party and which is a child of the national tennis promoter, the United States Tennis Association (USTA).

The USTA supports the growth of tennis throughout the U.S. by pumping over $90 million annually into organizations like TVTA, which pays off every year with the USTA-sponsored U.S. Open. All three associations, both locally and nationally, work to spread the obsession, including here in the valley.

Observing the savage beauty of professional play, it's easy to wonder where those exceptional players originate. The national association has good reason for supporting local tennis organizations.

"[USTA] wants to know where that next Pete Sampras is coming from," Vaughn says.

In Boise, there are 112 tennis courts where players practice; Boise Parks and Recreation has 71 courts in public parks, and another 41 courts are at Boise public schools. All four of the Boise School District's high schools boast courts and tennis teams.

Though Boise hasn't produced a U.S. Open Champion yet, there's nothing preventing young, local virtuosos from being discovered at the local TVTA Block Party.

Jane Chi attended Centennial High School and went undefeated at the state championships during her four years, eventually moving on to the professional national tennis circuit. She played in the U.S. Open, after which she retired four years ago, proving local kids can turn into national tennis stars.

Becoming a national player means going through the transformative work of learning tennis, which takes place even while mastering some of the most basic elements of the game. "It's quite simplistic. You're learning to track the tennis ball with your eyes. Move your feet, swing the racquet and make contact. How well can you watch the ball? I like to call it tracking. It's judging [the ball]: Where is it gonna land? Once you've seen the ball enough and studied how it leaves your racquet, you start to think, 'OK, OK, this is where I need to be standing, this is how to position my racquet,'" says Vaughn.

Participants in the Sunday Block Party had the opportunity to learn to track the ball, plant their feet and make contact. Exciting stuff for anyone who's ever wanted to play.

Television tennis couldn't possibly compare to Vaughn's description of live play. On TV, it's the metered pop of the fuzzy green ball, the screech of tennis shoes and the grunts of players volleying over the net. During live play, the best players anticipate and even predict their opponent's next move. Every serve and smack of the ball against a vibrating racquet serves as a challenge.

For anyone who's ever wanted to try the game, it's time to start swinging.

For more information on the Treasure Valley Tennis Association, e-mail Chad Vaughn at cjvaughn@cableone.net.

Idaho Tennis Association, 1078 N. Cole Rd., 208-322-5150, www.idtennis.com.

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