Program marks 25 years of tennis, life success

The tennis program 15-Love, for inner-city youths, is celebrating its 25th summer in the Capital Reg
15-Love instructor Swetha Thiagarajan helps Ethan Ceniza with his grip during a free clinic at Albany's Washington Park last summer.
15-Love instructor Swetha Thiagarajan helps Ethan Ceniza with his grip during a free clinic at Albany's Washington Park last summer.

Tennis fans waiting for the next big American success story need only to look at upstate New York.

The tennis program 15-Love, for inner-city youths, is celebrating its 25th summer in the Capital Region this year. While its mere existence is a testament to its value, there are other tangible and clearly discernible ways to measure its success. No, it probably won’t develop the next great Grand Slam champion, but it has produced plenty of tennis players who more often than not go on to college, complete their education and become productive citizens.

“To me, tennis is down on the bottom of the list,” said Domingo Montes, a former Albany High player and 15-Love product who is now program director for the Albany-based group. “Our No. 1 goal is to get inner-city kids to make more positive choices and give them better life skills, and we have those success stories. Helping them get a college education is the top priority. Tennis is almost irrelevant.”

Of course, if the goal of a college education includes winning on the athletic field somewhere along the way, then the path to success is clearly a bit more fun. At Schenectady High School this spring, the Patriots’ boys tennis team produced some real concrete evidence of 15-Love’s positive impact by winning its first Big 10 championship since 1996. Along with the cities of Albany, Troy and Rensselaer, Schenectady is one of 15-Love’s target areas, and contributing greatly to the Patriots’ success this year were three 15-Love members: junior Jon Fields, freshman Curtis Farmer and eighth-grader Mish Semper.

“15-Love is essential to the success of our program because they provide free tennis to everybody,” said Schenectady boys coach Justin Hoffman. “It’s an unbelievable resource that inner-city kids have available to them. We have three boys who are heavily involved in 15-Love, but if you talk to my team I’m sure almost all of them have taken advantage of one of their free clinics here and there.”

Hoffman, a starting forward on Schenectady’s state championship basketball team in 1998, also played tennis for the Patriots. The head coach of both the boys and girls tennis teams for nine seasons now, Hoffman was introduced to the game in elementary school at a 15-Love clinic at Central Park back in the early 1990s.

Roots in Ashe

It was just a few years earlier, in June of 1990, that 15-Love was introduced to the Capital Region with a special event at the four tennis courts in Albany’s Arbor Hill. Kevin Dowdell, a 1978 Niskayuna graduate and former Section II tennis champion for the Silver Warriors, was at the kickoff event, which was part of the Ashe-Bolletieri Cities (ABC) program. Aimed at providing free tennis to inner-city youths, the program was the brainchild of former Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion Arthur Ashe and Nick Bolletieri, a Florida-based tennis instructor who helped develop prodigies such as Andre Agassi and Monica Seles.

“To have a small part in a success story like 15-Love is something I’m very proud of,” said Dowdell, who graduated from Princeton University in 1982, Wharton Business School in 1985 and by 1990 had become executive director of Safe Passage, a nonprofit created by Ashe in 1988 to oversee the implementation of the ABC program. “I kind of mentioned it to Arthur, with no confidence at all, about maybe doing the program in what was basically my hometown of Albany, and to my surprise he said, ‘Let’s give it a whirl.’ ”

Ashe, who had been diagnosed with AIDS in 1988, made trips to the Capital Region in 1990 and ’91 to help raise money for 15-Love, the name picked for the Albany-based program. Dowdell had overseen similar programs in Newark, New Jersey, and Kansas City, Missouri, the year before. But while initially successful, those programs eventually dried up following Ashe’s death from AIDS-related pneumonia in February of 1993. But 15-Love has remained a vital part of the Capital Region tennis community.

“There are vestiges of what we did in Newark and Kansas City, and other places and teaching pros who started their own program, but 15-Love is the only one, the only authentic program started by Arthur Ashe, that is still going strong,” said Dowdell, who is now general manager of the Montgomery TennisPlex just outside Gaithersburg, Maryland. “When Arthur died in 1993 his wife, Jeannie, was inundated with requests from all the charities and groups he had been a part of or had attached his name to. It was overwhelming to her. It was a difficult time, and things changed. Most of these groups just didn’t have the sustenance to continue without Arthur being there.”

Albany’s 15-Love program, however, which also quickly developed a presence in Schenectady and Troy, continued to thrive.

“We had some challenging years, so it wasn’t easy,” said Herb Shultz, a Kingston native and Niskayuna resident who was one of the group’s founders and continues to serve as president of the Capital Region Youth Tennis Foundation, the legal entity that oversees the 15-Love program. “Arthur came up a couple of times and helped us raise money, but after he died we had to separate ourselves from the national program and become independent. It was difficult, but we’re part of a great community here, and we raised enough money to keep things going.”

Solid leadership

Dowdell, who is black and grew up the son of a Tuskegee Airman and civil engineer, always knew the value of a good education, and remained on the board of 15-Love for 10 years himself even though he lived in Washington, D.C. Shultz had initially contacted Dowdell in 1989 to inquire about the possibility of the ABC program coming to Albany, and it is Shultz, according to Dowdell, who has been the driving force behind 15-Love’s amazing story.

“He is one of the most passionate leaders I have ever come across, and one of the steadiest,” Dowdell said of Shultz, who has won awards for his volunteer work from the United States Tennis Association, the Parsons Child and Family Center in Albany and the Capital Region YMCA. “People were skeptical after Arthur died and said they couldn’t do it. But this community really embraced what Arthur used to say and what was one of his original concepts. He hated to start something, raise hope by having some kind of event for the kids and then just walk away. He always wanted to follow up, and Herb and his board of directors did that. They created an independent board, raised enough capital to have a meaningful budget, and kept at it.”

These days, 15-Love has three full-time employees, including executive director Amber Marino, director of development Katie Genovese and Montes. There are also more than 20 seasonal coaches who typically played the game in high school and college and are often themselves products of the 15-Love program.

Many, like Schenectady’s Rachel Fields, participated in one of 15-Love’s Excellence Programs, aimed at kids who, while maintaining at least a B average in school, are introduced to tournament play and hope to eventually earn a spot on a college team. A freshman at Union College, Fields played on Hoffman’s girls teams for six years, the last three as the Patriots’ No. 1 player. She didn’t play on Union’s team this year in order to concentrate on academics, but she is planning to join the team next season.

“I was in the college prep program and it really helped me decide what I wanted and how important it was to go to college,” said Fields, who is the older sister of current Schenectady High player Jon Fields. “I learned how to control my anger on the court and it taught me about the real world. I know how important it is to have a little direction in your life. 15-Love helped a lot.”

New facility

Another 15-Love success story, according to Marino, is the new court complex on Michigan Avenue in Schenectady. There were eight brand new courts installed in November of 2012, along with six smaller courts specifically designed for young children.

“The USTA has changed the way we teach tennis to kids 10 and under,” said Marino, a 1997 graduate of The College of Saint Rose. “We have smaller courts, larger and slower bouncing balls, and we’ve found that little kids can have longer rallies and really enjoy it. A regular-sized court is pretty large and intimidating for a young child.”

The new courts were also paid for by 15-Love.

“We totally rebuilt the place and we were able to raise all the money ourselves,” said Marino. “The city was supportive and a part of the whole process, but actually building the courts was a new experience for me. I felt like a contractor. It’s something 15-Love hadn’t done before.”

The 2014 15-Love summer season begins on June 30. In Schenectady, there will be programs throughout the summer at Central Park, Michigan Avenue, Jerry Burrell Park and Hillhurst Park. For every hour of tennis played, there is another half-hour devoted to academic-related activities.

“We try to be difference-makers. We try to keep these kids off the streets, and our graduates often come back and end up teaching for us,” said Marino, whose office is in 15-Love’s own building on Washington Avenue in Albany. “We have kids who went on to do amazing things. We have former players who became lawyers and CPAs, and many of them come back and volunteer their time with us during the summer.”

‘Saved my life’

For Montes, 15-Love did a whole lot more than just give him a profession. Born in Brooklyln, his family moved to Puerto Rico when he was 7, then to Albany when he was 12.

“My story is that 15-Love saved my life,” he said. “I was one of six kids with a single mother and I was the second youngest. My older sisters were pregnant by the time they were 17 or 18, I had an older brother in prison, and when I first started going to school in Albany, it was tough.”

A pretty good student in Puerto Rico, Montes struggled with the language and with his schoolwork in the U.S. Then, he happened upon a free 15-Love clinic and things began changing.

“I lived across the street from Lincoln Park in Albany and I saw some young kids getting lessons, so I wandered over and ended up never leaving,” he said. “By the time I got to high school, things were a little bit better, but it wasn’t until they threatened to take tennis away from me that I really hit the books. I needed to have an 80 average in order to play on the school team. That kind of woke me up.”

Montes played four seasons of varsity tennis at Albany High and was captain of the team as a senior. He then headed to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, getting a degree in Elementary Education and Spanish. After teaching first grade in Pennsylvania for three years, he returned to Albany five years ago and began working at 15-Love.

“It’s extremely satisfying to see kids grow up, reach their potential and feel some fulfillment,” said Shultz. “We’re thrilled by our success stories, and I guess it really does make us quite unique in that regard.”

Categories: -Sports-, Schenectady County

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