First Serve program teaches tennis and a whole lot more

Published April 5, 2006|Updated April 5, 2006

Jackie Keller's St. Petersburg Tennis Center office is about as small as a service box. Rackets are scattered throughout the 8-by-12 room. Near the entrance, stacks of Gatorade sit on the floor. A few feet away are boxes of T-shirts.

It's a tight squeeze for Keller, but hey, it could be worse.

"I've stepped up," Keller said, laughing. "I used to be in the snack bar until it flooded."

Keller, a longtime teacher who began working at the center four years ago, doesn't mind the setup. As general manager, she has bigger things on her mind, namely directing First Serve, an after-school program for children 4-18 that combines classroom tutoring and tennis instruction in a safe environment. It is free to those in need and $35 a week for everyone else.

First Serve, a major beneficiary of tonight's Mercedes-Benz Classic at the St. Pete Times Forum (featuring Dade City native Jim Courier, John McEnroe, Chris Evert and Anna Kournikova), targets at-risk children but is open to all. Organizers say no child has been turned away.

Participants learn tennis from a group of instructors led by Tommy Thompson, who has trained or traveled with Pete Sampras, Courier and Bjorn Borg. Inside the center, they use computers and are taught life skills. The program provides equipment such as rackets, shoes, shirts and other tennis necessities to those in need. Many items are donated from companies in the tennis industry.

"There's no question, it's been positive," Keller said.

When First Serve came to the center five years ago, it had six children. Today, about 300 are registered and roughly 100 are regulars. Last year, Jon Bonner became the program's first athletic scholarship recipient. Today, he's already a contributor for Eckerd.

Teema Cooper, 11, one of six siblings in the program, is shooting for a scholarship, or perhaps more. "I've been watching tennis on TV since I was little," Cooper said.

Cooper joined First Serve a year ago, and because of her dedication quickly has moved into a more advanced training program. Inspired by players such as Serena and Venus Williams, she can be found on the courts three hours a day, five days a week. And, as she is quick to point out, "I'm on the honor roll."

The program isn't for everybody. Some kids don't have the time. Others don't enjoy the sport. But for those who stick around, Keller has seen dramatic growth on and off the court.

"The ones who come regularly get the hang of it quick," Keller said.