Fun for all at Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day

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"I like the games, food, performances and toys," said Brittany Gadsden, a 9-year-old from Jamaica, describing her favorite parts of Arthur Ashe Kids' Day at the USTA National Tennis Center. "I'll come back next year and keep coming because it is cool."

Arthur Ashe Kids' Day was held in honor of the tennis great and to carry out his lifelong mission of promoting education and bringing tennis to children. Saturday's event, which over the last five years has raised more than $2 million, generated more than $500,000 for charity.

"Arthur Ashe," said the girl with the Cheshire Cat smile as she named her favorite player while waiting to have her face painted, throwing her fist into the air as if to put an exclamation point on her statement.

Ashe was one of tennis' greatest players and ambassador of the sport. In 1968 he became the first black man to win the US Open and went on to win 33 tournaments, including the Australian Open in 1970 and the Wimbledon crown in 1975. He died in 1993 after contracting AIDS through blood transfusion. The new stadium at the tennis center is named for him.

A crowd of more than 25,000 from Queens and the other boroughs as well as the tristate area and beyond enjoyed the daylong event on a prefect August day, which included tennis clinics, exhibitions, games and musical entertainment. Some of the stars to participate in the day honoring Ashe and raise money for the USA Tennis National Junior Tennis League NJTL program were: 98 Degrees, Jessica Simpson, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Grant Hill and tennis stars Andre Agassi, Martina Hingis and Lindsay Davenport.

The USA Tennis NJTL program was founded by Ashe, Charlie Passarell and Sheridan Snyder in 1969 to help introduce tennis to children who might never be exposed to the sport. The organization started with three chapters the organization has expanded to 900 chapters nationwide and more than 170,000 youngsters participating in the program.

Serena and Venus Williams are two of the USA Tennis NJTL program's illustrious graduates. The sisters are two of the top tennis players in the world. Venus won the women's singles title at Wimbledon this year and Serena is the defending US Open women's champion.

One of the highlight of the day's events was a two-hour televised stadium show, which featured concerts by 98 Degrees and Jessica Simpson in addition to a tennis skills challenge on the court featuring Agassi, Davenport, Hingis and Todd Martin.

"Serena Williams is my favorite," said 15-year-old Lateaka Vinson of Jamaica. "Actually I love both girls, but Serena is excellent."

Her sister Starr Vinson, who is 10, disagreed. She liked Venus better because her first name is the same as Venus' middle name.

"It is a close decision between Venus and Serena, but I have to say Serena is my favorite player," said Arianna Vansluytman, who recently won the Rochdale Village open, a USTA Junior amateur event, in the girls 12-year-old group even though she is only 10.

The three girls were part of a group of about 15 people from the Gotham Tennis Emporium based out of Liberty Park in Jamaica. The year-round tennis program was started six years ago by the team's coach, Chris Mitchell.

Mitchell, a retired microbiologist who lives in Jamaica Estates, was ranked by the United States Tennis Association and the No. 1- ranked player in the 45- and 55 age groups. He said he started the year-round program because he thought he could give both his time and knowledge to kids.

"There are a lot of youngsters who can rise above expectations, but not everyone knows once they get to their limits or know their expectations and what they can attain," he said.

The children ranging from 4 to 14 years old practice from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the summer and from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. during the school year. But, according to Mitchell, the program is also about education. There are study halls and introductions to math and verbal skills in order to help the youngsters with their school work.

"We wouldn't be here without him," said Lateaka Vinson

For Starr Vinson the highlight was the clinics on the overhand smash, which happens to be her favorite shot.

"The best part of the day was getting to use Andre Agassi's tennis racket," said Tristen Jobity, 15, of Jamaica as he held up his racket named after his favorite player. "I also liked seeing how hard I could serve."

Besides the clinics the kids could try their luck at winning prizes like a pair of Nike shoes at the Nike Swish contest, toys in the Toys 'R' Us obstacle course and many other games. In the Nike Swish contest contestants had to rack up points by volleying the ball over the net on to point markers in 24 seconds.

"Arthur Ashe Kids' Day was a perfect kickoff to the US Open," said Pierce O'Neil, USTA chief marketing officer. "Thousands of kids were exposed to tennis, all the stars, Jennifer, Chevy, Alec and 98 Degrees and Jessica Simpson put on a great show and fun was had by all.

"But most of all, it raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for worthy charities. It was just a great day for the sport."

Updated 7:05 pm, October 10, 2011
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