By Valerie Baldowski
Students looking to improve their tennis skills during the summer, or just wanting to learn the basics of the game, can find help and guidance through the Junior Tennis League.
Sponsored by the Henry County Parks and Recreation Department, the league accepts students in all grade and skill levels, according to league Director Leslie Butler. The youngest player in the league is 7, and the oldest is 19.
"They don't play necessarily on their age level," Butler said. "They're playing on their ability level."
For example, a 12-year-old beginner could be matched up against a 14- or 15-year-old beginner.
"It might look like David and Goliath out there, but they're playing [at] the same level," Butler said.
Students in the league meet every Tuesday and Thursday from 5 to 10 p.m., at one of the tennis courts at Richard Craig Park in McDonough, and are paired up for singles or doubles matches.
"We have almost every single high school, and many of the middle school players from around the county represented here," said Butler.
Matches began the first week of June and will continue through the last week of July. The playoffs will be held Aug. 7, she said, and trophies will be awarded to the first-place winners and runners up in each division.
"This is our first annual Junior Tennis League for the county," said Butler.
Thursday, about two dozen students were at the courts by 5:30 p.m.
Some were there to warm up for an upcoming match later that evening. Others were already engaged in a match. Parents sat in the bleachers and watched as their children ran up and down the court, serving the ball, or returning a shot with a backhand or forehand swing.
One of the students at the court was 15-year-old Bryan Barrett, a rising junior at Union Grove High School. Barrett had finished an earlier match, in an 8-1 victory, and was preparing for a second match.
The teen began playing tennis six months ago, and said he has played tennis previously at his school. Barrett said the matches organized twice a week by the Junior Tennis League offer him more time on the court, compared to the weekly matches at Union Grove High School.
"I love it," he said. "It's a lot more frequent. The matches during the year are every Friday or every other Saturday. These matches here are a lot more fun, and prepare you a lot better."
Richard Craig Park has more tennis courts than the school, said Barrett, so there is no wait time for a court. Plus, there is an opportunity to play more than one match in one day, he said.
The learning opportunities league membership offers, Barrett said, make him a better player.
"It keeps me on top of my game. It allows me to get better with my forehand and backhand, [and] on my volleys and serves. My serve has gotten a lot more consistent," he said.
Butler, who coaches boys tennis at Union Grove High School, said she came up with the idea for the league several months ago. "I threw it back to the parents, and they thought it was great," she said.
"We have 145 kids involved in this league. We have gotten kids mainly by word-of-mouth, not much advertising," Butler said.
The students' skill level, when they first join the league, matters less than the potential for improvement through hard work, dedication and plenty of court time, she said.
"The benefits are, that they can take their game to the next level," Butler said.