The ATP World Tour players saw the same devastating photos from Hurricane Harvey in Houston, and they all asked the same question: “How can we help?”
Yet they still thought of Houston as Hurricane Harvey dumped about 30 inches of rain and displaced almost 30,000 people in the southeastern Texas city last August.
“From the start, ‘It was how can we help? How can we make a difference? How do we help get Houston back on its feet?’” said Bronwyn Greer, tournament director at the Fayez Sarofim & Co. U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship in Houston.
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“You wouldn’t think that from guys who play all over the world. They could donate or help anywhere… It was very touching and inspires a lot, I think, in both the community and us as a tournament, to want to make sure we’re giving back in the best way that we possibly can.”
The players worked with Greer to donate money, and this week, they saw the courts – and the lives – that their generosity will affect. The Bryans, Isner and Tiafoe visited Sunnyside Park in central Houston and hit around with 14 possible future ATP World Tour stars, many of whom use the courts regularly.
The park, along with its adjacent community center, was flooded, like much of Houston last year, and the standing water ruined the courts, leaving cracks behind and turning the courts shades of brown and green.
“This neighborhood was hit very hard,” said Ellen Martin, with the Houston Tennis Association National Junior & Tennis Learning program. “A lot of kids go through here each week and to have this place taken out, with their homes and their schools, it was just a triple whammy. It was a very very difficult time for everybody.”
The tennis courts at Sunnyside Park, like much of Houston, was hit badly by Hurricane Harvey. (Photo: Drew Carlisle/ROCC)
Houston, however, has come back from the natural disaster, and soon the courts will as well. The ATP World Tour pros donated $19,500 that will be used to resurface Sunnyside’s two courts.
“It’s bigger than tennis,” said #NextGenATP American Frances Tiafoe. “Terrible things happen everywhere, and it’s always good to give back, and that’s what sports are about, togetherness. It brings people together.”
The visit was especially meaningful to the 20-year-old American, who grew up playing in public parks and visited similar grassroots programs with Martin when she worked in Maryland.
“It reminds me of where I started, very humble beginnings,” Tiafoe said. “I do my best every day to try to become someone to be able to give back. Because I was given so much, I was very fortunate, very lucky.”
He was surprised, however, by one part of the trip: the kids’ skill levels. “Oh, that’s too good,” Tiafoe said as one ball trickled over the net.
The boys and girls were using topspin, taking the ball early – “He SABRs every ball,” Bob Bryan said – and volleying back and forth with the ATP players.
“They were way better than I thought they were going to be,” Tiafoe said. “Whoever’s coaching them is doing a good job.”
The boys and girls who play at Sunnyside Park in Houston will soon have resurfaced tennis courts. (Photo: Drew Carlisle/ROCC)
The kids knew their tennis, too. Greer quizzed them on who was who, and the kids correctly identified the Bryan twins, something that used to allude Isner.
“It took me four years to tell them apart. How did you do that!?” Isner said.
“All of us really enjoyed our time here, and it’s the absolute least we can do,” he told ATPWorldTour.com. “To be a very, very small part of the rebuilding process is very humbling for all of us.”
The Bryans, like Isner and Tiafoe, played in grassroots programs before finding their way to Grand Slams and ATP World Tour Masters 1000 events. Yet, despite the Bryans’ 37 Masters 1000 team titles, they haven’t forgotten about where they started.
“Our foundation donated money to help redo the courts, which is hopefully going to make a big impact in the community,” Mike Bryan said.
Bob Bryan said: “We’ll be back next year. We’ve been coming to Houston for 20 years; we’re not retiring anytime soon. We’ll be back to see the new facility and hopefully see some of these kids grow into great players.”
If the kids keep practising, that very well could happen. They already have that all-important self-belief.
“I’m pretty good, not on their level, but pretty good,” said Zavier Smith, a 14-year-old eighth grader who hit with the pros.
He, like the other kids and adults at Sunnyside Park, appreciated the ATP players making time for them. He said, “It’s inspiring, showing that you can do great things in life.”