By Nicholas Walz, USTA.com
"Arthur Ashe was an American hero fighting battles both on and off the court. He broke barriers in the tennis world, becoming a three-time Grand Slam champion and the first African-American male to win a Grand Slam tournament. Off the court, he was a social activist taking on issues like racial prejudice, AIDS, apartheid and education. One of his many legacies includes the National Junior Tennis and Learning ("NJTL"), a network of youth-serving organizations that provides tennis and education for all. His wish was for NJTL to be a resource for kids to develop skills for leadership and academic excellence. As a participant at one of the 550 NJTL chapters across the country, tell us what you think of Arthur Ashe."
For over 2,000 talented young writers and artists, this is the charge – to put into 350 words or less what one man's life meant.
The Arthur Ashe Essay and Art Contest offers a chance for young players 18-and-under to apply what they have learned both on the court and in the classroom into the ultimate form of artistic expression.
Armed with imagination and a creative hand, the best go on to what amounts to a dream weekend – an all-expenses-paid, three-day trip to New York, which includes a VIP visit to Arthur Ashe Kids' Day presented by Hess, tickets to both a Broadway show and a professional sporting event, capped off with a special awards luncheon held in their honor, where they share their winning entries.
"The 2011 contest achieves the dual purpose of motivating youth to learn more about NJTL co-founder Arthur Ashe from an academic standpoint and will also inspire children to share and learn from their own personal experiences," said China Fanning, NJTL Educational Manager.
The kids are asked to either mail in their submissions to their local NJTL or fill out the new online entry form. The postmarked deadline is June 1, 2011. In all, 10 national essay winners and four national art winners, along with a parent or guardian, will receive the grand prize.
The question, in short: "Why do you think Arthur Ashe created the NJTL network, and how has your NJTL chapter impacted your life?"
If the kids need a muse, they could always look to Blake Strode. Strode is a prime example of the vision that Arthur Ashe had when he, Charlie Pasarell and Sheridan Snyder founded NJTL in 1969. Ashe, who grew up in the segregated south, set out to establish a program that would unite children of all colors – many coming from limited means – and develop the character of participating kids through tennis and education.
At the age of five, Strode became a fixture at the Dwight Davis Memorial Tennis Club in his hometown of St. Louis and became part of the then-National Junior Tennis League. Mornings were spent hitting around and learning about team play and personal accountability; the afternoons, reserved for more formal drills and training.
"I began to read about him around eight or nine, about his childhood and his life in overcoming segregation and then moving to St. Louis, where I'm from, knowing he spent much of his youth there," said Strode about Ashe. "I was amazed by his poise and professionalism. Even with all that faced him, he never let himself become rattled."
Each day during the summer, for years afterward, NJTL was an enormous part of an extremely enjoyable routine for Strode.
"It jump-started my tennis life," said Strode of NJTL. "I'll always say that it’s a tremendous way to get into the sport as a young person. NJTL didn't set out to create a competitive atmosphere, at least in my experience. It was more about having fun and making friends."
Seven years after picking up his first racquet, Strode sat down and married the two sides of the NJTL coin – athletic and academic achievement – writing up a winning submission for the national Arthur Ashe Essay Contest in 1999.
"I was stunned," said Strode. "I knew there were hundreds, if not thousands entered. Just being on the grounds right before the tournament started, taking it all in… amazing. I remember that day, Serena (Williams), who won the Open that year, was just three feet away from me and saying 'hello.' That was insane!"
A decade later, Strode returned to Flushing Meadows to compete in the US Open Qualifying Tournament after winning the first-ever US Open National Playoffs. Even though he didn’t reach the main draw, he vows to fight on and continue to try and make a career out of tennis.
His fallback? A potential degree from Harvard Law School, as he was accepted in 2009 to finish his education – proof positive that great results can come from hard-working people and programs.
To be eligible for the Arthur Ashe Essay and Art Contest, participants must be legal U.S. residents enrolled in a program sponsored by their local NJTL program/chapter as of January 1, 2011. For more information, please visit: www.usta.com/njtl