By Nicholas J. Walz, USTA.com
Lining up in front of the fountains in the South Plaza, 43 excited Pennsylvanians are chatting away in the foreground of Arthur Ashe Stadium, posing for a family portrait.
Clad in bright t-shirts, shorts and visors to beat the summer heat, the troop has traveled several hours to make it to the US Open - a nice reward for a year's worth of tireless volunteer work trying to grow the game in its tiny borough of Pottstown, about 40 miles north of Philadelphia.
As an "urban community that's terribly depressed," according to Heather Gelting, president and chairman of the Greater Pottstown Tennis Association, the fight to keep tennis on the public courts for the youth in the area is a persisting struggle, yet major strides have been made.
"Our mission is to promote, practice and play tennis," said Gelting. "It's a poor area with a poor school district, and we're working hard to help improve the lifestyle of the people that live there."
In addition to establishing year-round youth, junior and adult programs, Gelting is excited to report that for the first time, youth clinics will be offered at a rented indoor court in Pottstown this winter.
For their Community Tennis Association, it's a modest initiative that will have a huge impact with kids who might not otherwise ever learn to play the sport.
Classified as "any incorporated, geographically defined, not-for-profit, volunteer-based organization that supports or provides programs which promote and develop the growth of tennis," Pottstown, Pa., is just one of over a thousand CTAs accounted for under the umbrella of the USTA's 17 sections. The associations work to coordinate and maintain tennis programs and services, guaranteeing that they are open and accessible to all.
Part of that exposure is attending the premier tennis event in the nation. Arriving by plane, train or bus, more than 40 different CTAs arrived in Flushing Meadows during the two weeks of the 2010 US Open to soak in the sights and sounds of a Grand Slam tournament. Hosted by USTA national staff, the groups arrived each day at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, receiving warm welcomes and a private behind-the-scenes tour of the grounds. One CTA - the Lee County Community Tennis Association from Cape Coral, Fla. - even made it up on the Jumbotron inside Arthur Ashe Stadium as honored guests in the USTA President's Suite.
"We're extremely pleased that for the first time ever, we can utilize the national platform provided by the US Open to recognize the Community Tennis Associations around the nation that are in attendance," said David Slade, USTA National Manager for CTA's. "The US Open and the USTA's family of websites provide a great opportunity to increase awareness amongst tennis fans - many of whom attend the Open themselves - about the programs and services being offered by organizations around the country."
They came from all across the United States -- from California (Morgan Hill Tennis Club) to Connecticut (Cornwall CTA in Cornwall Bridge, Conn.), or from Washington (Jefferson County CTA in Port Townsend, Wash.) to South Florida (The Greater Miami Tennis & Education Foundation), to tell stories of grassroots success.
"Right now in Texas, we have probably the most leagues, the best players and the greatest involvement - and this is all without a tennis center yet," said Nancy King, president of the Keller Alliance Tennis Charter based out of Fort Worth, Texas. "With a lot of competition, our little organization has gotten Junior Team Tennis programs and the QuickStart play format with help from our local high schools.
"The economy always tries to knock us down, but we're working hard to drum up interest and get the fundraising efforts up in conjunction with the schools and the city," she added.
At its core, CTAs are driven by tennis enthusiasts like Gelting and King, who will assume many roles, such as advocate, program administrator, promoter and fundraiser in efforts to spread tennis in their communities.
Yet while in Queens, they're tennis fans first and foremost.
"To see (the Open) on television, then to see it live at the highest level are two different things," said King. "There's nothing quite like the atmosphere here, with the autographs and seeing these larger-than-life players up close."
"Bringing my kids here for the first time two years ago and the great time they had here really pushed their desire to stay in tennis. They beg to come now every year," said Gelting of her three children, ages 11, 10 and 8.
Some even offered prophetic predictions that would come true like Steve Fridinger, director of instruction at the East Ridge Athletic Association of Woodbury, Minn., who brought three generations of family with him to Queens during the Open's first week.
"Rafael Nadal, the career Slam -- I think this is his year," said Fridinger. "We'll be pulling for him."