St. Vincent Pallotti High senior Olivia Blackwell began playing tennis when she was 12 years old.
She started at the Fairland Tennis Bubble in west Laurel and is now in her fourth season at the private school. She hopes to continue playing the sport in college.
“I was a little bit late getting started,” said Blackwell, who lives in Beltsville. “There is more skill involved (then some sports). I liked getting better and better.”
“She is very experienced beyond her years,” said first-year tennis coach Dan Martin.
Blackwell is unique in that she never dabbled in other sports as a young girl, while the sport has seen a decline in some areas.
The New York Times reported in April that in 1990, 24 of 55 WTA events were held in the United States. This year there will be seven of 55 in the U.S.
Pallotti has not had a boys tennis team the past few years, while public schools in Prince George’s County have trouble competing at the state level with other jurisdictions.
“It still attracts a special group of players,” said Blackwell, the No. 1 singles girl for Pallotti this spring.
The Metropolitan Tennis and Education Group (MTEG), based on Brooktree Lane in Laurel, is also trying to get more youth involved in tennis.
In late March the United States Tennis Association Foundation (USTAF) announced it had awarded two grants for a total of $62,500 to MTEG.
They released the following press release: “The grants are part of the USTAF’s funding cycle, which has awarded over $1.2 million in grants to 43 organizations that provide tennis and education to under-resourced youth and program infrastructure. In all the UTTAF has now awarded $6.6 million in 2018 to these programs and initiatives,” according to a release from the USTAF.
“MTEG has a unique opportunity to build a full pyramid of tennis and education (TED) opportunities for 2,000 unique youth, diverse and low-income children ages 6-13 that will be impacted over 12 months as a result of this funding,” the release added. “The funding will allow MTEG staff to introduce Net Generation tennis in feeder schools walking distance of the tennis courts that will be used for out-of-school time tennis and education instruction.”
“Thirty to fifty home schooled students will also be included to receive their own in-school program designed to meet their physical education requirements. All the students will be fed into after school programs, summertime programs and eventually USTA station Junior Tennis Team tournaments,” added the USTAF.
Executive director and developmental coach for the MTEG Jeri Ingram, the ACC champion at the University of Maryland in 1989, added the following statement: “MTEG’s mission is to provide world class tennis and educational opportunities while engaging individuals form diverse backgrounds. The vision is to deliver a pathway of programming for all skill levels and demographics to facilitate competitive play opportunities for every individual.”
Johnnie Blackwell, the father of Olivia, has coached youth tennis in the area for several years.
“In my experience, especially in Prince George’s County (public schools), tennis is not strong at all. Most of the schools have one or maybe two who have club experience and have played in tournaments,” said the elder Blackwell. “After the one and two players the drop is precipitous. It is a lot better when you get to Montgomery County and places like that. The state tournament is held up in Columbia; the Prince George’s kids rarely get out of the first round. It is a lot better (tennis) at the private schools.”
The elder Blackwell works with the non-profit Prince George’s County Tennis and Education Foundation Inc., which is run by Brenda Gilmore.
“It is not so much getting the kids involved; that is not the issue. Some days we have 35 kids,” Blackwell said. “If it is winter time the issue is space. We can’t afford to rent out all five courts at the bubble (at Watkins Park). They are other groups and individuals competing for court time.”
Blackwell, a standout student as well, has attracted attention from the tennis programs at Division III Virginia Wesleyan and St. Mary’s, of Maryland. She has also heard from the Division II programs at Shepherd, in West Virginia, and Barton, in North Carolina.
The rest of the Pallotti girls roster includes Ottilie Wilcox, Alexis Biggs, Anna Pham, Malea Burroughs, Amari Nicholas, Janae King, Zoe Stancil and Page Dixon.
“Biggs is a first-time player. She is a senior who has picked up the game very well,” Martin said.
That is something a lot of people promoting tennis would like to hear.
Notes: The Laurel High co-ed tennis team is coached by Annette Williams. One of the few Laurel High products in recent years to play at the college level is Tavyon Lassister, a freshman at Johnson C. Smith in North Carolina.
Martin, who grew up playing cricket and soccer in England, took up tennis later in life and has been coached by Kevin Alexander at Fairland.