Tennis center creates a neighborhood oasis

Andre Agassi is one of four playing in the Mercedes-Benz Classic Monday to raise money for the St. Petersburg Tennis Center.

Published March 20, 2005

ST. PETERSBURG - As raindrops slowly fall onto a court at the St. Petersburg Tennis Center, Jerica Coley continues to pound away.

Her white and gray tennis shoes slide across the clay as she chases one ball after the other. When she moves, the braids in her hair fly through the air.

Her attention doesn't leave the court.

Her focus is on the ball.

Across two courts and underneath an old and somewhat dilapidated roof, Jerica's mother, Cathy Coley, sits with her legs crossed, her fist underneath her chin, staring at her daughter. As Jerica slams a forehand over the net, Cathy struggles while describing what the center's First Serve program, of which Jerica is a member, has meant to them.

"If I didn't have this," she said, "I'd be lost ... and she would be, too."

Jerica, 13, and her mother live just a few minutes away in what Cathy described as the inner city of St. Petersburg. The area isn't all bad, Cathy says, but many there struggle to get by and "getting out" is even more difficult. Cathy would know. She was raised in the same neighborhood and says she's all too aware of the risks facing children.

Cathy is unemployed, but Jerica's father, Jerry, works at a local hotel. First Serve has given them something they could not have gotten on their own, she says.

As Cathy, 40, talks about her daughter, Jackie Keller, the center's general manager, walks by, shoeless. She has loaned them to a child in the program who plays that afternoon.

"That's the kind of place this is," Cathy Coley said. "That's not because you're here. I've seen it before. I'm a recipient of this. They look out for the kids."

Jerica is a poster child for the program.

One of many.

First Serve, a major beneficiary of Monday's Mercedes-Benz Classic at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, featuring Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, James Blake and Mardy Fish, offers an after-school program for children 5-18, combining classroom tutoring and tennis instruction in a safe environment. It is free to those in need and $35 a week for everyone else. When the program came to the center four years ago, it had six children. Today, about 250 are registered.

First Serve is open to all (organizers say no child has been turned away), but targets at-risk children. Outside, they learn tennis from a group of instructors, led by Tommy Thompson - who has trained or traveled with the likes of Pete Sampras, Courier and Bjorn Borg and for years taught at Saddlebrook, and Shikha Singh, once the No. 1 player at Eckerd College.

Instruction varies based on skill.

"The kids that have been here for four years are pretty good," Thompson said. "It takes about five years to create a tennis player."

They also hope to create students. Inside there are several computers that the children use in shifts. Grades must be maintained if they want to play.

The program provides equipment, often giving away rackets, shoes, shirts and other tennis necessities, many of which are donated from companies in the tennis industry.

First Serve has a diverse group of children. About 60-65 percent of participants are African-American, 30 percent are white and the rest are from various ethnicities. Most live near the tennis center, which is located on 18th Avenue S. The program is color and money blind, Singh said.

"All of those things don't matter here," Singh said. "If a kid desires tennis, this is the place."

First Serve, a not-for-profit organization based in Fort Lauderdale, initially was funded by the United States Tennis Association. Today, much of the money that feeds the local chapter comes from the Mercedes-Benz Classic, which was created largely because of Courier, a Dade City native who plays an active role in the program. Last year's event raised more than $300,000.

Cathy Coley read about First Serve in the newspaper about the time it began. Not knowing what to expect, she drove Jerica to the center.

"I needed something for her to do," she said.

The program, she says, has given the family hope. Jerica has progressed rapidly on and off the court; she performs well in competitive events and usually gets A's and B's on her report card. Cathy's wish is for her daughter to earn an athletic scholarship and become the first in her family to attend college.

"This is a way out," Cathy said. "That's what we're all thinking."

As the rain falls faster, the children are instructed to leave the court. Jerica approaches her mother, holding a racket in one hand while placing the other hand on her hip. Jerica, who speaks softly, says the program has given her both great friends and great coaching, and she doesn't hesitate when asked what her tennis dream is.

"To be a pro," she said.