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JTL: 40 years of summer tennis for kids

May 28, 2015 12:31 PM

By Jonathon Braden
USTA South Carolina

For decades, this has been one of Lib Smith’s favorite times of the year – a time of prepping for yet another season of Junior Tennis League, the affordable program that started in the Midlands 41 years ago.

But this year is different. After 40 consecutive years, the award-winning and innovative Junior Tennis League will end. Organizers still plan to host tournaments this summer, but the program as it has functioned – a summer tennis league – will cease.

Lib Smith and her granddaughter, Nolan Miller, at the Junior Tennis League Awards Banquet in August 2014. (Submitted photo)

“So many of these kids had never touched a tennis racket,” Lib Smith said of program participants. “They had a great time.”

Competing demands for volunteers’ and kids’ time contributed to the end. But the work of JTL organizers will live on for decades in the Midlands.

Thousands of kids learned how to play tennis through JTL, said Lib Smith, who helped run the program for decades. Many of those kids became tennis parents, coaches, teaching professionals and U.S. Tennis Association league players who still enjoy and spread knowledge about the game.

Lauren Stewart and Brian Lim are just two of those players turned coaches.

From 8 to 14, Stewart played on JTL teams. She later graduated from Heathwood Hall and went onto play tennis at the College of Charleston. For the past five years, she’s been the director of tennis at the Woodlands Country Club, where she’s coached a JTL team every year.

“It’s such an important part of kids’ development as tennis players,” Stewart said.

This fall, Lim will lead the girls varsity team at River Bluff High School. Earlier this month, he graduated from the University of South Carolina, where he represented the school at last year’s USTA Tennis On Campus National Championship in Arizona.

But Lim’s first competitive tennis experience came as an 8-year-old participating in JTL. “I’ve met a lot of good people through JTL,” said Lim, who played in the program for 10 years.

For decades, kids didn’t have similar opportunities in Richland and Lexington Counties.

In 1974, when Jerry Smith, Ron Moser and the late Fred Brown founded the Junior Tennis League, there were few, if any, adult or youth tennis leagues around. Even the popular USTA adult leagues as we know them today didn’t formally start until 1980.

But Jerry Smith thought a youth tennis league would work and funded it. In JTL’s first year, his company, Canada Dry Bottling Company, was the program’s lone sponsor.

“Jerry had the vision,” Lib Smith said of her former husband. “He just knew that it would work.”

The program had 100 kids that first year. By the mid-1980s, participation had jumped to more than 700 kids. Enrollment averaged about 350 kids a season.

Organizers made it easy for kids to join. The registration fee was relatively inexpensive – $20 in 1974 and $60 in 2014. But if families still couldn’t afford it, Lib Smith said, JTL scholarships were available. Some years, JTL paid the entry fees for entire teams.

“JTL gave a lot of players the opportunity to play who may not have had that opportunity had JTL not existed,” Stewart said.

Organizers also initially insisted JTL matches and practices be held at public parks, not private clubs. Club teams were eventually welcomed into JTL, but the program still required the club team have at least two kids whose families were not club members.

“Just because they couldn’t afford to go the club, (children still) needed to learn this game that was so much fun,” Lib Smith said.

The program has received recognition through the years. In 1994, Jerry and Lib Smith were chosen for the USTA South Carolina Community Service Award. In 2002, Jerry Smith was inducted into the South Carolina Tennis Hall of Fame.

But what Stewart and others will always remember is how JTL and its volunteers were so focused on helping kids.

Lib Smith and volunteers would often help organize an end-of-year banquet for all the players, parents and volunteer coaches. The food was free, and Lib Smith would raffle off tennis bags, rackets and free tennis lessons. She also would announce end-of-season honors, including sportsmanship awards and an award for the boy and girl on each team who hustled the hardest to every shot.

That’s how Lib Smith and JTL worked; they were always finding ways to celebrate kids.

“Her main focus was to always give back to the kids,” Stewart said. “All of the money that was raised for JTL… it all went back to helping the kids.”