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Heathwood Students Start Tennis Program For Kids

March 31, 2015 04:30 PM

Jonathon Braden
USTA South Carolina

COLUMBIA, S.C. – Catherine and McKenna Savoca could have kept checking the boxes, each semester fulfilling their 10 hours of community service as Heathwood Hall Episcopal School requires of every high school student.

But the sisters decided they wanted to contribute to something they loved, and now dozens of Midlands children are learning how to play tennis.

Catherine, 18, and McKenna, 16, run “What A Racket,” a monthly program in Columbia that offers free tennis clinics to beginner kids. One Sunday afternoon a month, the sisters teach kids how to swing, how to always make contact, and how to have fun on the tennis court.

McKenna Savoca and her sister started the program to help others learn how to play tennis. (USTA SC photo)

They share because they’ve enjoyed the sport all their lives, ever since they were about 5 and their mother, Sharon, tied a ball to a rope and let them swing in the house. “We enjoy our kids and their excitement as they improve their skills each time we meet,” said Catherine Savoca, a senior at Heathwood Hall.

The kids like it, too. “It’s fun because sometimes we get to play games,” said Jayda Graham, 9.

She also likes the exercise. “You get to run and you get to hit the ball with the racket.”

The program started about 18 months ago and has continued almost every month since. Sunday afternoon, the Savoca sisters hosted 10 kids and their parents at the downtown Columbia Tennis Center.

The children grabbed donated equipment, including smaller rackets and lower-bouncing red balls. The sisters have asked for donations in person and during news media interviews.

On court, they split the kids into two groups, with McKenna, a junior at Heathwood, working with the older children.

“Low to high, low to high,” she told them, demonstrating with her swing.

One court over, Catherine worked on the very basics with her kids, some as young as 4.

“Racket back, I’m going to tell you when to swing,” she said, holding the racket with and crouching behind 5-year-old Jasmyn Graham. “I’m going to drop the ball. Swing!”

After the sisters fed a couple of hoppers of balls to the students, they played games and playfully tried to hit balls at their students. Dodgeball, they called it.

Most of the kids were from Saint John Baptist Church. Darrell Vanderhorst, the church's youth minister, saw a flier for the program.

“He thought it would be a good idea because you don’t see a lot of African-American children exposed to tennis at an early age,” said Vicki Vanderhorst, Daryl’s wife. Two of the couple’s four children were on court, including D’ehryn, 9, and Paetyn, 4.

Paetyn Vanderhorst counts the balls she picked up during a break at "What A Racket." (USTA SC photo)

Their oldest son, Juwan, plays football at Lower Richland High School in Columbia. But Vicki Vanderhorst likes that at least two of her children are working “to break the stereotypical mold of African-American” athletes by playing tennis.

She also encouraged other African-American children and families to try the sport. “Your speed on the football field can be used on the tennis court,” she said.

The kids finished their games and walked to the center’s clubhouse, where they enjoyed bananas, strawberries, pineapple and water.

This fall, Catherine plans to go to Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., but her younger sister already has a couple of friends who plan to help her continue "What A Racket."

The girls likely will continue helping kids who have never experienced tennis enjoy the sport. It's doubtful, however, that they'll be able to fix the one thing 9-year-old Jayda Graham does not enjoy about the program.

“Sometimes we have to pick up balls,” she said.

McKenna and Catherine Savoca hope "What A Racket" continues to grow this fall. (USTA SC photo)