If April Gift had it her way, she’d never need to talk about Jr. Team Tennis (JTT) again. Not because she doesn’t want to, but because she hopes one day she won’t have to.
In her eyes, the program is so strong that it should simply market itself.
“Any parents or kids that experience the program always seem to get hooked,” she said. “Once people know about it and get into it, they’re on board, and it stays that way.”
For now, even 600 miles away from the Section border, Gift is still focused on getting more people hooked on Jr. Team Tennis in Middle States.
For the past six years, Gift has been one of Middle States’ most dedicated Jr. Team Tennis League Coordinators. Living in central Pa., she helped grow leagues drastically in her area and beyond as she was always willing to share best practices, league info, tips and more with anyone interested.
Always itching for a move to nicer weather, Gift moved to Charleston, S.C. last year, but when no one immediately stepped up for her role in Middle States, she committed to continue her work in the Section. That means long drives or flights back to the area for meetings, setting up conference calls, and getting new teams and players registered.
“It’s a lot of phone calls,” she laughed.
The hours can pile up, but Gift is happy to help.
“The program is continuing to grow, and there is a need for someone with a background in there to keep it on that path,” she said. “I’m on the phone all the time with (Tennis Service Representative) Cathy Shaak, working on getting more interest and getting the word out to new kids.”
In her time with Jr. Team Tennis, Gift has become a mainstay on speed dial for plenty of parents and coaches. When someone needs help finding the right program for a child, Gift is there. When they have questions, she has the answers. When other areas need help getting started, Gift gets them started.
“She handles issues really well, she’s great with the kids and with parents, and just takes care of everything that needs to get done,” said Middle States’ Junior Development Manager Meghan Goodwin. “She’s willing to help in any way possible and can always be counted on.”
Much of that comes from her passion about the program, and how it can help kids grow their tennis games. As a teaching pro in Pennsylvania, Gift makes one thing clear: Clinics, drills and practice sessions are great, but nothing beats playing in a match. As a former high school coach, she learned that quickly.
“Whatever the level that kids are, if they want to play at those next levels, they need the experience on the court,” she said. “A lot of kids aren’t ready for tough tournament play, and if they try it and aren’t ready, they may end up leaving the sport because they’re not having fun.”
She’s not alone.
“I hear it from other coaches all the time. They’re starting to realize that with JTT, it gives players experience on the court and actually makes them better high school players. That playing experience can’t be replaced, and it’s a great stepping stone for tournaments and even Tennis On Campus, adult leagues, college tennis – really anything.”
Other benefits of the program – like affordability and a team-based format – are major sellers. Jr. Team Tennis is now even available for 10 and Under Tennis, opening the game up to an even bigger base of youth players.
“Because of April, more people in central Pa. are playing tennis than ever before,” Goodwin said. “She’s a leader in that area and has helped grow the game and the league structure in a lot of ways. We’re really lucky to have her.”
Ironically, Gift first got involved with the USTA to help out with adult tennis in 2007. She began working with juniors while coordinating a spring event at a local park, which eventually turned into 50-plus kids playing on Sundays. That evolved into a Jr. Team Tennis league, and just a year later, an official league was formed.
She never looked back, and thinks that as long as the volunteers are on hand to get it set up, Jr. Team Tennis will continue to grow not just in Middle States, but all over the country.
“Anyone can do it,” she said. “If you are organized and earn the trust of the kids and the parents, you’ll find success. Parents sometimes think their kids can’t play tennis, and others just don’t know what JTT really is. When they do finally see it, the results are great.”