By Colleen Lent
Hampton Union, Tuesday, September 9, 2003
[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]
year-round. Hampton Union Staff photo by Jackie Ricciardi
For years Kyle Littlefield, the new executive director of the New Hampshire NetWork Tennis Center in Hampton, waited for the demise of tennis. It never came.
"I've heard about it for 30 years," Littlefield says.
Despite claims that the sport is wobbling around on feeble legs, ready for retirement from the American athletic landscape, Littlefield said the popularity of tennis is gaining momentum.
Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, and Jennifer Capriati are household names. On-site and television spectators hold their breath during professional tournaments at the Arthur Ashe Stadium. Two African-American sisters emerge from the mean streets of Compton, Calif. to become part of Wimbledon, Grand Slam, and U.S. Open history.
The humble beginning of Venus and Serena Williams is most inspiring to Littlefield, who also started playing tennis as an adolescent in a community short on resources. At the age of 4, the sisters began hitting tattered tennis balls found in the gutters and parks of Los Angeles, as their father, Richard Williams, stood within earshot, reciting instructions from a tennis manual.
Littlefield says the Williams sisters are helping to change the demographic face of tennis - a goal he shares for Southern New Hampshire. Littlefield says his new management position at the NetWork Tennis Center, formerly known as the Hampton Sports Club, will provide an opportunity to bring this vision to fruition.
"This will be the hub of our infrastructure," Littlefield says, pointing to four indoor courts without any visible blemishes. "We're looking at this as a community center."
Littlefield, best known as the owner of KL Tennis, the name behind local town tennis programs, says before accepting the executive director position, the public grapevine was jammed with uncertainty - speculation that could squelch the goal of making tennis accessible to the young and the old and the amateur and to the pro through an all-season site.
One misconception was that the owner of the Hampton Sports Club was selling the self-built center to a local developer, who was going to demolish the building to make room for a new residential or commercial venture, displacing thousands of club members.
"There were rumors it would close," Littlefield says. Some members were grabbing lifejackets by seeking another spot to play tennis.
"Everybody was going to jump off the club," Littlefield says. A few members were staying on board, ready to go down with a perceived sinking ship.
Yet, Littlefield says a candid conversation with Drakes Appleton Corp. of Hampton, currently leasing the property on Drakeside Road from the owner, Gabriello Gabrielli, helped dispel the rumors. Littlefield said the firm lent an empathetic ear when it learned that the site accommodates youth tennis players in addition to adults.
"It's up there," Littlefield says, adding that the NetWork Tennis Center is the headquarters for the largest community tennis association in the Granite State, receiving recognition and support from the United States Tennis Association.
"It's one of the top three in New England," Littlefield adds. "It's not exclusive. It's inclusive."
Drakes Appleton, in turn, offered the NetWork Tennis Center a lease, allowing it to maintain its programs. With the ink on lease agreement still damp, Littlefield and fellow staff members are gearing up for the 36-month contract season, scheduled to start Sept.15.
There are a host of immediate tasks to tackle, including the installation of a telephone system, development of a computer database, painting of walls, and removal of worn and torn lobby carpeting. "This is, in my opinion, a solid structure," Littlefield says, standing on the indoor courts. "We're very happy with this."
As he strides into the front lobby, flanked on the left and right by male and female locker rooms, he says Mother Nature hasn't been kind to the two-story front of the building, which is separated from the indoor courts. Snow and rain infiltrated vulnerable areas, leaving a telltale odor of waterlogged floors and ceilings.
Even so, Littlefield says the shape of the lobby and upstairs lounge, dubbed as the "Tiki Room" by youngsters for its 1970s décor of palm tree wallpaper and islands of green carpeting, hasn't dampened his spirits. Snow and rain infiltrated vulnerable areas, leaving a telltale odor of waterlogged floors and ceilings.
"It's not a fitness club," he says. "It's not a social club. We don't need all the bells and whistles for a community-based program." In about a year the building will receive a facelift when the front section is removed, which will be cheaper than a major renovation to the existing structure, according to Littlefield.
"This is like an old beat-up house," Littlefield says, listing a host of items on the wish list, ranging from new court lights, to revamped plumbing, to a second-floor viewing area. In the interim, minor cosmetic changes are being made.
"We'd like to fix it so we can live here for the winter." Littlefield returns to the unscathed centerpiece of the New Hampshire NetWork Tennis Center.
"I don't see empty courts," he says. "I see full courts." Littlefield also sees smiles. He hears laughter. As a former youth counselor in Exeter, Littlefield says recreation for individuals 3 to 103 is tonic for the soul, echoing a sentiment expressed by Victor Hugo.
"Laughter is the sun that drives the winter from the human face."