Tennis isn't much of a big deal at South L.A.'s struggling Jefferson High.
The two dozen kids who play on the boys' and girls' teams practice on a pair of beaten courts at a gang-riddled, graffiti-tagged park.
It wasn't long ago that both squads — stacked with teens still learning basic tennis rules — shared six beaten rackets and sometimes played in jeans.
"Shoes?" said David Herrera, who coaches the girls' team. "A lot of my players didn't even know there was such a thing as shoes made just for tennis. They played in skateboard sneakers. One girl showed up in boots. They just didn't know."
They do now, thanks to the venerable, 84-year-old Beverly Hills Tennis Club.
This past weekend marked the beginning of an uncommon bond between Jefferson and the club — storied in Southern California tennis circles, with a wealthy membership that once included Groucho Marx and Charlie Chaplin. On Saturday, Jefferson's tennis players boarded a bus in their neighborhood and went on a 12-mile journey to a corner of the city far different from their own.
They ended up at the leafy club — as honored guests.
"Most of us, we've never really been to Beverly Hills before, even though it's not that far from home," said Alma Roque, a 17-year-old senior who stood back for a moment, tentative as she surveyed her teammates.
They sat near the pool, next to club members who made polite small talk in an effort to make nervous youngsters comfortable. They dined on an all-you-can-eat lunch of hot dogs and hamburgers that one of the players called "the fanciest meal I have ever had in my entire life."
Eventually there was an on-court ceremony, and club President Mitchell Dawson presented each wide-eyed player with a bag of brand new tennis gear: Nike shoes, shirts, shorts and hats, festooned in Jefferson green and gold, all purchased through a $10,000 fund set up by club members for the ongoing support of the school's tennis teams.
"We are basically adopting them," said club teaching professional Russell Simpson, noting that his members have already donated new rackets to the team and have pledged to maintain an enduring connection — helping with lessons and memberships in the U.S. Tennis Assn., and forming mentoring relationships.
The bond was the brainchild of Dawson, who decided this summer he'd like his members to help a single, tough L.A. public school learn to love tennis, which he views as a vehicle to boost grades, self-discipline and self-belief.
With help from the nonprofit Communities in Schools, the club set its sights on Jefferson, predominantly Latino, black and poor, located just south of downtown in one of the city's most dangerous neighborhoods. "I sent out an email blast to the entire club, hoping in the back of my mind to get used rackets for the teams," said Dawson, a Beverly Hills attorney. "I ended up getting much more from members than I ever expected. This experience is as good for us as it is for these kids."
At the end of the afternoon, as she prepared to board a bus and head back home, Roque couldn't stop smiling. "This is really unbelievable for us," she said. She was grinning broadly, so excited by the new equipment that she'd already made plans to meet the other girls for an impromptu weekend practice.
"We thought people were going to judge us because we are from South-Central," she said. "But now we know we were completely wrong, these people are here to support us, they have faith in us. That might not seem like it makes a difference, but it does."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times