Net Result Is Opportunity : Inner-City Youth Have Been Introduced to Tennis by Richard Williams for 25 Years
Richard Williams is hitting tennis balls high into the air with a 9-year-old boy when he sees a player on another court hit a shot into the net.
“Hey, Hamburger,” Williams hollers. “Didn’t I just get done telling you not to hit the ball so flat? Hit the ball into the air--then give me 20 hoppers.”
To Williams, all young tennis players are “hamburgers.” He says the nickname fits. If Williams thinks one of his players didn’t give enough effort, the player is made to do jumping jacks, or “hoppers.”
For the last 25 years, Williams has given tennis lessons to L.A.'s inner-city youngsters, enabling them to enter a world that otherwise might be unattainable.
He has taken a sport mostly associated with affluent suburbs and introduced it to urban Los Angeles.
Williams, 57, operates the California Tennis Assn. for Underprivileged Youth with the help of his brother, Fred. The program has gone beyond teaching youngsters the fundamentals of tennis. It has produced some of the city’s best players.
Williams’ players have won junior tennis tournaments and have been ranked nationally. Three are ranked in the top 10 in their respective age groups by the Southern California Tennis Assn.--LaGeorge Mauldin, 12 and under; Demetrix Clemons 14 and under, and Richard’s son, Robert, 16 and under.
Many of William’s pupils have succeeded in high school as well. Eight have reached the finals of the L.A. City Section individual tournament. Last year, Kendra Segura--no relation to Pancho Segura, a star of the ‘40s and ‘50s--won the girls’ title as a freshman, and Robert Williams won the boys’ title as a sophomore at Dorsey.
“Dorsey’s had some great players and Richard has trained them all,” said Dave Gordon, Dorsey’s tennis coach. “He’s meant everything to Dorsey and inner-city tennis.”
But Williams is the first to acknowledge that he has never produced a player ranked among the top 200 in the world, and he thinks he probably never will.
Williams said most of his kids simply do not have enough money to be competitive.
For instance, every serious player needs four rackets, which cost about $150 each. Shoes start at $50. Most tennis instructors charge $40-$50 an hour.
“Every player serious about playing tennis at a high level of competition takes lessons,” said Jim Hillman, director of junior tennis for the SCTA. “I know families spending $20,000 a year on a single child to play tennis. Most of it goes to lessons.”
Mauldin, the No. 2 player in Southern California in his age group, had to quit for three months last year for financial reasons. He started playing again only after the ATP Tour, the governing body for the men’s professional circuit, donated $5,000.
“You have to know just how expensive tennis can be to understand what Richard has done,” Hillman said. “Sending one kid to a tournament can cost $3,000 after you pay the entry fees, travel and lodging expenses, and I’ve seen Richard with four or five kids at tournaments. It’s my belief a lot of the money comes out of his own pocket.”
Williams’ program survives on an average yearly budget of $9,000, money he manages to collect from a variety of sources.
Williams has received donations from the Santa Monica Tennis Club, actor Charlton Heston, beer companies, and City Councilman Nate Holden, among others.
Unknown to Williams at the time, one generous donor was a drug dealer. He gave $800 a month for almost a year. The donations stopped when the man was sent to prison in 1990.
Despite the high costs, Williams doesn’t scrimp when it comes to his players competing in tournaments. Junior tennis tournaments let Williams showcase his players’ talents. They also are the best way for players to move up in the rankings, the basis of a player’s reputation.
The main purpose of Williams’ program, however, is to get his players into tournaments watched by college coaches who can offer athletic scholarships.
Pete Brown, director of tennis at Harvard Recreation Center in Los Angeles, runs a program similar to Williams’.
“Richard has a lot of kids playing in tournaments and that’s why they have the most successful program in the area,” Brown said. “It’s expensive, but Richard does it. His players get good exposure.”
Williams said 25 of his players have earned athletic scholarships, including his oldest son, Richard Williams Jr., 21.
Although tournaments can be beneficial, competing in them is not always easy when the opponents appear to have more advantages. Williams said one of his players was embarrassed by the team’s poor appearance.
“I told him, ‘Son, you are poor. Don’t be ashamed of that. It’s not your fault. You have to show the guy on the other side of the net that his money can’t buy talent and it can’t buy heart,’ ” Williams said.
“I push them to keep going because I know what tennis can do. I’ve seen what it did for my son and I know what it did for me.”
An older brother, Walter Williams, inspired Richard to take up tennis at Will Rogers Park in Watts, where he grew up.
Walter belonged to the University Tennis Club in Los Angeles and sometimes brought Richard along to meet some of the more affluent members.
“I liked the tennis club meetings,” Richard said. “My brother and his friends were educated and had nice things. They were different than the people I was used to hanging around with. I equated tennis with success.”
After earning a tennis scholarship to Pepperdine and spending several years in the Army, Williams earned his degree from Cal State Los Angeles in 1968, then was a postal worker for 24 years, retiring in 1992. He lives in the Crenshaw area with his two sons.
Because he has lived in the area all his life, Williams understands how drugs and gangs can make concentrating on anything other than survival difficult for many of his players.
Williams said the father and brother of one of his best players are in jail and that other members of the family are involved in gangs.
“That little hamburger is good enough to get a scholarship one day,” Williams said. “If I can just keep him here. I just try to give them another alternative to the craziness that’s out there.”
Robert Vinson is one of Williams’ success stories. Vinson started when his parents bought him a racket and six tennis lessons for his 13th birthday. But he was told he was taking up the sport too late to play competitively.
Four years later, in 1985, he was the second-best high school player in the City Section. The next year he was competing at Nevada Las Vegas.
“I would have never gone to college if I didn’t play tennis,” Vinson said. “I might have gone to a junior college but my family couldn’t afford sending me to a university.
“I guess you can say tennis changed my life.”