Courting New Generation : Tennis Players Who Got Education Through Game Return to San Fernando Neighborhood
On a once graffiti-scarred wall, a 400-foot-long mural at Las Palmas Park colorfully depicts the history of the city of San Fernando from the mission era to the present.
Nearby, another piece of history is being reenacted on the park’s tennis courts. Ali Ordonez, who learned to play tennis here 25 years ago, patiently hits balls to an energetic group of youngsters, some barely taller than the top of the net.
In the comforting tone of a kindergarten teacher, Ordonez encourages the children to hit returns, doling out praise regardless if the task is completed or not. Molding the next Pete Sampras or Steffi Graf isn’t as important to the Mission Hills native as trying to mold lives.
“So many kids out there are in gangs, walking the streets with nothing to do,” Ordonez said. “I think they get in that atmosphere because they have nothing else to focus on. With tennis, you can change that. I’m sure that it helped us get off the streets.”
Remembering the way tennis changed their lives, Ordonez and several of her friends formed the Neighborhood Junior Tennis Program in 1993. The goal of the nonprofit organization is to provide children, especially minorities, with an opportunity to learn the sport free or for a nominal fee.
The model for the program was established in the early 1970s by Ordonez’s mentor, Paul Arroyo, a local instructor whose passion for tennis led him to give free lessons at Las Palmas Park to neighborhood youngsters.
Four of Arroyo’s players--Ordonez, Philip Siordia and twins Barbara Sotura-Tscherne and Anna Sotura-Wells--earned college scholarships because of their tennis skills. Now they are giving back to the community as members of the NJTP, taking time from careers and families to introduce a new generation to a sport usually associated with expensive coaches and exclusive clubs.
“Everyone has a good idea of how to fix things, but it’s hard to really find people willing to do it,” said Siordia, the organization’s president.
“I think that is what’s unique about our board members. They are spending their time in San Fernando to try and make a difference, as well as live in the community.”
Arroyo, a Granada Hills resident who turned 55 on Sunday, takes special satisfaction in knowing he influenced his proteges in such a profound manner.
“I’m really happy to see that I made that much of a difference in their lives,” Arroyo said. “I was proud of them when they played tennis. They accomplished a lot, and they still are.”
Siordia, 39, who lives in Sylmar, grew up two blocks from Las Palmas Park. He remembers going away for a camping trip one summer and returning to find many of his friends taking lessons from Arroyo, who often would provide free rackets, shoes and equipment by soliciting donations from manufacturers.
“All these kids I grew up playing team sports with were talking about tennis,” Siordia recalled. “I wondered what happened while I was gone.”
Siordia soon joined in. He started playing tennis when he was 13, and it wasn’t long before he was beating all the local competition. He rose to become the No. 1 singles player as a senior at Kennedy High and he earned a tennis scholarship to Cal State Northridge, where he played No. 2 singles and No. 1 doubles for two years.
A pricing analyst for Anheuser-Busch, Siordia says tennis taught him self-reliance.
“When tennis came along, the nature of the sport being individual grabbed my attention,” he said. “I enjoyed that it was up to me whether to make it or break it.”
Ordonez, 37, started taking lessons from Arroyo when she was 12 and says without tennis, she probably never would have completed college. She played at Kennedy High and Pierce College before getting a scholarship to the University of Texas at Odessa, where she earned a degree in physical education.
She works in the health industry and is going for a master’s degree in that field.
“It would have been very difficult for me to get a college education without tennis,” said Ordonez, who coaches her daughter Adriana, 9.
“My parents couldn’t afford it. It’s the same for the children in our program. That’s why we’re working to try and open doors for them, to give them an opportunity.”
Several players in the NJTP show promise, but the program has yet to produce a college-caliber standout.
Steve Tscherne, a NJTP vice president, says that will change as the program expands. Advanced and beginning classes are given for 1 1/2 hours five days a week on two courts, and the NJTP has asked the city to build a third court at Las Palmas Park.
“It’s unrealistic to think we’ll have kids turn pro out of this group, but I think we can help someone get a college education,” Tscherne said. “We’ll break that barrier.”
Tscherne estimated there are between 30 and 45 players between the ages of 6 and 16 in the program.
For parents, the program is nothing short of a miracle. Lessons are $25 a month but the fee is often waived for those unable to pay, and money raised through side projects frequently is used for group outings such as a recent camping trip to Catalina Island. Continuing a tradition set by Arroyo, free rackets are often provided.
The cost is minimal but it has to be, as one parent pointed out.
“This is not Porter Ranch,” Isabella Downar said. “It’s just regular people.”
Downar, whose son Chris, 10, returned to the program last week after a three-year absence, finds the low-key atmosphere and emphasis on fun to be an attractive alternative to team sports.
“Tennis is a social sport,” said Downar, a Polish immigrant who lives in Sylmar. “I don’t like group sports. I don’t like football and I don’t really understand baseball. The [tennis instructors] are very nice and professional people.”
The blossoming of the NJTP has coincided with recent improvements at Las Palmas Park, the site of a 1991 gang shooting in which a woman and her three children were wounded. Following that incident, the city banned gang members from the area and launched an ambitious park renovation project.
On this late afternoon, the atmosphere at the tennis courts is downright cheery.
On one court, Ordonez is hitting to the younger kids in the beginning group. On the other, Steve Tscherne and Ruben Mejorado are working with older, more experienced players in the advanced group.
A smattering of parents watch from nearby bleachers. They include NJTP instructor, Barbara Sotura-Tscherne, 40, who is a spectator because she is expecting her and Steve’s first child next month.
Barbara and Anna were female trailblazers at San Fernando High. They alternated at No. 1 singles for the girls’ tennis team and were skilled enough to be asked to join the boys’ team.
“Our mom said we were ladies, so we only played for the girls’ team,” said Barbara, who played with her sister at Pierce and Northridge.
Barbara gladly volunteers her time to the NJTP because she remembers the impact tennis had on her life.
She had never played before responding to a flyer at San Fernando High promoting free lessons at Las Palmas Park.
“Tennis matured me and help me grow up,” she said. “I learned to have friends. The friends I played with [as a teenager] are still my friends.”
Siordia says there’s something special about the close-knit group, which has come full circle since first coming together through tennis.
“We were a family, then we went our separate ways,” he said. “It’s funny we all came back to the same community.”
Plenty of other families are glad they did.
Information on the Neighborhood Junior Tennis Program can be obtained by calling (818) 837-1772 or 367-6292.