Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times | Terms of Service | Privacy Policy

Serving up confidence

Charles Rich

Despite the searing heat that enveloped the area Monday, Susie

Schallert stayed cool with a refusal to lose her grip.

Swinging a tennis racquet on the green cement courts at the


Burbank Tennis Center, the 38-year-old chose to remain focused

hitting backhands and forehand shots during several drill sessions.

She also sported a cap to help keep her cool.

“I used to play tennis three years ago, and there’s nothing like


hitting the ball over the net,” Schallert said. “I even hit one of

the instructors in the head with a ball.”

Schallert was one of 59 participants with Down syndrome who took

part in the Jensen-Schmidt Tennis Academy for Individuals with Down

Syndrome Monday and Tuesday at the Burbank Tennis Center. The academy

was established and designed to meet the sport-specific needs of

children and young adults with the affliction.

Schallert, a North Hollywood resident, had plenty of ambition to


help her master the proper footwork needed to put herself in the

right position to return a shot. The other 10 people in her group

cheered her on, including her boyfriend, Blair Williamson.

“I wanted to come out and participate,” said the 26-year-old

Williamson, who lives in North Hills. “It’s fun to be out there

because I’ve never played tennis before.

“I watched it on TV a lot, and I like learning all of the drills.”

There was more in store for each participant than just learning


tennis skills. All the athletes were given the racquets and the other

items they used so they can continue to improve by playing on their


Former French Open doubles champions Luke and Murphy Jensen, who

helped teach participants Tuesday, teamed up with professional Vince

Schmidt to form the academy.

“It’s been a smashing success across the country, Schmidt said. “I

have a 4-year-old son [Jonas] with Down syndrome,” said Schmidt, who

has been a professional in the St. Louis area for more than a decade.

“I knew nothing about the syndrome, and I wanted to do something for

the sake of it.

“I called tennis federations and couldn’t find a program to adapt,

so I wanted to design one of our own programs.

“It’s about getting to know the Down community out here because

Burbank didn’t really have one, and you can give them access [to an

environment] that can be utilized more.”

Schmidt is the director of the Tennis at Glen Echo Country Club in

Normandy, Mo. Over the years, he has worked at the prestigious Nick

Bollettieri Tennis Academy, and well as with ATP and World Tennis

Assn. tour players and Special Olympics athletes.

The Jensen brothers, known for their enthusiastic and boisterous

style on the court, have enjoyed a long and successful career in


They were ranked as high as fourth in doubles and captured the

French Open title in 1993.

Glendale resident Steve Starleaf, who is the center’s executive

director, said the specific environment the academy provides is for

the participants to hone their skills along with learning about

physical training and the opportunity to take part in games and other


Starleaf, who graduated from Burbank High, helped organize the

Assn. of Tennis Professionals Challenger of Burbank from 1997-2004.

That event featured stars like Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick.

Starleaf wanted to foster a broader spectrum and that’s why he was

glad to accommodate the academy.

“I wanted to steer a new course toward nonprofit and reaching out

to the community,” Starleaf said. “The ATP Challenger of Burbank was

for the elite and that put the center on the map.

“It will be a boom for us because we will be a Down syndrome

center, and we will start dedicating more court time to people with

Down syndrome. We want to keep the ball rolling.”

On the first day of the event the academy hosted a group of local

dignitaries, including Burbank Mayor jef Vander Borght, City Manager

Mary Alvord and Park, Recreation and Community Services Director Mike