Karen Johnson in 1993 celebrating the new courts after much hard work. Photo courtesy Karen Johnson/Berkshire Hills Tennis Association

Berkshire Tennis Association celebrates 25th anniversary: community spirit strong despite dwindling youth participation

Berkshire Hills Tennis Association co-founder Karen Johnson looks back fondly on the organization’s early years. She still has reams of photographs showing youngsters enjoying themselves on the new courts, as well as a table full of trophies.

Great Barrington — Driving by the tennis courts beside Monument Mountain Regional High School day after day, year after year, it’s easy to take them for granted, as if the seven maintained tennis courts were always there, free for anyone to use.

But there was a time when there were no public tennis courts in Great Barrington. There was a public beach, public parks, playgrounds and ball fields, but the only tennis courts in the area were private, at Wyantenuck Country Club and Simon’s Rock.

Back then the seven courts at Monument were a grass field, and the high school tennis team was bussed to Deerwood Camp (now Kutsher’s Sports Academy) beside Lake Buel to play on cracked courts with a covering of slippery moss.

Then Karen Johnson, a mother of three students who all loved tennis, decided there had to be a way to help the tennis team, save money on bussing and help the community as a whole at the same time.

An article from the Berkshire Courier describing the start of the Berkshire Hills Tennis Association’s youth tennis program.

“The way the kids had to be bussed out there — slipping on the courts while playing, balls bouncing haywire from uneven pavement — I figured we could somehow build tennis courts for them and town residents, too,” Johnson said. “I was put in touch with Ed Vorman and Trisha Webber, both very community-minded people, and we sat down in Trish’s kitchen and started brainstorming.”

Several locations were looked at including Memorial Field, but the group eventually settled on empty land abutting the high school, a decision that the school welcomed. The three organizers formed the Berkshire Hills Tennis Association, invited people to join the board and created a mission for the organization that continues to this day: to build and pay for the courts; gift them to the school district; and to run tennis programming for local residents, both young and old, outside of school hours. The organization has always been run by volunteers, with all funds received used for the sole purpose of tennis programing and assistance with maintenance of the courts.

Karen Johnson, one of the founders of the Berkshire Hills Tennis Association, poses with one of the T-shirts children were given when they signed up for tennis programming. Photo courtesy Karen Johnson/Berkshire Hills Tennis Association

Money was raised with the sale of symbolic $25 memberships; donations from private individuals; the Rotary; and the School Center Inc., a nonprofit organization that helps fund school and student activities. For $132,000, seven courts were constructed by W. E. Williams Paving on the once-grassy field. Board members were pleased that there was money to build a seventh additional court, but plans for lights and a water fountain were put off to get the project completed as soon as possible. “We just so wanted those courts finished,” Johnson said. “The kids had been waiting for so long.” By the summer of 1993, the courts were ready for play.

Back then, tennis was a very popular sport. Dozens of kids signed up for summer lessons each year. Johnson, who helped teach lessons, remembers more than 60 kids showing up for frequent tournaments. There were matches with neighboring towns, and trophies for winners. There were trips to watch the pros play. Several youngsters even got to meet Venus Williams one year.

A thank-you note posted in the Berkshire Courier.

“I had 46 youth players divided according to age; lessons began at 9 a.m.,” Johnson said of the first year. “My parent helpers (Deb Caffrey and Ellen Whittaker) and myself were dumbfounded when a sea of kids swarmed from the hill to the courts that first day of lessons!”

It was a different time, a time when winning a can of tennis balls made a child ebullient with pride and excitement, and community radio was just that: radio for the community. “We’d call up Nick Diller at WSBS and he’d recite the winners of the matches and their scores,” Johnson recalls. “The adults and kids were both excited to hear their names on the radio.” Today, lessons are rain-cancelled by email. At the time, WSBS announced such timely information.

Early jamborees, such as this one written about in the Berkshire Courier, attracted a lot of local children.

There were adult lessons and leagues that played other towns, and children’s lessons and area matches called “jamborees.” Dozens of kids would show up, eager to play, watch their friends play, and hopefully go home with a trophy and listen to their wins announced on the radio. When Johnson wrote a national tennis racquet company on a whim to see if they would donate racquets for the children to use, a package arrived with enough racquets so the children could play for free. Racquets arrived for the adults to use, as well. Back then, there was also a ball machine.

In recent years, interest in tennis has declined. The high school has had difficulty fielding a boys team, and signups for summer youth tennis lessons with the BHTA have dwindled. This summer’s second three-week session of youth lessons was canceled because there were too few participants to cover the cost of instruction. Ads for a teen instructor’s aide to help with adult lessons went unanswered. Gone are the tournaments with neighboring towns. Programming now mainly consists of six weeks of adult lessons, and youth lessons when there is enough participation to cover costs.

Youth tennis lessons in the 1990s. Photo courtesy Karen Johnson/Berkshire Hills Tennis Association

“Originally, lessons were all taught by high school students, as well as some college students who were home for the summer,” Deb Caffrey, a member of the BHTA board for many years, said. “Many of them started their tennis careers as participants in the BHTA youth lesson and match program. As tennis interest lessened in the area, there were fewer students available. Eventually the BHTA was forced to look at alternatives and, for the past few years, has had a professional instruct the lessons.”

According to Johnson, in the first years, about 30 men and 50 women showed up for lessons and competitive play. “We could never play singles on lesson night!” Johnson said. “The first four to five courts were for lesson use (eight to10 people) and the other courts were doubles that players rotated playing on evenings. Our instructors had to hustle to keep track of their groups.”

Back in the day, children pose at the courts. Can you name them? Photo courtesy Karen Johnson/Berkshire Hills Tennis Association

Today, adult participation is far reduced but remains strong enough to maintain six weeks of programming, although the numbers fluctuate from year to year and the median age continues to rise, with few participants below the age of 50. Typically, youth tennis is a source of young adult participation.

“The youth program was adversely affected by summer sports camps, soccer and other sports offered in the summer months,” Caffrey said. “Without enough players for the junior teams, we were forced to send those youths to Lee who needed a few more players to field their teams and shut down our youth program” for several years.

Standing at the trophy / bake sale table. Photo courtesy Karen Johnson/Berkshire Hills Tennis Association

The sport’s lessening popularity can be viewed in the lack of stores selling tennis equipment locally. The Nike outlet in Lee sells dozens of varieties of basketball, running and workout sneakers, but no tennis sneakers. Dick’s Sporting Goods only sells one model of tennis sneakers for men and women. There’s literally just one style of tennis sneaker to choose from. And tennis shorts? Forget about it.

Johnson looks back fondly on the BHTA’s early years. She still has reams of photographs showing youngsters enjoying themselves on the new courts, as well as a table full of trophies. “Such sweet, sweet memories,” she says. “Twenty-five years ago, and yet it all seems like yesterday when I look at the photographs and newspaper clippings. All these people making friendships, keeping in touch, having fun together. A community of friends started with a little ball and a racquet.”

That, and a generous group of volunteers who banded together, formed the BHTA and gave their community the gift of sport.

For more information about the Berkshire Hills Tennis Association’s offerings, please visit http://bhtennis.org/.