More than a pastime

Published 9:24 pm Thursday, June 21, 2012

Local women take part in USTA competition

By Titus Mohler
Correspondent

The United States Tennis Association has a presence in Suffolk, but many people may not know about it.

Janice Henderson, who works with Suffolk’s Parks and Recreation Department, plays on a USTA team called the Sharp Shooters in the 2012 Tidewater Adult Women’s League. The Sharp Shooters’ home court is the Howard Mast Tennis Complex on Main Street in Suffolk.

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The team played at home on Wednesday, the hottest day of the season.

Crystal Butler, co-captain of the Sharp Shooters, serves in a singles match on Wednesday at the Howard Mast Tennis Complex.

“We love tennis, though,” Henderson said, “because it doesn’t matter, the heat is not a factor. We just love the game.”

Sharp Shooters co-captain Crystal Butler of Courtland, who recently moved back here from South Carolina, explained how the team got started.

“In South Carolina in general, tennis is a lot bigger and around the Suffolk, Franklin, Southampton area, it hasn’t really grown,” she said. “There’s a tennis association, Western Tidewater Tennis Association, (that) just started up last year. So, immediately, when I moved back here in September, I joined that.“

Butler still wanted to play competitive tennis, though, so she got in touch with Eileen Taylor, who had been playing in the league already, and they began a team-building exercise.

“I pulled some Franklin ladies that I knew that were in the tennis association,” Butler said, “and she pulled a few of her friends to make a team to compete in the Tidewater USTA district.”

Aside from being 18 and over, there is primarily one requirement to be in the league.

“The only real qualification is that you have to register with USTA.com and join their annual membership,” Butler said. “And, of course, anybody can play on the team, but to be competitive, you need to at least be at a level. We’re at what’s called a 3.5 level.”

The USTA has set up a national rating program designed to create fair match-ups in league play by providing a method of classifying skill levels.

The site describes a 3.5 level player as one who “has achieved improved stroke dependability with directional control on moderate shots, but still lacks depth and variety. This player exhibits more aggressive net play, has improved court coverage, and is developing teamwork in doubles.”

Beginners are in the 1 to 2 level range and professionals fall between 6 and 7.

“I’m a 3.0,” Butler explained. “I can play at 3.0 level or the 3.5, or anything up, but I can’t play down. Because tennis isn’t really big even in the Tidewater area … they only have a 3.5 team. They don’t have a 3.0 team that I could play on.”

Players on the team alternate, competing some weeks in singles matches and other weeks in doubles. Each event involves five matches, and team victories are measured by whichever team achieves the majority of wins.

It has been a difficult season for the Sharp Shooters, though, due to the shortage of players.

“We only have eight and you need eight to compete,” Butler said. “And we haven’t been able to fill our courts, because people have lives and vacation and whatnot.”

Not being able to fill courts means having to forfeit some matches.

Despite these obstacles, the team has won one event as a team and has been competitive in nearly every other one. Janice Henderson and Jennifer Whitley went an impressive 8-1 as a doubles team.

But what ultimately makes participation worthwhile for these ladies is a love for the game.

“I’m just glad to find some ladies that like to play tennis,” Whitley said.

“I really think we’ve all had a blast,” Butler said. “The biggest thing is that you really enjoy playing tennis, and you want to play throughout the year. A lot of people just play for fun, but just want to do it as a pastime, not at the competitive level. And it’s not, of course, college or high school, but it’s still nice to go out once in a while and be challenged and have a goal.”

Wednesday marked the end of this season, but another one is about to begin.

“The summer session starts in two weeks,” Henderson said.

And with it comes another opportunity for tennis to make its local presence known.