Dreaming of following in Coco Gauff’s footsteps: Young N.J. tennis players hit at U.S. Open

NEW YORK — One day after Coco Gauff advanced to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open, 10-year-old Melanie Hill got to hit tennis balls on the same courts at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center where Gauff is making her run.

Hill, who attends Antheil Elementary School in Ewing Township, was introduced to tennis by her father when she was 4. Now she dreams of following in Gauff’s footsteps.

“I think she’s a really strong player,” Hill told NJ Advance Media of Gauff, who beat Caroline Wozniacki in three sets on Sunday to set up a quarterfinal with No. 20 Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia on Tuesday. “She always has a positive attitude. she’s really inspiring to me.”

Hill was among 24 players from Trenton and Ewing Township who were at the Open on Monday as part of Net Generation, the United States Tennis Association’s youth tennis community. The group is also part of We Lead Sports Inc., a non-profit organization of more than 800 kids run by Michelle Gbelama, a former No. 1 singles player at Drew University who also coached men’s and women’s tennis at Drew.

“We are a non-profit organization,” Gbelama said. “Our goal is to equip young people to rise above adversity and soar high in all areas of their lives. Our main goal is to provide opportunities for young people to experience the sport of tennis because in our community we don’t have a whole lot of tennis opportunities available to our young people so the goal is to expose them to the opportunity and see where they go from there.

“But also to use tennis to get a better life and pursue a better future.”

When she was 13, Gbelama migrated from Liberia to the United States with family to help her father manage a church he had established in Trenton. Just a year later, her father passed away.

“The experience forced me to become independent at a young age,” she told USTA.com in an interview. “Being raised in a strange land by a single mother forced me to strive even more for a better future.”

She found that future by discovering tennis at 16. She practiced every morning on a tennis wall and got connected to other organizations that could help her improve. Eventually, she became the No. 1 singles player at Trenton High School, where she was recruited to play at Drew. She received more than $50,000 in funds outside of grants and financial aid, she told the USTA.

Now she wants to impart everything she’s learned about recruiting and tennis to a younger generation that does not have the financial wherewithal to learn and play tennis. The USTA and Net Generation help provide the group with smaller racquets, tennis balls and a tennis curriculum

“We don’t have a lot of tennis opportunities in the Trenton/Ewing area, so that’s where we come in,” she said of We Lead. “We try to partner with as many different organizations, we try to provide as many opportunities as we can.”

Another 20 players from East Brunswick Youth Tennis also got to hit with mini racquets on a series of mini courts set up on Louis Armstrong Stadium, the No. 2 show court at the U.S. Open. They were the warm-up act for a match between Wimbledon champion Markéta Vondroušová and American Peyton Stearns, the 2022 NCAA singles champion from the University of Texas.

As the players warmed up for the early crowd on Armstrong, the group’s leader, Shweta Chandekar, a former tennis captain at East Brunswick High School and a Rutgers graduate, moved around to give the kids pointers on how to hit the ball and set up a point.

“My goal for these kids is to be inspired as they watch different matches,” said the group’s leader, Shweta Chandekar, a Rutgers graduate. “I want them to take their tennis careers seriously while also seeing the future that follows with starting young in tennis.

“I want them to really work on their rallies as they’re practicing, and I want them to see with advanced players how the rally turns into a point, how it turns into a winner, the development of them basically as a player.”

The young New Jersey players got to spend the day watching matches and practice sessions at the Open, a treat for young players like Hill who had never before attended a professional match.

“I’ve never been to any tournaments,” Hill said.

Chandekar was looking forward to letting the East Brunswick players check out the practice courts, too. With three American men slated to play in the quarterfinals on Tuesday for the first time since 2005 — along with the American women left in the draw — there were plenty of Americans to watch practice.

“I told them about the practice schedule,” she said. “Big fans of American tennis so I told them that [Taylor] Fritz is practicing, [Frances] Tiafoe is practicing, Coco is practicing, [Jessica] Pegula’s playing, [Madison] Keys is playing so they’re all looking forward to that,” she said. “And also [world No. 1 Carlos] Alcaraz. Not American, but still…”

Gauff and Tiafoe, both of whom are Black, have inspired a generation of younger players, including some of New Jersey’s top tennis prodigies and less experienced players like 9-year-old Sedona Youngblood from Ewing Township.

“Yes, he’s my favorite men’s tennis player,” Youngblood said of Tiafoe.

As for Gauff, Youngblood wants to follow in her footsteps.

“I really want to get my backhand like hers and my volley,” she said. “And her serve.”


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Adam Zagoria is a freelance reporter who covers Seton Hall and NJ college basketball for NJ Advance Media. You may follow him on Twitter @AdamZagoria and check out his Website at ZAGSBLOG.com.

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