This night is like almost any other night on tennis courts across the USTA Missouri Valley. The courts are full of tennis enthusiasts. The sounds of the ball are all around. There is an electricity in the air that suggests that this will be a great night for tennis.
Assembled at the Plaza Tennis Center on this night are 16 men and women that come from all walks of life. They include counselors, writers, graphic designers, city employees, managers and engineers. Some are recent college graduates while others are enjoying retirement. While many play in local USTA leagues and tournaments, some are just returning to the game after a lengthy absence.
These players are as diverse a group as you will find on a tennis court, but there are two commonalities they all share.
They love the game of tennis. And they are all members of Kansas City’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community.
On the eve of its first anniversary, the Kansas City Tennis Alliance, the USTA Missouri Valley’s only tennis group for LGBT players, continues to grow in numbers and in community pride. The group’s founder, Brian Sullivan, believed it was time for tennis to join other gay sports offered throughout Kansas City.
“I started the Kansas City Tennis Alliance because I wanted to offer gay and lesbian tennis players a fun and welcoming place where they could improve their games while making new friends,” Sullivan said. “I think there remains a myth in society that gay and lesbian people don’t enjoy or participate in sports. This group shatters that myth – in our first year, we have over 100 players who are passionate about the game of tennis.”
After some initial research into organizing the group, Sullivan came across the USTA’s Diversity Statement and its inclusion of sexual orientation, and soon contacted the Missouri Valley’s diversity manager, Fred Johnson.
“For me and the USTA, it’s all about playing tennis and Brian wanted to organize this diverse group of players and we were happy to help,” Johnson said.
Following a couple months of planning and promotion, the Kansas City Tennis Alliance held its kick-off event at the Plaza Tennis Center on June 28, 2008. 25 players participated in two hours of beginner and intermediate clinics led by tennis professionals, including open singles and doubles play.
“One of my proudest moments was looking out over those courts, and seeing so many players enjoying the sport as much as I do,” Sullivan said. “From the start, I wanted to create a space where LGBT tennis players of all skill levels could practice their skills, and receive ongoing support and encouragement from their peers.”
Since its inception, the group has organized weekly play at both the Plaza Tennis Center and the Rockhill Tennis Club.
“While a few of our players may be competitive, most are coming out each week for the social and recreational benefits that tennis provides,” Sullivan said.
Some of the players would be playing even without this group, but for others, this group brought them back to the game. “I have played tennis for a long time, but this group has energized my passion for the game again,” says Jason Sportsman.
Eric Jacobs left tennis for a period of time, but came back because this group offered a physical and social outlet to play and meet new people. “The group has provided me with an opportunity to get back into the game,” Jacobs said.
Shelley Long had not picked up a racquet in years. After encouragement from her friend Dan Grippo, Long joined him at this weekly session – a first for both players – with a brand-new racquet in hand. “His passion and interest for tennis helped me get hooked on the sport again,” Long said.
Rishad Gandhi stopped playing for several years when he had no one to play with. That changed after he joined the group. It has helped him find new hitting partners as well as new friends.
Tim DiCesare who recently moved to Kansas City found the group and has been coming ever since. “I knew no one in Kansas City and it was a great way to get more connected and play tennis at the same time,” DiCesare said.
Tennis has long been a recreational sport shared among friends and this group makes sure everyone feels at home, on and off the court.
“For me, I think one of the most rewarding benefits of forming this group has been the quality of the friendships that have been made,” Sullivan said. “It has been so satisfying to organize a group around a sport that I love. To have other people validate my efforts by making it a place that they want to come back to week after week – that’s just icing on the cake.”
Last December, Sullivan was invited to speak about the group to the USTA Missouri Valley’s Diversity Committee meeting at the Annual Conference in Overland Park, Kan. Shortly thereafter, he was appointed vice-chair to the committee.
In just one year, Sullivan has gone from merely the idea of a LGBT tennis group in Kansas City to dreams of assisting other communities in the Missouri Valley in reaching out to this often-hidden, but substantial segment of the tennis community.
As the group gets ready to celebrate its first year, Kansas City’s tennis and LGBT communities have begun to take notice through requests for radio interviews and features in local newspapers. Plans are in the works for a Web site, charity events benefitting tennis programs for inner-city youth, and the formation of an official USTA Community Tennis Association.
But at the end of the day, Sullivan’s goals for the group remain simple: “to increase the number of LGBT players in Kansas City who enjoy this great sport, and to provide a fun, safe and healthy environment to do that.”
While a common thread for the group is their shared identity as LGBT people, it is the tennis that binds. The love of the game knows no barriers.
“Even though there is a variety of skill levels in the group, there is a comfort zone that makes everyone feel welcome and play for their sheer enjoyment of the sport,” Shelley George, USTA Missouri Valley president said. “The most amazing part of the group is the diversity it represents with tennis as the glue for bringing all of these people together.”
The sun is setting on another tennis night for this group, but like most players, any night with a racquet in hand, playing with friends, is a night well spent.
And that’s a love that we can all relate to.
*This article appeared in the Summer 2009 issues of CrossCourt.