Some of the 23 Elmcor youth group campers had never stepped foot on a tennis court before they traveled to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center for a tennis clinic last Thursday.
Serena Williams made sure their first time gripping a racket was a memory they will cherish forever.
A surprise appearance from the top-ranked female tennis player in the world garnered reactions of unabashed shock and excitement from the group of youngsters, who were in the middle of learning how to volley back and forth on the Grandstand Stadium court alongside volunteer instructors.
Williams, a two-time US Open champion who last won the prestigious tournament in 2009, jumped right into the clinic, pairing up with various groups of East Elmhurst-based youth campers to teach them how to properly swing the racket.
The all-time great played with the thrilled children for about 30 minutes before happily distributing hugs and taking pictures with any child or Elmcor counselor who approached her.
Despite a busy schedule filled with practice sessions and media appearances ahead of the start of the tournament this week, Williams said helping the game grow amongst its youngest fans is important to her.
“I always love coming out and supporting the kids,” Williams said. “It’s so good to see the new initiative, especially in the United States, to get the young kids involved because that’s the future of tennis.”
One girl who sees herself as a part of that future is Madison Gonzalez of East Elmhurst.
The 7-year-old girl practiced with one of tennis’ all-time greats at length, learning how to swing and volley from Williams, while 2014 Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka taught some tricks of the game to a handful of male campers on the other side of the court.
At the conclusion of the clinic, Gonzalez jumped into Williams’ arms, and the tournament favorite obliged with a bearhug and a grin.
Gonzalez said she had never really played tennis before Thursday, but after playing with Williams, she excitedly said “Yeah!” when asked if she wanted to be a professional tennis player like her newfound idol.
“When I saw her, I knew who she was. I was a million percent excited,” Gonzalez said. “I learned that she’s a special player and when she was younger, she learned a lot of this stuff too.”
Elmcor program director Janice Teague, a former collegiate tennis player herself, said she “jumped at the chance” to bring the campers to the clinic, but decided to keep Williams’ appearance a surprise.
“A lot of them know who Serena is, so when she walked through the door, everybody just held their breath,” Teague said. “They’re all excited about being here. A lot of them have never been to a tennis court.”
Teague, like Williams, was hoping the clinic would inspire at least one child to pick up tennis and run with it.
“That’s exactly what I expect to happen,” she said. “I’m hoping that somebody is going to say ‘Of all the sports in the world, I want to play tennis.’”
Before Williams fielded questions from a gaggle of reporters on her US Open chances, she blushed much like the campers did at the prospect of being their new role model.
“It’s really fun,” Williams said. “I love kids. I think I’m really good with kids.”