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Stevenson loves the game

By KAREN TUCKER, Special to The Press

NEW HAVEN -- When she was 9 years old, Alexandra Stevenson’s love of tennis was tested.
She passed with flying colors.

It all started when Stevenson misplaced her proudly owned rainbow-stringed Prince tennis racket and begged for a replacement. Her mother, and current coach, Samantha, however, was reluctant to purchase a substitute.

"I guess she was testing me out to see if I really liked tennis," Stevenson said, laughing. "I cried and I cried. I said, ‘I’ll do anything.’ Two days later, she got me another racket."

From that point on, her love of the game was official.

On Tuesday, Stevenson, currently ranked No. 26 in the world, came to the Connecticut Tennis Center to lead a Pilot Pen tennis lesson offered to 400 children from New Haven. The hope was that her love would be contagious.

"Hopefully these kids will go home and tell their parents, ‘I want to play tennis,’" Stevenson said. "The purpose is to introduce them to tennis, if they haven’t already been, so they can just go out and learn how to play a great sport."

Since May is the national month of tennis, the Pilot Pen usually kicks off its tournament season with a lesson for area Girl Scouts. However, since Stevenson was in the area for her debut in the Federation Cup Tournament in Lowell, Mass., the opportunity seemed too good to refuse.

After Venus and Serena Williams led the Fed Cup team to a 5-0 victory over the Czech Republic last weekend, however, a bad taste was left in Stevenson’s mouth.

"I was very disappointed that I didn’t play," Stevenson said. "But Billie Jean (King) made her decision, and you can’t change the captain’s decision. The whole week everything was team, team, team, and we had a great time. Then when it got to the last day, it didn’t seem like a team. It was hard to sit out there and think of it as a team."

The feeling of disappointment did not, however, deter her from making a stop in New Haven. "This is such a dream for the kids to be introduced to tennis and to meet a world class pro at the same time," Pilot Pen Tournament Director Anne Worcester said. "Listening to her, watching her hit, and just hearing how she started off just as they did and didn’t have any advantage over anybody, but she just worked really hard to achieve her goals. We’re very excited."

After a short question and answer period, the students from Troup and Sheridan middle schools and Barnard, Edgewood and Vincent Mauro elementary schools were given the chance to hit a few balls with Stevenson. "It was fun," said Shanita Arthur, 11, from Sheridan. "She’s really good. I’ve seen her play on ESPN, but I never thought I’d meet her."

Other students, who may not necessarily be tennis fans, may have been convinced otherwise.

"I was glad that we got to meet Alexandra in person," Tasia Streater, 11, of Troup middle school said. "We’ve been learning about her on the Web site. I’m not actually a tennis fan, but tennis is a good sport and the exercise is good. This was very fun."

And the fun doesn’t end here. Tuesday’s lesson was the first of a three-part program to introduce tennis to children in New Haven.

If the students find an interest in tennis following Tuesday’s clinic, they will have the chance to take lessons through the New Haven Parks and Recreation department for $3.50 each. This was set up through the Pilot Pen and the USTA, which helped by sending teachers to the Parks and Rec facilities to set up proper instruction.

The final step is for the children and a member of each of their families to be invited to the Pilot Pen tournament, which begins on Aug. 15."You never know, somebody who is taking their first tennis lesson today could be a pro in 10 years," Worcester said. "I think a lot of these kids might not otherwise have the chance to be exposed, and that’s why we didn’t want to just give them one lesson. The hope is that seeing the pros will inspire them to continue to want to play tennis."

Judging by the enthusiasm, Worcester’s intentions are probably right on target.

"I think this is great. It shows the commitment of the Pilot Pen to reach out to the city and to make it more than simply a one week event," said Jorge Perez, president of the New Haven Board of Alderman. "It’s a nice way to give back and to help the kids dream."

It’s something that I know I will remember for a long time, and I’m sure that the young people, who are much easier to impress, will definitely remember."
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