Tennis Champions, Brooklyn VIPs celebrate the Kings County Tennis League at the Heights Casino
BROOKLYN HEIGHTS — On March 7, 150 tennis lovers of all ages and skill levels — from 5-year-olds to a Grand Slam champion — converged upon the venerable Heights Casino on Montague Street to celebrate the Kings County Tennis League (KCTL) and its honorees, board member Nadine Kim and 17-year-old KCTL student Damian Headley, who was presented with the Gabriel Rissman Award for Sportsmanship, Dedication and Spirit.
A fast-flowing, icy silver East River was viewable from the beautiful 1904 building as guests came in out of the chill. Among the VIPs in attendance were three-time Olympian and seven-time Grand Slam champion Liezel Huber, former pro tennis players Christina McHale and Anna Tatishvili, DJ Stretch Armstrong and two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash.
“The KCTL family has been a big part of my family and my experience growing up,” Headley, who has played tennis through the KCTL for eight years, told the crowd after accepting his award. “Since I was a little kid I was always dreaming of becoming that good tennis player. KCTL helped me to become who I am today. I hope to attend college to pursue tennis, but also singing because … I sing as well.”
Then Headley, a tenor, surprised the crowd with a beautiful rendition of “La Serenata,” by Italian composer Paolo Tosti. A student at the Professional Performing Arts School in Manhattan, Headley has traveled to Italy and will be visiting the famed Sydney Opera House in July; he first heard opera music at Carnegie Hall.
“I was so excited,” he told the Eagle. “They sang something I really liked. Nowadays, we don’t really sing opera. We just sing hip hop or stuff. I wanted to try something new, so I decided to go for opera. I want to sing and play tennis. Simultaneously.”
As described on their website, KCTL, which was founded in 2010, “provides free, year-round tennis-centered programs to nearly 500 youth living in and around six NYCHA developments” — Ingersoll, Lafayette Gardens, Marcy, Brevoort , Sumner and Tompkins. Headley is a member of the KCTL’s first set of graduating seniors. These kids started learning the sport in grade school; now they’re helping teach the little ones who are just joining the program. The organization focuses on creating a safe, healthy and inclusive tennis community for its youth and volunteer coaches. It also has a jobs program, a volunteer-in-training program and offers postsecondary guidance.
“KCTL marries loving the community of Brooklyn and loving tennis,” said honoree Kim, who accepted her award wearing a flowing ruffle cap-sleeved long dress with a shirred bodice, printed with a leafy green paisley. “Tennis courts aren’t a thing you would naturally see in their environment. We bring all of the equipment to the sites. We bring tennis to them.”
Kim started playing tennis in high school. “It’s a happy hobby,” she confessed. “I’m not that good.”
Members at The Heights Casino have helped fund KCTL’s programming for years, and the club also donates court time to the kids. Tuesday’s fundraising event was sponsored by the Junior Tennis Foundation. More than a dozen items were up for bidding at the silent auction, including a one-week vacation in Mexico, a Brooklyn Nets bundle, first-base-line Yankees tickets for July 4 and one-hour hitting sessions with McHale and Tatishvili.
Huber spiced things up by proffering what KCTL Board Chair chair Karen Levine called “a truly unique item”: four Presidential Suite tickets to the first Saturday evening U.S. Open match — a generous donation that ultimately pulled in $16K from the paddles.
Throughout the evening, adults sipped the event’s batched cocktail, “The Kick Serve” (vodka, Chambord and lemonade), and everyone enjoyed an assortment of delicious passed hors d’oeuvres from the kitchen of in-house executive chef John Donnelly: wee beef Wellingtons, pinkie-size pigs-in-blankets, tiny beef sliders, itty-bitty brie-and-fig grilled cheeses, Lilliputian lobster rolls, mini macarons and other toothsome morsels.
The event was called “The Exhibition,” and there was indeed an impressive tennis exhibition on the Casino’s indoor court as Huber and the other pros played mixed doubles against a variety of opponents, including Steve Nash, and some extremely excited teenagers.
The stands on the Casino’s second-floor viewing platform filled with KCTL members, parents and children for the exhibition match. Some series of volleys were so fast and furious that viewers’ heads snapped back and forth.
Huber, who hails from South Africa but now lives in Delaware as an American citizen, specializes in doubles. “It’s more strategy than you think,” she told the Eagle. “If one’s not having a good day, the other one can pep them up.”
Her advice on how to play a good doubles game could double as life advice. “Just focus on yourself,” she said. “Make sure you put the ball in. Then you can get the best out of your partner. If they mess up, don’t worry: You put in the next one. It gives them another chance.”
Huber’s attendance at the event was a credit to her long friendship with KCTL’s new executive director, Joe Ceriello. “He’s such a strong advocate for children and education,” she said. “When he asked if I would help him out, I said, ‘Absolutely!’”
“I knew the KCTL was a place that I could live, thrive and support the mission,” said Ceriello, who has worked in the tennis industry for more than 20 years. “Tennis and education are the two largest attributes that have changed the trajectory of my life. I’m a first-generation American; my dad was born near Naples, Italy. Low-education household. My parents gave me such a different world. And tennis opened up doors: I got a $2 Jack Kramer wooden racket at a garage sale in Glen Cove and played a couple years of driveway tennis with friends next door. And I never stopped. My parents couldn’t afford to pay for lessons, but I got good, so I got to be the hitter at other kids’ lessons.”
Ceriello said he has only worked in places that “bring me joy.” One of those “places” was musical theater: He did a national tour of Grease, for one thing, understudying the roles of Doody, Sonny and Eugene. “But Damian’s the singer tonight,” he said with a smile.
KCTL, like the city itself, is great for making those magical connections that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. “Tennis opens up your whole perspective of what the world can offer,” said Ceriello. “When we introduce our volunteers and the kids, their minds expand, their communities expand and their networks expand. That is our real secret special sauce. But the superstars are the kids and their families. They’re the bright stars. For them, the sky’s the limit.”
KCTL parent Kifana Hinkson has two kids in the program, Taylor and Michael. “Taylor loves it,” she said. “She’s excited to play something different — not basketball.”
In her speech, Huber extolled the virtues of hard work and the importance of giving back. “I came to America with a suitcase and a dream,” she told the crowd. “The dream was to become a professional tennis player. But when I reached number one in the world, I realized that my true dream was to have a platform to stand on to make a difference. Life would be pretty boring if we didn’t pay it forward. You don’t have to donate your money. You can donate your time. Help somebody out.”
Ceriello’s dream? ”I’d love to introduce more kids to this sport,” he confided. “If we could affect more communities through this program, I think we would have a better, safer, happier, more inclusive New York City.”
The Casino’s very first president, lawyer Wilhelmus Mynderse — who passed away in 1906 — would no doubt be very proud of that sentiment.
One of the night’s giveaways was a branded wrist sweatband. “I’ll wear it like a badge of honor,” said one woman as she pulled it on.
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