Born and raised in the Mission, Natalie Dillon is at the top of her game.

While Rafael Nadal and Fernando Gonzalez  battle one another Saturday at the U.S. Open, a small group of fledgling players at the Mission Playground are unaware that their experience has a connection with the tournament in New York.

“Most of the proceeds from the match in New York go every year to fund programs that promote tennis around the country,” said Loretta Conway, a board member of the San Francisco Tennis Coalition and executive director of the Youth Tennis Advantage.

Mission Playground at the corner of 19th and Linda streets is one of seven places in the Bay Area where the non-profit helps fund free teach tennis and tutoring lessons.

Conway said that the United States Tennis Association has given $100,000 in the past two years to Youth Tennis Advantage.  That, in turn, helped raise 10 times more for the organization, she said.

It is one of the ways in which San Francisco youth can get tennis lessons.  The Recreation and Parks Department also offers free lessons at more than a dozen playgrounds across the city including lessons at the Jose Coronado Playground at 2490 Folsom.  And the Youth Tennis Advantage program could not go on “without the ‘in-kind’ support of the city’s Recreation and Parks Department, which provide the courts and the classrooms for tutoring,” Conway said.

“For a while tennis was seen as a sport meant for white rich people,” Conway said. “Now there are programs that happen at schools and parks, reaching minorities in neighborhoods that otherwise wouldn’t be able to pay.”

Take Natalie Dillon, for example.

“I grew up playing in a public court two blocks away from home,” she said referring to Mission Playground where she practiced Monday to Friday as part of the Tennis Advantage Program.

Dillon, now plays tennis at a competitive level and will be on the Stanford team when she enters the freshman class this fall.

“I am totally grateful to the program. It has taken me to where I’m at,” she said. “My life would be totally different if it wasn’t for YTA,” said Dillon. The U.S. Tennis Association recently awarded Natalie with a four-year scholarship.

The kids in the program, know it by its acronym YTA, and say they mostly play on the courts because it’s fun. “I bring my grandson because he has a good time. I don’t expect him to become a professional”, says Ataulfo Perez Briz who has lived in the neighborhood for 20 years and watched his grandson while he trains.

Guy Arradeza, who was born in the Philippines,  had his four children go through the program in the Mission. His two oldest got as far as the  Golden Gate Tennis Tournament and his youngest still plays at the Mission Playground because it’s close to home.

Rene Tucker, now 35 and a tournament instructor for the tennis program joined when he was 15 and lived in Bay View “I was excited to meet people from different neighborhoods, people who wanted to stay out of trouble,” said Tucker, who has a degree in physical education.

Lydia Chávez

I’ve been a Mission resident since 1998 and a professor at Berkeley’s J-school until 2019. I got my start in newspapers at the Albuquerque Tribune in the city where I was born and raised. The Tribune...

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