In the southwest corner of the Portola (intersection of Mansell and University) there are three sets of tennis courts in McLaren Park. There you will find adults engaged in competitive tennis matches, older Chinese people practicing Tai Chi, and even people training their dogs. But on Monday through Friday from 4-6 pm (or 3:30 until dark during daylight savings time) on the upper and lower courts you will see kids ranging in age from 7-18 being introduced to tennis (and for those more experienced, getting help perfecting their game) through the Youth Tennis Advantage Scholar Athlete Program or YTA.
When we moved to the Portola one of the things I was most excited about was our proximity to McLaren park. Not having been a city person prior to life in San Francisco, the hikes through the park were a fresh breath to my soul. On one of these hikes we stumbled across kids playing tennis at McLaren, and I paused to carefully read the surrounding signs about this program. In reading the signs, I learned about YTA, which I’ve come to regard as a secret treasure of our city. The program officially starts at age seven, but my son was six at the time, so we spent the next few months anxiously counting down days before he could join.
YTA has four Bay area locations, and Portola is lucky enough to have one of them directed by Wing-Yan So, who is also the academic director, while the kids are coached by Coaches John Savoy and Carl Mendoza. Wing-Yan purposely knows each of the kids and their level of play and accordingly offers opportunities for further growth through tournaments and leagues throughout the year. There is no pressure, though. If kids just want to practice, that’s just fine.
Did you notice the Scholar part of the title? YTA wants kids of all economic backgrounds to have access to tennis, but also helps any kids who need help with homework during that 2 hour time period. Wing-Yan, as the academic director, provides tutoring during this time free of charge.
Coach John, who has been with YTA since the early 90s, is the coach for the beginners. His personality is caring and quirky, and the kids love him! In fact, my son was invited to move up to the upper level of the tennis program, but he held off for months, because he enjoyed Coach John’s leadership so much. Though now thriving in the upper level, he still on occasion mentions missing Coach John, and my 7 year old daughter giggles endlessly at his jokes and silliness.
Coach Carl, who leads the upper level, has been coaching tennis for over 25 years in different organizations. He is a wealth of knowledge of the San Francisco tennis scene and tells me that YTA has had the top youth tennis players coming out of their program for years. Even Lowell High School sends their tennis players to YTA during their off season. One of the things I love about the upper level tennis program is the culture of scaling. My son is the youngest kid out there, so at a nine years old he is a novice compared to the high schoolers he plays with. Yet, the more experienced kids seem to naturally scale their level of play to a level that challenges their younger counterparts but doesn’t crush them.
While YTA has been around since the early 2000’s, the program’s history is much older. It came out of a merger of Youth Tennis Foundation, which goes back to the 1950‘s, and National Junior Tennis League of San Francisco (NJTL), which goes back to the 1970’s.
One of the best things about the program is that it is only $25 per year. Yep, you read that correctly! Craziness, right?! Even if your child only participates once a month, it is totally worth that price. In addition, they are very laid back. Kids are welcome to come try out the program before ever paying for it. Also, while officially the program is open to kids starting at age 7, they do allow kids younger to participate at the coaches’ discretion. It is also not uncommon for some parents to get out there and learn with their kids.
I’m a bit nosy, so of course I was wondering who pays for all this being that this isn’t a program out of Parks and Rec. I asked Wing-Yan and she said, “We are a 501(c)(3) non-profit. Our funds to run this program comes from grants, donations, and from fund-raising events we have throughout the years. One of our major fund-raisers is our annual Bank of West Dinner, and this is where we raise a good amount of our funds to run our programs. Furthermore, most of the equipment we have such as tennis balls, racquets, etc. were donated by various tennis clubs, local businesses, individuals, and coaches from the YTA such as Carl Mendoza and Thomas White.”
If you have kids, I recommend trying it out and seeing if this “secret treasure” is a good fit for your family!
If you want more information, check out their website at http://www.ytascholars.org/.
Mary Carter Keel lives with her husband Brad and two kids on an absurdly steep hill in a part of Portola she affectionately calls Portola Heights. As a mom who educates her kids at home and runs a small business, she loves YTA mostly for tennis, but also a little for the two hours a day of alone time it gives her.