IIn the early 1970s, teenage Leonora King hung around the tennis courts at Palmer Park in Detroit, brand new racquet in hand, looking for a hitting partner. After watching Billie Jean King wipe the floor in the battle of the sexes with Bobby Riggs on TV and a few black classmates at her local high school play at a level they’d never seen before in person, King felt like playing tennis himself to try.
She knew Palmer Park was the place for it. It was there that tennis players, particularly black tennis players, congregated and coached, and found themselves in Detroit. In fact, an older man named Jerry made room for King, and so she learned to play tennis under the tutelage of the Palmer Park community.
“They just took me under their wing,” says King. “They saw that I wanted to play, and I honestly don’t remember how — I know, I didn’t ask anyone, you know, ‘Can I play tennis with you?’ It just happened.”
Today, King runs the People for Palmer Park Tennis Academy, part of the nonprofit she founded that helped save Palmer Park when the city threatened to close it. Against a backdrop of a sport historically inaccessible to lower-income people and people of color, King’s work as a tennis academy teacher and community leader shows how tennis — and particularly tennis in public spaces — can help diversify the sport. and show that tennis builds community in unexpected ways.
“It’s really cool to know that you can bring people together,” says King. Despite the fact that members of the Tennis Academy compete against each other in training and tournaments, parents and families have become friends and the children have learned to have each other’s backs, both on and off the tennis court. “They support each other,” says King.
During King’s first summer, she played tennis, and during the following high school summers, she played all day every day from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. in the park. After graduating, she became the first black female tennis player at Western Michigan University and was among the first class of Title IX athletes to earn a Division 1 tennis scholarship.
After college, King continued to compete in tournaments for fun, but never competed professionally. Palmer Park remained the center of her tennis life, albeit only as an amusement park — until 2010, the city unveiled a plan to close 77 of the city’s parks, including Palmer, the city’s third largest park. King knew she and the neighborhood couldn’t lose the park, so they took action.
“Me and a bunch of tennis players got together and protested,” says King. After attracting the attention of TV networks and community members and leaders, they were able to save the park and eventually founded the non-profit organization People for Palmer Park, where they serve as “stewards of the park.” King founded the People for Palmer Park Tennis Academy with around 30 students; Today there are a few hundred children every summer. The academy raises money and receives grants from the United States Tennis Association (USTA) to provide financial support to parents so their children can have access to tennis.
“I tried to make it economically accessible because tennis is still a very expensive sport,” explains King. Participating in tournaments requires equipment and travel across the country (and the world). The academy had such success in fundraising and enrollments that the USTA named it the National Community Tennis Association of the Year in 2020 – an honor King received from none other than Billie Jean King himself.
“Billie Jean King – my idol growing up with tennis – gave me the award,” says King.
But this success story, which exemplifies how tennis builds a community, was not a given. Palmer Park and its tennis facilities were built when the park’s surroundings were predominantly white. It wasn’t until whites fled that neighborhood and park visitors became predominantly black, leading to the growth of the Palmer Park community that King originally took under her wing (today, the surrounding neighborhood and park visitors are racially and socioeconomically diverse, King says). The city never originally intended to invest in tennis courts for black residents, as is often the case in minority neighborhoods that lack public green space. And when King founded the tennis academy, she and the organization undertook extensive lobbying and fundraising to restore cracked and neglected tennis courts. But the work and investment paid off. Today, the Palmer Park courses are a true community hub.
In addition to playing and traveling together, Academy members engage in cultural activities and trips around the city. King is also passionate about teaching tennis to young people and people of color because she says the way you have to use your brain and your body at the same time – always moving and adapting to meet the challenge in front of you – good preparation for one is a person’s whole life. She also thinks the academy community is useful because, as a black participant, it can feel isolating for me to go on tour and be one of the few people of color in a tournament. The academy provides a support system and allows players to help increase representation in the sport.
“They’re still kids, so they can be really competitive,” says King. “But I also try to convey that they need to support each other because tennis can be a lonely sport. We’re all one big community and I really want them to embrace that. In this game you make friends for life.”
Thanks to people like King and USTA’s investment in public tennis initiatives like hers, participation in tennis by various groups has increased significantly over the past three years, according to the USTA: it’s up 90 percent for Latinos/Hispanics and 46 percent for Latinos/Hispanics in black/African groups and 37 percent in the Asia Pacific island population. But for tennis to reach these communities and foster connection within and between them, places like Palmer Park must exist and thrive.
“We need this public space,” says King. “Otherwise it just wouldn’t have happened.”
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