Joe Dodson, contributing writer
VCU men’s tennis players say they feel “pumped” and “motivated” to play in front of their fans, now that the team is incorporating youth and the community through open practices and T-shirt swaps.
The idea has been a success. Richmond fans swapped old university T-shirts for a new shirt sporting the black and gold at events hosted by the tennis team throughout the semester. Around 50 shirts have been collected and donated to the Salvation Army. The fans get to watch tennis, and the players get to play in front of a crowd and build a fanbase.
“People are looking for ways to be outside and be around other people,” said Rebecca Piner, assistant athletic director of marketing and promotions. “It’s gotten great exposure for our team.”
According to coach Anthony Rossi, nearly 50 people attended the first event at the Southampton Recreation Association on Sept. 19. The second event on Sept. 25 at Westwood Club was filled to capacity, and the third, held at Avalon Recreation Association on Oct. 2, had nearly 60 guests. Considering the small number of people that attend the men’s competitive matches, Rossi hopes this exposure will lead to a larger fan base.
“We have a good team,” Rossi said. “We are top 50 in the country and I think not many people know that. We don’t get that many fans at matches and we actually got some decent crowds so far at all three of the clubs.”
The original plan was for the team to run clinics for youth and adult players at the various clubs around Richmond. Due to COVID-19, the team made the decision to host open practices instead where fans could watch the team play from a distance.
“The fact that there are people cheering and watching us,” senior Inigo Torre Martin said. “We are more focused and more engaged and have more motivation.”
Martin said he thinks community events will lead to a stronger program in the long term.
“We are getting to be known in the community,” Martin said. “Maybe more people will come watch us play and try to raise the program of course.”
The players, like many VCU students, have felt isolated this fall due to COVID-19. Rossi and the team viewed the open practices as a way to get a change of scenery.
“The fact that we don’t get to play matches and we are stuck in a way at VCU,” Rossi said. “It was good for them to go play at a different club, learn a little bit more about the city and see more people.”
Although it’s been seven months since VCU men’s tennis played a match in front of fans — the 6-1 home win against Campbell on March 4 was the last match before the season was canceled — the team was pleasantly surprised to find a strong tennis community in Richmond.
“I am impressed with how much people love tennis around here,” Martin said. “For me, Richmond is always going to be special.”
Martin said the players are viewing these outings like a tournament. With no matches until the spring, Martin said the events help with motivation.
“It’s a very good idea to change the scenario of where we are practicing because we are pumped,” Martin said about playing in a new venue. “We are more motivated.”
Rossi and his squad understand the importance of passing the torch to the next generation of players. The team was happy to show what they could do in front of a crowd of youth players.
“Even if they are not professional, it is still a good inspiration for the kids,” Rossi said. “Some of them don’t get to go to professional tournaments or watch tennis on TV that much. Just to see the intensity and what college tennis is all about is really good.”
The players are looking forward to the opportunity once the pandemic slows down to help local youth players with their game.
“It is sad that this is happening and we cannot do it,” Martin said about the originally planned clinics. “Of course we are role models for little kids, and it will be amazing to give them some knowledge that we’ve been learning throughout our lives.”
Although the players could not get as hands-on as they wanted, they still hoped they made an impact on the community.
“Tell them and show them that this is a game and it’s so fun,” said Martin about the impact he hopes to have on younger players. “Maybe one of them could be a college player one day.”
VCU Athletics has done several open practices with T-shirt swaps this semester. The department plans on doing more, Piner said, but none are scheduled yet.