SHORELINE — It was a moment to remember. Zoe Tsoukanelis, on center court at Louis Armstrong Stadium, tossing a coin in the air to determine the start of the match between Latvia’s Jenjena Ostapenko versus Germany’s Andrea Petkovic.
“It felt really cool to be in front of real professionals and I got to also take pictures with them and shake their hands,” says the Guilford 10-year-old.
Tsoukanelis traveled to the 2018 U.S. Open in NYC with 11 other young tennis players from the Guilford Racquet and Swim Club. This year, 24 club members will do it all over again on Wednesday, Aug. 28, thanks to an invitation from Net Generation.
The United States Tennis Association launched Net Generation about a year ago to inspire young tennis players, 5 to 18 -years-old, to participate in the sport.
While at the stadium, these players experience firsthand what it’s like to be a tennis pro. They enter the court via the same tunnel the pros use, volley back and forth a bit, create a unique handshake to end the game with and are interviewed, just like the professionals.
“The kids get to feel like it would be if they were Serena (Williams) or Roger Federer or (Rafael) Nadale,” says Guilford Racquet Tennis Pro Averi Schwarz, who travels with the players.
“They get to introduce themselves to the players, introduce themselves to the officials and then they get to flip the coin,” she adds.
It is a unique opportunity to play on the court that are usually reserved for the professionals.
“It was great because it was a court that Andy Murray used and it was in a big stadium, as well,” says Mathias Schalber, reminiscing about last year.
The 11-year-old Branford player says his tennis idols are Spain’s Rafael Nadale, Switzerland’s Roger Federer and Serbian Novak Djokovic.
When he was on the court last year, he said it was nerve-wracking, “with a lot of people watching you playing tennis.”
“You feel pressure,” he adds. “I didn’t feel it, but I imagine the professional tennis players do, they have to win.”
His team mate, Abigail DellaVentura, echoes this sentiment.
“I was really nervous because there were lots of people that were walking around and then they were looking towards the courts and I’m like, ‘Uh, oh, what’s happening?’
“Everyone just starts coming and in and I’m like, ‘Uh, oh, this is going to be really embarrassing if I mess up,” she remembers. “So, I messed up a few times, but then when I started to get the hang of it, I was actually pretty good.”
Piper Remillard is excited to go again this year. She said her female tennis idols are Russia’s Maria Sharapova and Canada’s Bianca Andreescu.
“Bianca Andreescu, she just has something about her like a fighting spirit,” the 13-year-old says. “So does Maria Sharapova. They never give up. They play every point to the fullest. I find that inspiring.”
Schawarz said all her players leave with some new ideas on how to improve their game.
“I learned a lot of technique skills and a lot of different ways to hit the ball,” said Tzoukanelis, as she reflects on last year.
In particular she remembers carefully watching the backhand slice.
“It looks cool and a lot of people won points with it,” she says.
For the parents, it is a thrill just to watch their children enjoy their moment in the spotlight.
“It’s really exciting,” says Nikki Toukenelis. “It’s exciting to be able to be on the court that all the professional athletes play on and the whole energy there is very upbeat and exciting. It’s electrifying. It’s all golden when you get to see your kid do something like that.”
Schwartz knows that feeling.
“It’s pretty cool just to see how far we’ve come with them,” she adds. “Some of the kids I’ve coached since they were younger and they’re now older. Some of them are new kids to the club. It’s exciting to see them excited.
“I think it’s good for them to see that some of those players started where they are,” she adds. “They know most of the backgrounds, of the players, so it’s kind of cool to think, ‘Federer trained at a club when he was a kid and now, he’s playing at the U.S. Open and I’m standing on the U.S. Open court,” she adds. “It makes them excited for what could come for them.”