What’s the best way to see the United States’ all-time greatest tennis doubles team, enjoy food and music, and “change lives” all in one day?
It’s a simple answer. Just attend the National Junior Tennis League (NJTL) of Trenton’s 28th Annual Gala at West Windsor’s Mercer County Park Sep. 25.
The fundraiser, which comprises 50 percent of NJTLT’s yearly operating budget, will run from 12:30 to 6:30 at the Mercer County Tennis Center and Boathouse at Mercer Lake. The day includes watching the legendary twin brother doubles team of Bob and Mike Bryan, followed by a reception with a deejay at the Boathouse.
Supporting this event is so much more than just helping a kid learn how to hit a forehand.
“How important is it?” asked Albert Stark of the NJTLT “It’s changed lives. This has really been a doorway to college or careers for at least 1500 kids who wouldn’t have had college or careers without it.”
Stark’s involvement with NJTLT began as a financial supporter and increased to the point where he is now the immediate past president. At 83, he remains active with the organization and is one of the gala’s three honorary co-chairpersons along with Ginny Mason, and Jeff Perlman.
The author and attorney is thrilled that the Gala will welcome back the Bryans for a second straight year.
Forming a dynamic doubles tandem, the identical twins won all four Grand Slam championships, reached 30 Grand Slam finals (including seven straight at one point) and won 16 Grand Slam titles before retiring after 23 years in 2020. They held the World No. 1 doubles ranking jointly for a record 438 weeks, including a record 139 consecutive weeks. The California natives finished as ATP’s year-end No. 1 doubles team a record 10 times.
From 12:30 to 5 p.m. the duo will volley against each other, and also partner with sponsors and NJTLT kids in actual matches.
Mercer County Community College coach Mark Vecchiolla is the Mercer Tennis Center’s Director of Operations and helps NJTL set up the Gala. He had a perfect siteline for last year’s exhibition.
“My seats were on the side of the court and when they were doing their quick volley drills, it was hard to keep up,” he said. “My neck got a little bit sore, it was going so fast. I just couldn’t believe the speed with which the ball was coming off of their racket. The reflexes these guys have are just absolutely amazing. It’s not hard to see why they were the best in the world once when you see them in action.”
Vecchiolla noted that there have been other big-time players come to Mercer Park but said “The Bryans are at a different level.”
“Anytime you can get anyone that was ranked number one in the world in anything, that’s something special; it’s great for your event,” he continued. “It was really pretty cool last year, the guys were great guys, they left it all out there, and they spent a lot of time with the people on the court.”
Watching them is one thing; but to play with them is an even bigger thrill as Stark discovered.
“They played customer tennis with me,” he said with a laugh. “I was 82 years old so they didn’t make me return 125 mile-an-hour serves. And they gave me a chest bump.”
The ardent tennis fan was especially impressed with how much they enjoyed their time interacting with the NJTLT players. The Bryans were so impressed that at the post-exhibition reception they asked if they could return this year.
“They got a great response and they saw how much their appearance helped these kids,” Stark said. “This was the first time they actually played with and got to meet the NJTL kids. Usually when they went to an event there was no tennis and they did a meet and greet.
“The story of these kids is not one they had ever heard or witnessed. They were on the circuit, and being on the circuit is a bubble, especially at the highest level. But they were supportive, they were humorous, they were giving chest bumps to the kids. The youngsters felt like they were in seventh heaven. How often do you have the opportunity as a kid to play with a world champion doubles duo?”
It is just another victory for NJTLT, which is considered the premiere chapter among the over 250 throughout the country. The courts it has provided at Trenton’s Cadwalader Park have been a model for 66 other programs.
Established in 1975 (NJTL started in 1969), the Trenton chapter’s mission statement is to “create opportunities for success by enriching the lives of under-resourced youth through innovative tennis, education, and mentoring programs designed to prepare student athletes for the ultimate goal of successful college admissions and career placement.”
“We’re not trying to create the next Serena,” Stark said. “What happens with these youngsters is that they get hooked by the tennis in the school system through our after-school program. But tennis is the hook to get them to the education component that we offer.”
While the majority of participants are from Trenton, the program has expanded to where approximately 20 percent are from Ewing, Lawrence and Hamilton.
Students around seven or eight begin with the ACE program – Academic Creative Engagement. It includes 45 minutes of tennis and 45 minutes of classroom work, where they tell stories, draw and engage in other supportive activities. As they get older, those same students begin to mentor other youngsters who come in, and when they reach their mid-teens they are paid as junior coaches in order to earn cash for school supplies.
“It helps them learn how to manage money,” Stark said.
Once the afterschool program is completed they go to Cadwalader and Villa Park for summer tennis. During winter weekends, the action moves indoors to Mercer, along with Pennsbury and Bucks County tennis centers.
Aside from lessons learned on the court, overall education is expanded. The participants will learn coding and are mentored by volunteers at Bloomberg. Princeton University students will help with preparation for college boards, essays and applications. There is a visit to Rider University where they get to view a college campus, while Lawrenceville School students help with reading and writing.
“We give them an opportunity to see what’s outside and what led to the past successes of our kids,” Stark said. “Every one of our seniors for the past nine years have gotten into a college or a career.”
Stark has personally spoken with numerous children who have come through the program and said “when you listen to their stories, it really has changed lives. They talk about coming to the park and getting sneakers or a tennis racket. It’s amazing. All our coaches graduated from the program, so they really relate to the kids.”
Vecchiolla knows first-hand what kind of student-athletes NJTLT produces as graduate Alfred Kandakai was an All-American for MCCC last spring when he won the NJCAA National Second Singles Championship.
“Albert does a great job, everybody should be thankful for him,” Vecchiolla said. “One of the highlights of our year is the NJTL bringing these guys in.”
Stark will be the first to note that it takes a village to make NJTLT run. Bob Loonie is the Executive Director and Chris Liverman is Director of Programs. Two of its most dedicated volunteers will be honored at the gala in treasurer Paul Decker and board member Bill Whyte of Janssen Pharmaceuticals.
“Paul has been a stalwart for NJTL for at least 10 or 12 years,” Stark said. “He’s president of Mathematica (Policy Research), so he really keeps NJTL with good financial practices and he and his wife have been active with the kids.
“Bill Whyte is special. He knows what these kids need. He’s worked his way up and he gets it. He’s been with us for a long time.”
For further information on the NJTL Gala, including purchasing tickets or becoming a sponsor, visit njtloftrenton.org/galas