When sports and family lineage combine, legacies are built. The NFL has the Mannings, the NBA has the Currys, and boxing has the Alis.
In Southeast Raleigh, the Battle family is building its own legacy. The game: tennis.
This month, 12-year-old Lincoln Battle won the U.S. Tennis Association’s Southern Closed Junior Championship at Cary Tennis Park. The victory earned him the rank of best tennis player in his age group in the South.
“I was nervous, but I knew as long as I went out and played my game, it would be a good outcome,” Lincoln said. “It feels good to think about all the hard work I’ve put in to get to this high level I am right now.”
Lincoln, an eighth-grader at Daniels Middle School in Raleigh, is the third generation of Battles to make his mark on the local tennis circuit. He learned the game from his dad, Chris Battle, who learned it from his dad, Billy Battle.
Billy Battle, 78, was among a group of African-American residents and business owners who launched the Ebony Racquet Club at the Biltmore Hills Community Center in Southeast Raleigh in 1975. They wanted to introduce tennis as a lifelong sport to youth and families in the community, which is home to a large population of minorities.
Chris Battle, 51, shared his father’s love for tennis and was a top-ranked player in his youth, but he left the sport to focus on basketball, football and track at Broughton High School.
Seven years ago, he started coaching Lincoln and his daughter, Catherine, at Biltmore Hills. Catherine, a 15-year-old student at Enloe High School in Raleigh, is also a top-ranked tennis player.
We want tennis to look like the world.
Kelly Gaines, executive director of USTA North Carolina
Tennis has become more diverse, although white athletes are still more likely to play the game than blacks. Diversity remains a goal of the U.S. Tennis Association, which is led by Katrina Adams, a former professional player and the organization’s first black president.
“We want tennis to look like the world,” said Kelly Gaines, executive director of USTA North Carolina, noting a partnership between the Ebony Racquet Club and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Wake County. “We want it to be about giving everybody a chance to think tennis, first, because tennis opens up a lot of opportunity.”
Biltmore Hills has contributed to a “strong tradition of diversity in tennis in Raleigh,” said Cy King, a local USTA representative who worked 30 years as the city of Raleigh’s director of tennis.
“As far as diversity now, it’s amazing when you look at the rankings and the players from Wake County,” King said. “It’s a pretty diverse population – Asian-American, Indian and African-American.
“You see those kids really do well, and that inspires other kids to go out and work just as hard. They’re great role models for the game of tennis.”
Raleigh plans to start construction in July on the $2.7 million state-of-the-art Southeast Raleigh Tennis Center on Fitzgerald Drive, south of Interstate 40. The facility will host city leagues, drop-in play and instructional training.
Officials expect it will become a destination for high school and college tournaments.
Tennis has gained popularity in Raleigh, where 13,500 adult players participate in a local USTA league, said Ken Hisler, assistant director of recreation for the city’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources Department.
The sport generates nearly $400,000 in revenue each year through tennis-court rentals, Hisler said, and the Millbrook Exchange Tennis Center in North Raleigh sees 130,000 annual visitors.
The Ebony Racquet Club has increased court use by 190 percent since 2012, Hisler said, and it makes sense to build a new tennis center at the Biltmore Hills park.
“Building on that success to expand tennis access and opportunity is very exciting,” he said.
Billy Battle said he is proud of the growth among the local tennis community. And he’s thrilled to watch his grandson succeed.
“It feels awesome to see how he’s come to love the sport – and excel at it, too,” he said. “I’m tickled to death.”
Lincoln’s championship journey is paved by top rankings, including a national top-60 spot in the USTA division for 12-year-old boys. He was North Carolina’s No. 1 player in his age group in 2015 and 2016.
Lincoln aimed for the Southern Junior Championship – with a goal to win.
“That’s Lincoln for you,” said Bennett Bailey, a former tennis standout at N.C. State University and the head tennis pro at Millbrook who trains Lincoln and Catherine. “My job was to design a practice schedule to allow him the best opportunity to achieve that goal.”
Many credit Lincoln’s success to his speed and backhand, but Bailey also points to other qualities.
“His mental strength is something impressive to watch for somebody his age,” Bailey said. “It’s amazing how he can handle disappointment and handle adversity in a positive way, and bounce back from it.”
Chris Battle said it’s all about teamwork – at home and on the court.
“We’re Team Battle,” he said. “You never know what the end is going to be, but you continue to strive for excellence, continue to press forward.
“We’re not quitters. That’s not our last name. We’re Battles.”