Midtown: Community

Ebony Racquet Club brings home state championship – Midtown Muse

Ahmad Whitaker of Ebony Racquet Club.
Ahmad Whitaker of Ebony Racquet Club. Ebony Racquet Club

When the Ebony Racquet Club celebrates its youngest tennis players at its annual year-in-review banquet next month, the kudos will boomerang.

“We’ve had quite a year,” ERC president Joseph Ellerbee said. “Actually, we had an awesome year.”

In case you missed it, for the first time in the club’s 41-year history, its Ebony Junior Team Tennis foursome of high school seniors brought home the state championship – undefeated.

While its teams trained, ERC hosted and won for the second straight year the historically African-American Mahogany Tennis Classic of six teams from across Eastern North Carolina, which was held Memorial Day weekend at Millbrook Tennis Center.

The club also raised its presence in the 2016 season with new community partnerships and summer camps for kids.

“We see Venus and Serena dominate nationally, but our kids look around and don’t see that kind of play or opportunity in our local community,” Ellerbee said. “We want to develop tennis in our community because it’s just that important for kids to see someone on the national platform and know they can be a player on the local platform, get scholarships and, hopefully, one day, be a Venus or Serena.”

The racquet club’s fourth annual awards banquet will be Nov. 19 at 5:30 p.m. at First Baptist Church in Raleigh.

ERC’s home in Southeast Raleigh is the Biltmore Hills Community Center Tennis Park.

The nonprofit organization was created in 1975 by African-American professionals to promote tennis in the black community, athletic excellence and sportsmanship. They rallied the city to build the Biltmore Hills tennis park.

ERC became the first black tennis club in Raleigh to compete locally, joining the Mahogany Tennis Association’s half-dozen predominantly black tennis teams across Eastern North Carolina.

“We grew up on the tennis court,” said Latonya Hargrove-Boykin, whose parents joined ERC decades ago and whose two sons now are Ebony JTT players. “I know what the club can do for young children and the community.”

ERC’s recipe of hard work, discipline and good sportsmanship to develop fair play, camaraderie, physical fitness and life lessons in young athletes helped the JTT team win the state championship, said Junious Whitaker IV, an Enloe High School senior tennis player who started ERC at 5.

“We were the underdogs; no one thought we were going to win it,” said Whitaker, 17, who’s eyeing a possible Howard University tennis scholarship. “We’re an all-black team. People stared, like, ‘Where’d you come from?’ 

Folks mocked ERC players and said “things they shouldn’t have,” Whitaker said. But, he said, echoing ERC coaches Chris Brown and Keisha Price: “Keep composure in tough situations,” on the court and in life.

“Tennis trains you, not just physically, but mentally, too, so it motivated us to do better,” said Whitaker, who played the winning doubles match with Jared Ingram, a senior tennis player at Garner High School. “At the end of the day, we kept our composure, made split-second decisions and played some of our best tennis.

“It felt like we won the U.S. Open!”

The ERC tennis season includes clinics, junior and senior events, competitions and tournaments. ERC partners with N.C. Tennis, the Boys and Girls Clubs and First Baptist to host over 100 kids for summer camp.

The Ebony JTT has nine teams in age categories from 8 to 18.

Five of ERC’s six teams that won city junior tennis championship titles qualified for state championships, which included North Carolina’s Top 5 Junior Tennis Teams from Wilmington, Charlotte, Lake Norman, Eastern North Carolina, Raleigh and Cary.

Although ERC finished second to Millbrook in the city championships, the ERC team got to go to the state competition because Raleigh had two slots.

“When we showed up to the State Championship, we just played really tough,” Brown said. “It’s a big deal because it just hasn’t happened for the racquet club prior to this year.

“These kids, who are all African-American and come out of Biltmore Hills, they work really hard,” Brown said. “They made it their goal at the beginning of the year to win everything, and that’s what they did.

“It really is important to their future.”