Through UTR, rural clubs connect with the broader tennis community

Through UTR, rural clubs connect with the broader tennis community

5 min read

In southern San Jose, California, right between Santa Cruz and Henry W. Coe State Park, there sit two quiet tennis clubs: the Morgan Hill Tennis Club and the Gilroy Tennis Club. They are in close enough proximity to be related yet independent. During a regular season, both clubs—public venues—cooperate to share resources and host adult tournaments together. Matches are played surrounded by the low, rolling foothills of the Santa Clara Valley.

Hundreds of their members compete in USTA 3.0 to 5.0 leagues—predominantly in doubles. The clubs are self-reliant in that they use membership fees to resurface their own courts and look after their own facilities. While popular in the southern Santa Clara Valley, both clubs attract mostly local players. In that way, they are isolated from the larger tennis community in California.

Ben Bajarin is a USPTA teaching professional and Director of Tournaments at Morgan Hill Tennis Club. He told Universal Tennis that although the main focus of both clubs has been adult play, the pandemic allowed Morgan Hill Tennis Club and Gilroy Tennis Club to involve themselves in junior and high-performance tennis through the UTR platform. As an added bonus, the UTR platform also helped the clubs to integrate themselves into the Californian tennis community.

“We started using UTR because there were no USTA tournaments for our juniors to compete in. I took my daughter to a couple of tournaments in the northern San Jose area when UTR tournaments started—and they kept literally selling out. There was a waiting list every weekend. I thought that we might as well do this for our juniors at our facilities.”

Bajarin connected with a UTR Program Manager, Thomas Blackwell and together they launched junior tournaments. Starting in August, both Morgan Hill and Gilroy tennis clubs began hosting competitive matches.

There were still familiar faces for a while. Bajarin commented that initially, only local kids would come to compete. But as tournaments at the clubs became consistent fixtures, they began to attract players from different parts of the state. “At first it was just our kids playing each other… soon we were getting kids from the Central Valley and Fresno, and all the way from Fremont. Kids are traveling to our tournaments now.”

In November, Blackwell introduced Bajarin to coaches at the University of the Pacific. They had a proposition for him: to host ITA tournaments at the Morgan Hill and Gilroy Tennis Clubs.

The offer was too good to turn down.

“We went ahead with the ITAs and as a result, we had students from Stanford, Berkeley, USF, Cal-Poly, Fresno, Utah all competing at our facilities—they were pretty big events,” Bajarin said.

“A number of local juniors got to play in these tournaments and got some really good competition. They really helped our community and put our club more on the map. It was great to see collegiate level players coming down to our area.”

Bajarin and Blackwell didn’t stop there.

Eager to keep the momentum rolling for Morgan Hill and Gilroy, the clubs then hosted a $2K prizemoney event in November. The tournament attracted top high-school athletes and collegiate players. “It was really good to bring that level of tennis to our rural environment and more importantly plug us more deeply into that collegiate network—which is good for our juniors in our program.

“It’s been pretty much smooth sailing all around, and we’ve had nothing but positives come out of it.”

When the USTA season is on, Bajarin told UTR that his clubs have 40 to 50 teams with over 700 participants. “Once leagues start, there are matches being played every weekend.”

Though both clubs already host a busy adult tennis calendar, Bajarin believes there is still space for UTR events—especially as it relates to advanced players in the area. “UTR will slot in well for our junior programs and for trying to bring tournaments to our area for some of our more advanced players.”

Asked about how adults who normally play in USTA Leagues adopted UTR, Bajarin said that when USTA Leagues stopped, UTR events were the first time that players felt they could compete again. “They had no idea what UTR was… they were just looking for competitive matches. They found opportunities to play with similarly rated players, which was nice. A lot of our players are team-based competitors, so they were new to the format. However, everybody was happy to get competitive matches.”

Once restrictions lift in California, Bajarin plans to host more tournaments through the UTR platform—even doubles events. “The challenge is that we have so much going on with leagues that it’s difficult to slot in something formally for doubles. But I’d like to. We just have to balance it on weekends with USTA Leagues and court time.”

Reflecting on the events that his clubs have been able to host because of UTR, Bajarin said: “The juniors were able to play in these events and young kids got to see what high-level tennis looks like. It was just really good for the community to have high-level tennis in our area.”

It can be challenging to be a rural tennis club. While there may be a strong, committed membership, players and organizers can often feel as if they’re isolated from the broader tennis playing public.

But through hosting tournaments through UTR’s platform, Bajarin linked his local clubs to the larger sporting community: “That was one of the reasons we wanted to try it, to grow in prominence and connect with the broader tennis community.”

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