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USTA program scores an ace

  • DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARADVERTISER.COM
    University of Hawaii tennis player Mari Tadaki, wearing a green shirt, gave pointers to young students as part of the Ace To Success program. The project is one of 24 nationwide.

  • The University of Hawaii women’s tennis team provides mentoring and instruction for kids who might not otherwise get a chance to play.
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Rainbow Wahine tennis coach Jun Hernandez learned how to play the game at age 9, on the quiet streets of his small hometown in the Philippines. The kids tied a rope to two palm trees and served it up.

Compared with that start, the USTA’s Ace To Success program is state of the art. His University of Hawaii team’s teaching/mentoring project comes with a $12,000 grant — one of 24 given nationwide — and the use of the UH Tennis Complex. How tough can it be?

Hernandez became the head coach at UH in 2006, after working as an assistant at California. He graduated in 1995 from San Diego State, where he met UH men’s coach John Nelson. He treasures his collegiate playing and coaching experiences, and thinks he has found a small way to share opportunities he was afforded despite not being able to afford much.

With assistant coach Bridgette Thompson — who married UH basketball player Hiram Thompson over the summer — doing much of the heavy lifting, the Wahine received their grant in December and implemented the program this year. The Aces for Kids national initiative strives to promote healthy lifestyles by providing at-risk kids a chance to learn about tennis and academics from mentors such as the Wahine, a worldly group from six countries with a team GPA of 3.5.

The kids have been bringing homework and infinite energy to UH monthly since May for a study session and group lesson. If all goes well, some will follow in the Wahine’s sneakerprints.

"They are getting the vision that there is something more out there, something to look forward to. There’s college," Hernandez says. "They think now I’ve gone to UH and met the women’s tennis team and the players are from all over the world and they just get that excitement. It’s opening their eyes a little more. They can have a dream, something bigger."

Earlier this month, 31 kids came from Parents and Children Together, the HIT program at Spalding Clubhouse of the Boys & Girls Club, and Kokua Kalihi Valley. Kokua’s Vailima Watson said her seven kids were initially most impressed with UH’s GPA.

But for this week, it was all about tennis. Kids rotated through four stations (forehand, backhand, volley and serve). Racquets and balls were waiting for them and those that didn’t have proper soles for the pristine UH courts could borrow some. Pizza followed.

Teaching was basic and learning curves were huge. The first step in learning the serve was turning sideways and throwing the ball. When 8-year-old Fern Elementary third-grader Lyndi Iwauo first tried to hit it with a racquet she missed.

"The next time," Wahine senior Natasha Zorec promised, "you will hit it."

Iwauo, a natural athlete in a tiny body, did and got a high five in return.

The fix was simple. "She told me to move my feet to get my balance," said the soft-spoken Iwauo.

"She has talent and is really into it," said Hernandez, after watching her a matter of seconds. Then he pointed to Maria Matsuki, an 11-year-old sixth-grader from Washington Middle School. "You can tell she has played before."

Matsuki was in the minority. She saw the U.S. Open on TV last year and was intrigued, deciding to add tennis to an after-school resume that also includes hula. "It seemed like it would be fun," Matsuki said.

Not all the talk on court came from the Wahine. One boy walked over and immediately asked, "Can we smack that overhead now?"

"Sometimes they don’t like listening, they just want to do it," said sophomore Mari Tadaki, a Hawaii Baptist graduate. "I can understand that."

The program is not dedicated entirely to kids. Hernandez and Thompson want their players educated as well — as coaches, mentors and people committed to the community.

"The main thing is for them to realize what they have and how fortunate they are to go to college and play tennis," Thompson said. "The other thing that’s so important is service. We really want them to have a service-oriented mind-set. They are receiving a lot when they come here to play tennis. They get money for their education through the community. We want them to realize how important it is to give back. They can make a difference in these kids’ lives. They can be good examples for the kids."

Hawaii plays an exhibition against 16-time national champion Stanford Nov. 23 at Waikoloa. The season officially starts Jan. 8 with Duke coming in. Pretty much everyone is back for UH, which won 10 of its last 13 last season.

The glaring exception is Sophie Kobuch, last season’s lone senior. Hernandez believes that huge puka can be filled by Magdalena Ploch, a junior transfer from Germany and the University of Massachusetts, where she played No. 1 and was the 2009 Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year.

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