Tennis in the Grove allows local youth to improve their game

Forest Grove assistant tennis coach T.J. Buehler gives instruction to a pair of players at the Tennis in the Grove youth program on Monday. The series of tennis clinics runs each week until the end of August.The Fourth of July has come and gone, and the daily thermometer reading has responded accordingly.

That can mean one thing for Oregon residents: Summer is full swing.

But it’s not the only thing. So is the Tennis in the Grove youth tennis program that operates out of Forest Grove High School. Returning this summer for a second consecutive year, the program offers players 9 to 18 — depending on their experience level — the chance to learn the sport for the first time, progress in their fundamentals or develop more advanced skills.

“One of the things I like so much about it, which is why I like teaching it to kids — because I’ve coached basketball and other sports for my kids when they were growing up — is that it works really good as a lifelong sport,” said Peter McKinnon, Forest Grove’s varsity tennis coach and director of the summer program.

McKinnon recently completed his second season as the head coach of the Vikings boys tennis team. He started the summer program last year wanting to get more kids involved in the sport for longer periods of time, with the hope that providing more opportunities outside of the high school season would translate into results.

The program was a hit from the start, with about 50 different kids turning out for sessions over the course of the summer — up to 20 to 25 on any particular day — and some continued to play through the fall and winter.

“I really thought if they were able to play more than two, three months, they could get better,” McKinnon noted. “I wanted to make something available for them to be closer.”

That opportunity returns this summer in the form of eight four-day sessions that take place Monday through Thursday afternoons. Five sessions still remain after this week’s, with the final one scheduled for Aug. 18-21.

Turnout has been solid once again in the early going: At the end of the second week, about two dozen different players had already come out, McKinnon said.

On a given day, players run through skill-specific drills for a good chunk of the session and then play actual games or fun games to build their skills. The program offers groupings for players at beginning, intermediate and advanced levels — from those who have never before held a racquet to some of the high school’s top players who are looking to progress their games before next season.

“That way their hitting partners are kind of in the same place, so it’s just working out pretty good, I think,” McKinnon said.

After running the program mostly by himself last year, McKinnon has two other coaches in tow this time around in his high school assistant, Brian Wilbur, as well as T.J. Buehler, an assistant for the Vikings girls team.

“They have a lot more tips to give you, some more perspectives,” said Karimi Nyamu, a rising senior at Forest Grove and one of the girls team’s top players. “It’s definitely nice to have more people like Brian and T.J. coming out to help us.”

Nyamu is one of the nascent program’s success stories. She turned out for high school tennis for the first time as a sophomore in 2013 and showed enough talent to play on the varsity. Looking to improve last summer, she came to the program “pretty much every single day.”

That hard work helped translate to great success this spring, when she played No. 1 singles for much of the season before pairing with the now-graduated Natalie Brandt in doubles. The pair finished third at the Pacific Conference district tournament in May and then advanced all the way to the Class 6A girls consolation final at the state championships.

Buoyed by her success and wanting to especially improve her serving and volleying skills, Nyamu is back out again this summer.

“Summer is the best time to get better, so that’s why I’m here,” she said.

Mitchell Faris, who will be a sophomore at Forest Grove this fall, has a similar success story. He wanted to get a jump on the 2014 high school season, so he turned out for the program last summer. This spring, he played in the No. 2 singles spot and won the district consolation title as just a freshman.

He is also back and ready for more this summer.

“I just want to come in here and work on my game,” Faris said. “All the other kids are here, too, to work on their game to prepare for the tennis season.”

While Nyamu and Faris have a competitive emphasis, that does not mean every player who participates in the program needs to. McKinnon likes tennis for its recreational and active qualities.

Tennis is a sport players can work at for a lifetime, if they choose. But they can come a long way in just one summer and have fun at the same time, too.

“You would be amazed at how quick they pick it up and get to the point where they can actually play a decent game of tennis,” McKinnon said. “It blows my mind.”

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