Photos by Brian Addison.
Peter Smith and Mitch Bridge made their first connection volleying and lobbing green felt balls over the net as team mates at Long Beach State during the late 80s. Two of the stars from the then number two ranked 49ers men’s tennis team went on to compete on the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) tour, earning WTA rankings, and in the case of Smith, coach a division one powerhouse program. But their love for tennis, the duo says, is only equaled by their love for Long Beach, the city where their tennis careers took off.
Three years ago, Bridge and Smith decided to become doubles partners again. However, this time around wouldn’t involve painting the lines with a forehand. Instead it focuses on grooming the next flock of tennis youth in Long Beach as co-founders of the Southern California Tennis Academy at the El Dorado Tennis Center, where they have been helping kids improve their game and their chances at earning college scholarships through tennis.
Long Beach does have a history of tennis greatness; being home to one of the most famous tennis players of all time will earn that for a city. In addition to the tennis center named after Billy Jean King, the city has 14 other facilities where residents can work on their forehand and drop shots, an interest that Bridge said was peaking while he played at LBSU. However, the participation in tennis, especially at the junior level, was something that he noticed had dropped off, though he thought it could be revitalized.
“One of our main goals is to make Long Beach one of those prominent tennis cities,” Bridge said. “It’s not yet, but in a couple years when we’re competing to win national junior titles…the buzz is here. We’re getting on the map but we’re not there yet.”
The buzz is growing to a whir similar to the sound that follows an Andy Roddick serve (clocked at over 150 mph) as the academy continues to build off its humble beginnings, attracting kids from all over Southern California, as well as nationally (Arizona, Connecticut and New Mexico) and internationally with its second student from India currently enrolled.
“Nothing’s been done on this scale in Long Beach,” Smith [pictured right] said. “I mean, there are boarders coming in and living here. There’s campers coming here. We have Long Beach kids and So Cal kids on the courts but there are also kids from all over the country.”
Not only is the academy drawing kids from all over the country, it’s also dispersing them throughout the nation as college athletes at schools like Texas Christian University and the University of Connecticut. Although some students have professional aspirations of playing on the tour, turning tennis skills into a catalyst for eduction is the priority. Bridge said that financially it’s great to earn a scholarship, but the scholarship also means that it guarantees you, in most cases, a spot in the starting lineup. Starter or not though, he and Smith enjoy using tennis as a tool to help their students meet their goals that they might not have achieved otherwise.
“Having them get into a school they wouldn’t have without their tennis is great,” Bridge said. “Academic-only is a tough route. It’s a bit of a lottery no matter how strong a student they are. And we’re [helping kids get into college] constantly.”
Cameron Hicks was the first boarding student at the academy when it opened three years ago. The 19-year-old Hicks moved from Oakland, CA during his sophomore year in high school and has been training at the academy for the last three years.
Hicks credits both the instruction and the growing level of competition at the academy for bettering his game to the point that he earned a scholarship to Wesleyan University in Connecticut. As Smith put it, good coaching and talent is a good start, but “good players want to play with good players.” Building a strong foundation of young talent has helped pull in other talented youth to compete with Hicks and the rest of students at the academy.
The competition to advance up the ranking ladder, a tangible ordering system posted on the club house wall which fluctuates with attendees’ performance, can be fierce. Everyone wants to get better day in and day out, especially the more skilled players, Hicks explained. Having that drive provided by his contemporaries is essential to improving and staying on top of his game.
Hudson Blake of Phoenix, AZ, takes a swing.
“I think it’s absolutely necessary because it allows you to have short term goals,” Hicks said of the competition at the academy. “Beating someone or maybe just getting to a certain spot on the ladder. Tennis is a really tough sport so it’s hard to stay motivated. So setting short term goals with people within your group and moving to the top of your group is definitely an easy way to stay with it.”
By himself, Bridge is considered a top flight tennis developer with a resume boasting over 100 Men’s Open titles during his playing career as well as having trained over 30 current division one athletes. The add in Smith, who became the head coach at Long Beach at the age of 23 and has led Pepperdine, Fresno State and USC to the NCAA quarterfinals (a first for an NCAA tennis coach). As the current head coach of the men’s team at the University of Southern California which he just coached to its fifth national title in the last six years, the star power attached to his coaching pedigree has added allure to the academy and increased its drawing power.
Bridge said that although their tennis paths more or less split after college, the fact that both his and Smith’s children are involved in tennis made their dad paths intersect. There was always the congratulatory call to Smith after his successful runs in the NCAA tournament, but ultimately it was the children that kept them in contact. The fact that Smith’s kids are part of the academy made it make even more sense for him to become involved, a process that Bridge said took little convincing.
Bridge is aware of the impact that Smith has had on the academy, even if the modest Smith shies away from Ron Burgundy-type pronouncements. He’s kind of a big deal.
“It only helps in every facet,” Bridge said of Smith’s involvement in the academy. “People want to be a part of it. USC is a huge brand. Peter Smith is a huge brand in himself now doing so well as the coach of USC. It’s tough out there so it’s great that we have these kinds of assets.”
Currently, the SCTA has about 150 kids enrolled in their programs that spans from developmental, where kids are instructed in proper stroke fundamentals and footwork, to the full-time academy, which entails a rigorous tennis-centric schedule which helps prepare serious junior tennis players to reach their goals of a scholarship or advancing to the professional tour.
The pricing of the academy, like the skill level of the kids attending, varies situationally. Developmental students can drop in for the day for $40 or pay $300 a month for unlimited training. The full-time academy, which is priced by semester and includes online schooling, food, optional boarding and private instruction can run from $12,500 a semester to $20,000 if the student is boarding, though the academy does offer scholarships. The price of the academy can also be offset if the student can attain what seemed to be a common goal reverberating across the courts, a division one scholarship.
Caroline Amos knows the value that tennis can play in college admissions. That’s why she moved from Tucson into her aunt and uncle’s house to spend her junior year of high school training at the academy. The 17-year-old has aspirations of an Ivy League scholarship which would help undercut the average annual tuition that hovers between $50,000 and $60,000. Amos said the college application experience is both stressful and exciting, but having the resources available to her at the academy, namely Smith, has helped her during the process.
“He’s such a great coach and has such a great reputation,” Amos said. “He’s helped me with my college recruiting and that’s pretty big when you have someone like Peter to give you a recommendation to a coach.”
Watching their students grow, be it academically, personally or on the tennis court, is something that Bride and Smith value. It’s only been three years but participation in the sport is expanding once again in the city, evident by the academy’s enrollment ballooning from a modest total of under ten in July 2011, to over 150 current students.
Giving back to the community and the prospect of building up the city of their alma mater and potentially turning it into a prominent tennis city in Southern California is something that the duo is committed to. As more and more young people take notice of the atmosphere at the academy, as well as its potential of being a stepping stone to college or the pros, Bridge is optimistic it will translate to Long Beach producing more nationally ranked junior tennis players.
“Hopefully when you look up addresses in five years, in terms of ranked kids, there will be at least 100 instead of the 10 there were three years ago,” Bridge said.
The El Dorado Tennis Center is located at 2800 Studebaker Road Long Beach, CA 90815.