By Mike Max

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — They gather in downtown Minneapolis for a high-end affair to raise money for a cause that is dear to the tennis world: Trying to expand the game by going to the inner city.

“You need money,” said legendary tennis coach Nick Bollettieri. “It’s very simple. In order to provide programs of higher degree, you need support.”

Bollettieri is considered one of the greatest tennis coaches in the world. He started an academy in Florida, with pupils including Andre Agassi, the Williams sisters and Minnesota’s own David Wheaton.

But that’s not why he’s here at age 87. He’s here because he believes kids need to be active to be successful.

“In the world of today, it’s upside down. And if we don’t take these children, give them an opportunity, and build their self-esteem, and give them hope with education, and tennis, and physical fitness and life skills, it would be a miracle,” Bollettieri said.

So they start with a philosophy, to provide opportunities, to learn the game to anyone who needs that opportunity.

“We’re finding a lot of interest from the kids and from their parents to bring tennis to the north side [of Minneapolis], and there just aren’t any opportunities up there,” said John Wheaton, executive director of Inner City Tennis. “There’s courts, and few courts in the parks and so forth during the summer, but during the winter, very tough.”

That brings us to the north side of Minneapolis, and one of the locations they teach, and much more. Even though the name of the program is “Inner City Tennis,” they provide teaching, counseling and stability.

(credit: CBS)

“Tennis is what they do, that’s what brings the group together, that’s why these kids are in this program. But it’s so much bigger than that,” said Inner City Tennis teacher Mason Bultje. “We play tennis and we love that, but, I mean, we spend even more time off court then we do on the court most of the time.”

They teach and they listen, and they hope the foundation is fundamental.

“Some of them are like perseverance, team work, respect. You really want to teach the kids that because overall, that will build them more as a person,” said Inner City Tennis teacher Dan Wheaton.

Oh, there is tennis — and the kids do develop a love.

“It’s taught me to have fun in the game, and it taught me how to do sportsmanship and all that stuff,” said Inner City Tennis participant Safina Samabaly.

Which brings us back to the classroom, because learning tennis applies to the rest of their lives, and that’s where you can make a difference.

“We spend so much time with a lot of kids, and it’s great, but it’s somewhat transactional in the sense that we go into schools, we go in the parks, we want to do more, we want to go deeper, and we’ve become more transformative with kids,” John Wheaton said.

What Bollettieri sees is potential, in every athlete that commits to something. It is a fire that needs fuel.

“So remember something. When the odds are against you, that’s when I can tell you can play for me. When everything’s on the table, too easy,” Bollettieri said. “When you got to fight for it and find a way to do it, there’s a big difference.”

When they figure that out, they change their goals, and what they believe is possible. So it is the intent to allow kids to understand their destiny.

“People with lesser ability, that have better work ethics and more opportunities can beat the people that are more talented,” Bollettieri said.

And do it by connecting to a community.

“It means a lot that they look forward to seeing us every day. It shows that we really build relationships with them. And it’s really cool getting to know the kids and know their interest,” Dan Wheaton said.

So they gather at a gala, because they care, because it gives back.

“This is the most satisfying work I’ve ever done,” John Wheaton said. “I tell my daughter when she says, ‘Are you going to work?’ I say, ‘It’s not work.’ It really is satisfying to work with kids.”

And they gather to promote not a sport but an attitude, that you owe it to the next generation, to give them hope.

“You never let a child go home thinking they’re a failure. You have to stay there until the moon comes out. Why? A child goes home, he doesn’t eat, she doesn’t eat, they don’t do their homework, they lower their self-esteem, they’re subject to the devils,” Bollettieri said.

Mike Max