Amari O’Brien has been playing tennis since she was 6 years old, but as a teenager she sought a place where she could raise her skills to the next level.
She journeyed from her hometown of Kalamazoo, Michigan to College Park, Maryland to practice for two weeks in 2019 at the Junior Tennis Champions Center (JTCC), which offers full-time training programs and schooling for youth and adults.
Then, O’Brien earned a scholarship and moved to Maryland last year to attend the club full time. The 16-year-old said the club’s small size and supportive environment made the opportunity too enticing to turn down.
“More attention could be paid toward me,” O’Brien said. “I would choose this place over any other one just because of the environment. It’s always really positive. There’s always someone here to help you with any problem that you have. They’re supportive of our journey.”
The JTCC provides online schooling for its full-time members. While there is no boarding or housing for members or staff, the club maintains a tight-knit family atmosphere.
“It’s a very supportive environment,” said Nikola Galov, a 15-year-old in 10th grade. “The staff is always there to help you. I trust them because I know it’s for the benefit of me. They’ll do whatever they can to help me, whether it’s about school or tennis.”
The JTCC also boasts several notable alumni, including rising star Frances Tiafoe. The Maryland native made a historic run to the U.S. Open semifinals earlier this year, becoming the first American man to do so since 2006 and the first Black man to reach that milestone since 1972.
In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Tiafoe said training in Prince George’s County, an area unknown to many outside of the Maryland-D.C. bubble, only strengthened his ambition.
“I think a lot of people overlook this area,” Tiafoe told the Washington Post. “A lot of people [here] feel like they have something to prove.”
But at the JTCC, it’s a point of emphasis among the coaching staff to allow members to simply play tennis without the pressure of becoming great enough to go pro.
“If you want to learn tennis, there’s definitely a program for you at JTCC,” said John Niswander, a marketing and events associate at the club. “It’s all relative to what you’re trying to get out of the program in terms of your level and your skill.”
The tennis club offers training programs for adults and children starting at age 4, as well as adaptability training for people who use wheelchairs and free lessons for veterans. It has around 1,000 members, the majority of which are children ages 4-12.
The JTCC employs experienced coaches and offers a plethora of spaces for young athletes to complete their training, featuring 32 courts in total – including indoor courts, outdoor courts, hard courts, and clay courts.
The club not only supports its members on the court but in their academic lives as well, with tutoring and afterschool programs.
The JTCC also emphasizes community outreach, offering free tennis lessons at 14 schools in Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, and Washington, D.C. And members must fulfill volunteer hours, presenting the chance for young athletes to give back to the local community.
Members also get to travel and compete in top junior tournaments around the country, such as the Orange Bowl International Tennis Championships in Florida.
“A lot of players and coaches stay at JTCC because we have like a whole big family,” said Terence Tche, a coach for the club.
For the young athletes who currently attend the JTCC, training at the same club with the same coaches who helped train Tiafoe serves as extra motivation to follow in his footsteps.
“It gives me a lot of inspiration because I’m going down the same path he is,” Galov said. “I’m going through the same coaches he is. To see that he went so far in his career and made it to the semifinals of the U.S. Open. That just gives me so much inspiration and motivation. I know I can do that as well. I just have to trust the process.”
O’Brien said training with the same coach as Tiafoe strengthens her ambition to be a similar role model for female players.
“It’s super cool to know that his former coach is coaching me,” O’Brien said. “It gives me belief that I can do the same thing on the women’s side.”