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Tennis players having a ball, winning matches left and right

CORNWALL — At the age of 4, Todd Piker took to the tennis court. One of the things he quickly learned, being a bit of a pipsqueak, was that it is one of those sports that can be a great equalizer. Piker’s keen hand-eye coordination made up for his lack of size.

Fast forward five decades. Piker has just returned from the United States Tennis Association’s New England Sectional Championship in Springfield, Mass. —and he’s brought home a third-place trophy, won by a team of 14-and-under junior tennis players from Cornwall. Team members Zach Busby, Zach Zuckerman, Sam Green, Charlie Van Doren, Audrey Ellen, Lee Pryor, Connor Elwell, Dan Melcher and Jake Ellen had a 6-0 record and qualified for the state championship, and became Connecticut’s entry at the New England competition.

“It was that really hot week, and we played on asphalt courts,” Piker said, “but the kids played great. All of Cornwall should be proud.”

The team is part of the Cornwall Youth Tennis Program founded by Piker about 10 years ago.  It was one of those chance endeavors that took shape with the help of the town and generous community members.

In Cornwall, youngsters play on either red clay or omni, an Astroturf-like surface that Piker said creates a low fast bounce, like a natural grass court.

It all began on two clay courts on Pine Street.

“Tom Hubbard sort of inherited them when he bought property that had been part of the former Marvelwood School site,” Piker said. “Tom rescued the courts and made arrangements with the town to rent them for a nominal fee and maintenance. They enhance the town and its recreation.”

Hubbard’s son, John, installed attractive landscaping around the courts.

Piker spoke of the bigger picture.

“America is full of abandoned tennis courts. When they are not maintained, they quickly become an eyesore. In Springfield, we played at a high school, and right nearby was a park with clay courts that were obviously abandoned. If people and towns were willing to make an effort, like Cornwall did, to provide funding and programs, everybody would win.”

In Cornwall, players as young as 8 sign up for tennis lessons that begin almost the minute school lets out for the summer. It starts with a discount week,  where lessons are just $5.

“It gets them involved. Some stay on.”

With four more courts available at the Cream Hill Association, close to 100 youngsters are now playing tennis each summer.

“For a town with a population of about 1,500, that’s amazing.”

Piker is on the courts four hours every morning during the week. Assistant instructors take over in the afternoon, while he tends to his pottery business.  July is intense as they move toward tournaments in August.

“For a while there, it seems like all we do is play tennis, but before we know it, it’s all over.”

Piker is hoping they will develop a love and respect for a game that will keep them playing — and physically fit — for the rest of their lives.

“Tennis provides great conditioning. So many kids are getting hurt playing other sports, especially knee injuries. Kids are typically not doing the kind of playing that is essentially cross-training. Tennis is a knee-friendly game. It also strengthens the thigh muscles that can help prevent knee problems.”

Growing up, Piker’s dad often took him to watch the pros play at Forest Hills in New York. As an adult, he looks back and realizes his dad’s detailed explanations about the strategies used in the matches apply to life in general.

“I hope, no, I know these kids come away with some of that. My assistant teachers now are kids who started in the program, so that validates it for me.”

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