Gary Sweetnam is right at home. Hitting tennis balls on a balmy morning at the Kenneth ‘Wriggler’ King courts takes him back to his childhood where as an eleven-year-old he played his first tournament at what was then known as Chase Gardens.
“I played an adult tournament and I played against Dennis Cudjoe who is still alive,” he chuckled. “I was playing him in the finals as an eleven year old in an adult tournament and this is a true story; I fainted in the finals. I blacked out. Yes I blacked out because I didn’t eat. It might have been fear too but needless to say that is where it all started.”
Sweetnam, who grew up on the Morne but now resides in Houston, Texas, was back on island to visit his family and his old stomping grounds. And of course to assess the progress of the sport he grew to love as a child: tennis. He played in several junior tournaments before leaving the island at seventeen to take up a scholarship at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
“I graduated from Southern and stayed in the United States for a while and played pro full time, so I was travelling. Then I came back to St Lucia and worked for The Voice as a journalist for a short, short stint but then decided that I really wanted to go back into what I was doing so I went in full time. I was just training and playing tournaments locally. I played quite a number of our national tournaments and also Davis Cup for St Lucia and before Davis Cup it was the Brandon and the Barnard Cup, so I represented the island in several competitions. And then after that I took off and left St Lucia and returned to the United States.”
Sweetnam now has his own tennis academy. He runs two facilities; a country club where he teaches tennis privately and a leased facility with three courts where he teaches kids and also adults in group and private lessons.
With his extensive experience in the sport naturally the conversation turned to what he thought would help the recent decline in the quality of local play on the island. Not surprisingly, he went back to basics.
“The future of tennis is based around the development of junior tennis. The adult aspect is more the recreational part. The development of the game is all centered around giving kids the opportunity to play. That’s the underlying premise. Give as many kids, all kids, regardless of their socio-economic background the opportunity to play the game of tennis,” he explained. “And that comes through having several facilities. As a kid when I was playing there was only one public facility, which was the Gardens. Other than that if you wanted to play tennis you had to play at a hotel. So that immediately eliminated certain people of certain economic backgrounds. So if your parents didn’t make enough money you could not play tennis. You had to find a hotel. Now there are several facilities, which are public, so it now gives the kids the opportunity to just go out and play tennis.”
However, Sweetnam pointed out that having facilities alone would not produce high caliber players. There has to be a method to the madness.
“There are not enough structured programs to encourage the kids to play tennis and that comes through the public facilities. The Gardens, The National Tennis Center at Beausejour, and I understand there is one in Vieux Fort. So there are the public facilities but there needs to be structured programs set up within each of these facilities that have a large crop of kids playing the game of tennis, It’s a simple formula. It’s one that is structured around giving a large number of kids the opportunity to play the game of tennis. Just drones of them and then what happens is you are able to weed some of the kids out. So you start with 15 000 kids playing the game of tennis. Well then what that does, is that gets cut into half and say 7000 or 8000 of these kids then get to be in another program. And then they halve that and then the 3500 or so kids they get placed in a program but at all times each of these kids are still playing. So each time you are doing that you are producing better players. And when you get down to your two or three hundred, these kids are college material. And when you dwindle to your top fifty, these kids are going to be some of the best, world class.”
The coach has full confidence that his local counterparts are equipped to get the job done.
“What i’ve seen so far with the coaches i’m impressed. I had the opportunity to go to Beausejour and I saw Vernon (Lewis) working with his kids and what I saw was good. I liked it. I saw some of his higher level players what I saw was good. I saw Andre (Dolcy) teaching and he was playing with some some of his students and you know their heart is in the right place. I could see they really want to see the junior players develop in this country.”
But it’s one of his former students that earned his utmost admiration.
“I am impressed with Sirsean (Arlain). He has put a program together that is very structured. I mean there is no question about that. I put on a clinic for a handful of his students and we went through some routines and we were on the same page. He was teaching solid fundamentals, he’s instilling discipline in the kids, and he’s instilling structure in them.”
According to Sweetnam’s formula, we have the coaches and the kids. But there needs to be a two-pronged attack to make it all meld into a harmonious product.
“The first things that needs to be taken care of is there needs to be a schedule of tournaments for the junior players. The second thing is that all coaches need to come together and unify and have a unified structure of teaching and the development of junior tennis is going to go on. And once all the coaches come together and put that forth and iron it out and come to one set way of developing tennis then you will have your great college players and pros.”
Simple advice that he hopes will reap tremendous rewards.