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How the Harlem Junior Tennis Education Program and Venus Williams Are Changing Lives

On the southwest bank of the Harlem River, an opportunity exists for kids, an oasis on the streets of New York City, for those underprivileged children born into circumstances beyond their control. In central Harlem, the Harlem Junior Tennis Education Program (HJTEP) was founded in 1972 as a nonprofit organization with a mandate of building champions in tennis and in life. This year, tennis pioneer Venus Williams and CLIF BAR® have partnered with HJTEP to help fund their educational programs aimed at developing the whole child—in sports, school, and life.

It’s a mission close to Williams’s heart, having grown up with few of the advantages of a typical childhood tennis phenom. Still, she used her sport as a vehicle out of the economically depressed city of Compton, California, in the 1990s. Venus and her sister Serena grew up on tennis courts and were raised as tennis players by their father Richard, who saw the sport as a way to teach his daughters the importance of discipline and hard work. The Williams family’s story of humble beginnings and unimaginable success is so dramatic it is now getting the Hollywood treatment with a feature film, set to debut on November 19, 2021, with none other than Will Smith playing their father.

The movie details the Williams sisters’ difficult rise from obscurity to the top of the professional sports world in an unlikely journey that saw the family suffer racism and discrimination along the way. But Richard had a vision of what his daughters’ lives and careers could be, and he kept them steadfastly focused on the goal while seeking opportunities that might turn his daughters' disadvantages into advantages. “Belief and training,” Venus once told The New York Times Magazine, “that was unconquerable.”1

It was that focused effort that allowed Venus to go 63-0 as a 12-year-old on the United States Tennis Association Junior Tour, ranking her first place among the under-12 players in Southern California and making her famous before she had even entered high school. At age 17, she was the first unseeded women’s player to ever reach the finals of the U.S. Open. And by 2002, Venus became the first African-American woman in the Open Era to be ranked #1 in the world,2 in the predominantly white, affluent sport of tennis. She is now one of the most decorated athletes of all time with four Olympic gold medals, seven Grand Slam titles, and five Wimbledon victories. And in doing so, she helped ignite a resurgence in American tennis and a new era of possibility for women in sports. Like Billy Jean King and Zina Garrison before her, Williams has been fighting for equality her entire career and helped pave the way for the current generation of young professionals.

Even for her sister, Venus was the vanguard, the pioneer out in front. After Serena won her 23rd Grand Slam title in 2017, she told reporters, “There’s no way I would be at 23 without her [Venus]. There’s no way I would be at one without her. There’s no way I would be anything without her. She’s the only reason the Williams sisters exist.”3

Despite injuries and an undiagnosed illness that affected her joints, energy levels, and therefore her game, Venus has shown unsurpassed longevity. Mindful of nutrition from an early age, Williams has been using Clif Bars long before she became one of the brand’s athletes in 2018.

It was on the pro tour, more than a decade ago, that Williams first heard about HJTEP through former professional player, coach, and former USTA president, Katrina Adams, who is now the program’s executive director. (Under Adams’ leadership, HJTEP has grown enrollment to over 1,000 participants a year and increased the operating budget to more than a million dollars.) Ever since Venus has actively supported HJTEP with appearances and donations.

Through HJTEP, kids learn essential life skills of sportsmanship, self-discipline, social and emotional competence, and how to lead healthy lives. A typical school year sees about 800 students with an additional 150-300 more participating in their summer programs. It’s a formula that has proven amazingly successful: 95% of their students graduate from high school (compared to only 67% citywide and only 25% in Central Harlem). The program’s overall GPA is more than one point higher than the average and 25% of their students earn tennis scholarships to prestigious colleges. Some have even become professional tennis players, like James and Thomas Blake, who also attended Harvard University.

“I am very motivated to support talented youth who need help with opportunities in life,” said Williams. “I absolutely love what HJTEP stands for in terms of providing pathways for young people by using tennis as a catalyst.”

Giving back is rooted in Clif Bar & Company’s DNA and we are proud to dedicate 1% of net sales to non-profit organizations (a sum that has totaled more than $60 million to date). Our Let’s Move the World campaign is a celebration of movement both physical and societal. We know giving back takes energy, positive energy, and when our employees and athlete partners come together we can do great things.

Join us in helping to fund the Harlem Junior Tennis Education Program.

References

  1. Sullivan, John Jeremiah. “Venus and Serena against the World.” The New York Times. August 23, 2012. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/26/magazine/venus-and-serena-against-the-world.html
  2. Weil, Elizabeth. “Did Venus Williams Ever Get Her Due?” The New York Times. August 22, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/22/magazine/venus-williams-tennis.html
  3. Jones, Maya A. “It’s about Time We Give Venus Williams the Credit She Deserves.” The Undefeated. March 31, 2017. https://theundefeated.com/features/venus-williams-should-get-the-credit-she-deserves

Venus Williams Athlete Profile

With 7 Grand Slam titles, 5 Wimbledon championships and 4 Olympic gold medals, tennis legend Venus Williams is arguably one of the most accomplished and inspiring women in the history of sports.


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