Stick Save: Refurbishing Racquets

by: Richard Pagliaro | November 16, 2012

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At the end of the boardwalk in Flushing Meadows, where the scent of a pretzel vendor’s cart mingles with the sounds of pros banging balls on practice courts, U.S. Open fans fed ingredients for growth—their old racquets—into a box as big as a restaurant oven. Hungry juniors will soon put those refurbished sticks to use, nourishing their games on the same courts in Queens.

Tennis racquet recycling comes full circle at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center this holiday season, with local kids receiving the gift of rebuilt gear.

Here’s how it happened: Fans donated more than 500 racquets to the Emirates racquet return box outside of the East Gate of the National Tennis Center on their way into the 2012 U.S. Open. Then, U.S. Open Series sponsor Emirates Airlines paid for the grips, grommets, and strings necessary to rebuild the frames. Finally, the NTC Pro Shop’s team of stringers spent weeks stringing, gripping, and cleaning the sticks. In the end, more than 400 revived racquets will be presented to New York Junior Tennis & Learning program players.

“The first 100 racquets will be given to one of our after-school programs in Corona, Queens, about two miles from the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, so it’s a direct benefit for local kids,” says Ron Nano, NYJTL senior director. “These kids participate in our early-morning tennis program, which takes place on Saturdays from 6 to 8 a.m. at the National Tennis Center. The fact they get up so early to play tennis tells you how dedicated they are and how much they love to play the game. The remaining racquets will be distributed throughout our after-school programs.

“A majority of the recreational racquets we have now are made out of aluminum and they’re loaner racquets. So the fact our kids will now have racquets made out of the top technology with fresh strings and new grips—and some will be able to take their new racquets home for the holidays—is really exciting for us and nice to see people coming together to make something positive happen.”

It’s a collaboration based on serving and returning. Emirates has sponsored racquet-recycling programs at North American tournaments in Los Angeles, New Haven, Montreal, and Toronto, offering fans U.S. Open Series-related gift incentives to donate frames, which are then rebuilt and returned to local juniors. The initiative partners the Series sponsor—Emirates promotes its brand on the red recycle box attended by its airline cabin crew (in full uniform), as well as the overgrips placed on each refurbished racquet—with area stringers and donors, who pay it forward giving their old racquets to young players.

“When Emirates became U.S. Open Series sponsor, they approached us about doing something directly within the communities to give back,” says Jeremy Fehrs, USTA Coordinator, Partnership Marketing. “The concept is, people who have played the sport have racquets that are still usable in their garage or closet, and there is always the need because racquets are not inexpensive. Emirates incentivized the program: In L.A. they offered free tickets for the first few days to people who donated racquets. It’s a simple and successful program.”

The airline launched its first racquet recycling program at the 2008 Rogers Cup and has continued it annually at the Candian tournament, bolstering fan contributions with an additional $10,000 worth of new junior racquets.

“Over 1,000 racquets were donated and distributed to the charitable partners associated with each Rogers Cup,” says Roger Duthie of Emirates Sponsorships. “The concept is simple—Emirates collects pre-loved tennis racquets from tennis fans at each event and refurbishes them before donating the racquets to disadvantaged children.”

The raw material—the racquets—is the fundamental ingredient in the growth process. New Yorkers contributed an eclectic collection of racquets, ranging from performance player frames to popular brand names to sticks off the shelf. Racquet reconstruction began right after the U.S. Open concluded and continues now. The quantity of frames contributed to the cause surprised the man responsible for quality control.

“The first phone call I got, we thought it would be about 50 racquets coming in through the program, so I said ‘Yeah, no problem, we can knock that out in a week,’” says Woody Schneider, who owns and operates the NTC Pro Shop and worked with his team of stringers to refurbish the racquets. “Next thing I know, they’re wheeling flat-bed hand trucks full of racquets into the shop; people contributed a lot of racquets. Not every racquet is worthy of refurbishing, so we go through and hand-pick the ones that will work best. Make no mistake: there’s some very good racquets donated and we’ve been refurbishing them in order of what will work best.”

A striking set of Puma racquets, which may have belonged to a 1977 U.S. Open champion, were in pristine condition, minus one vital piece.

“We got 24 original Puma Guillermo Vilas racquets—I believe they were his actual racquets, brand new, never strung, wrapped in plastic” Schneider says. “They must weigh almost 14 ounces, unfortunately there’s no handles on any of them. I’ve been selling racquets for 33 years and I’ve never seen anything like it. The majority of the racquets that came in are in good shape and I think the kids will be happy playing with them. We all want more people to play the game, and putting the racquets right in players’ hands is a great way to do it.”

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