The Grass Courts of Molokai

by: George Mackin | April 28, 2014

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Photos by Pono Asano

I just attended the Maui Interscholastic League tennis tournament (MIL's), which includes the nearby islands of Lanai and Molokai.

My son just started his first year as a ninth grader playing tennis for Maui Preparatory Academy, and we were excited to have the kids competing with all the other island schools.

While watching the kids from Molokai play I met one of their dedicated young coaches, Pono, who was introduced to me by one of the USTA volunteers. When he learned I was with Tennis magazine and he said, "you need to come to Molokai and see our grass courts"—and I wondered how an island as rural and economically challenged as Molokai could have grass courts. Then Pono went on to say, "the grass that grows up through our cement courts," and started laughing.

We spent the next three days following the Molokai team and coaches and enjoyed watching what this sport needs more than anything else: The pure joy, passion, team building, dedication, and togetherness that these kids bring.

In an effort to cut costs, the team has become quite resourceful. No player owns a new racquet. If a string breaks, there is one person on Molokai that can fix it, if there is string available. Tennis balls present another challenge. If the team runs through its annual budgeted allotment of four cases, they'll continue to use the older balls for the rest of the year and specifically practice picking up (difficult) drop shots.

During the season, Molokai's coaches and kids get up at 3:30 am to take a ferry across the channel to board their 20-year-old school bus they keep on Maui for a 3:30 pm match. (The other schools in the MIL only travel to Molokai for away games every other year.) They packed enough food in coolers to last the team all three days and nights they stay in Maui to compete in the MILs. They sleep in the gyms of hosting schools and sometimes in the old school bus—and you will rarely witness a group of happier and more respectful kids.

"Win or lose, their team is watching, meeting their other teammates coming of the court by the entrance with hugs," said a coach from Maui county.

Molokai High School is known amongst other schools as the “Farmers,” a nod to the many locals who cultivate and live off the land. As Pono tells it, seasonal farming is comparable to the three months of the year in which tennis can be played. There are no tennis leagues on Molokai and only two community tennis courts. Tennis is another crop that needs to be nurtured.

“It’s nearly like starving the crop of water,” Pono says about the lack of facilities and opportunities. “Still, a leaf reaches for the sun to grow. A farmer can only prepare the soil and plant the seed and then pray for rain. Imagine if it did rain and what we would do. We would plant lots of tennis seeds.”

Later this week, Maui will host the Hawaii State Championships, and Molokai, the team that could, will be there, competing against supporting schools that in the past have given them tents for shade and food for lunch. ("That's Aloha," says coach Pono.) They'll graciously be hosted by Tom Donovan, the general manager of the Grand Wailea in Wailea. We should all be proud to have the team that sports green practice shirts with the words "Farmer Pride" on their backs playing this tournament, a testament to Molokai's love of the sport and commitment in the face of unique circumstances.

Photo Gallery: Meet Molokai's players

"What makes our sacrifice beautiful is we still rise no matter the obstacle," Pono told his team before the MIL's. "Give your best, give your all and leave it on the court. Make memories because one day you all will have a family and tennis will be part of their lives, and just maybe one day you return and give back as a coach or supporting parent. Have fun, enjoy yourself, and leave it all on the court."

"On three, Molokai!... One, two, three... MOLOKAI!"

George Mackin is a managing partner for The Tennis Media Company.

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