NEWARK, NJ -- Bob Bynum grew up in Newark learning how to play tennis at Weequahic Park.
At age 14, he played on his school team at South Side High School, now called Malcolm X Shabazz High School. He started coaching at age 16.
The retired tennis pro and Director of Tennis for The Greater Newark Tennis and Education has been coaching ever since.
Forty years later, he fights for tennis to make a comeback in the city and uses the sport to teach kids life skills.
“Almost all high schools had tennis teams back then,” said Bynum. “Counting boys and girls teams, there may only be five or six teams maybe.”
Now, there are only three high schools in the Newark Public Schools District with tennis teams: Shabazz, East Side, and University.
Bynum continued coaching in East Orange, Orange, and Newark through his college years.
Other nonprofits he was involved with couldn’t sustain themselves because of funding.
Three years ago he connected with Charlie McKenna, Executive Director and primary fundraiser of Greater Newark Tennis and Education, to bring a program to Newark. One that introduced kids to tennis and helped them grow as players and young people.
The Greater Newark Tennis and Education program is free, serving kids ages 5 to 18 and their parents. Programs run in the fall, spring, and summer at the Althea Gibson Tennis Center at Branch Brook Park. Essex County gives the program full use of the park’s 18-court facility.
Kids are predominantly from Newark but also come from Belleville, Irvington, Orange, even New Brunswick. Instructors are adults and students from local high schools and universities.
The program operates four days a week and on Saturday during the summer. The schedule shifts to only Saturday in the fall and spring months to not interfere with students’ academic and co-curricular commitments.
Newark was once a hotbed for tennis with many major tournaments happening at Branch Brook, West Side, and Weequahic parks. But that quickly changed.
“Over the years, there weren’t any junior development tennis programs in the city of Newark so those other programs eventually dissipated,” said Bynum. “Principals and the Newark Board of Education figured there was no point since no one was going to participate in them anyway.”
It inspired him to create a program that encouraged students to stick with tennis and learning.
Students in the program receive an hour of tennis instruction, then a quick lesson in history, mathematics, or emotional intelligence before returning back to the courts.
The program grew from five kids when it first started to now having 130 kids registered.
Parent volunteers coordinated the education component of the class in the past. A pair of Seton Hall University graduate students ran the education program over the summer, undergraduates joined them to teach four nights a week.
Cecelia Pateman, class of 2021, said she saw she saw herself filling in the gaps of a traditional classroom education because the campers learned about topics that aren’t typically taught in school.
“We can do what we want with the lesson rather than following the kind of strict guidelines,” said Pateman.
Some of their most recent lessons focused on the lives and legacies of Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson, two black tennis players who broke barriers in professional tennis. Gibson, who in her later years lived just down the road in East Orange, was the first black tennis player to win a grand slam title at the French Championships in 1956.
Overall, Gibson won 11 grand slam tournaments, including five singles titles, five doubles titles and one mixed doubles title. Arthur Ashe was the only black man ever to win the singles title at Wimbledon, the US Open and the Australian Open.
Jason Honoré, age 11, has been coming to the program for the past three years with his brother, Julian, who is 13. They are both from Newark.
Julian got the chance to do the starting match coin toss last year at the US Open and participate in Arthur Ashe Kids Day. He got to ask questions about tennis, shake players’ hands and keep the metal coin as a souvenir.
Some of the biggest benefits they gained from GNTE are lessons of humility and sportsmanship. It's important to do your best, not to cheat, celebrate others during their wins and not be a jerk when celebrating person victories:
“You want the other person to be happy for you too so you have to have a good attitude,” said Julian.
“Sometimes you just need to keep a straight face,” said Jason.