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Historic youth tennis program set for debut in Manatee

MANATEE — The Palmetto Youth Center offers programs that roughly 100 urban children take advantage of each week.The programs include football, cheerleading, basketball and similar traditional sports.But in recent history, the center has never offered tennis.So when a group led by former tennis professional Bob Davis went to center director Christopher Lukowiak a year ago with an offer for free tennis for any interested child, Lukowiak was gleeful.“We may now be able to attract that handful of kids who may not have wanted to come to our center because we didn’t offer something like this,” Lukowiak said Friday.The historic moment is set for 3:30 p.m. Jan. 16. That’s when free tennis instruction for youths ages 6 to 10 is scheduled to come to the Palmetto Youth Center, 501 17th St. W., Davis confirmed Friday.Davis, now 67, moved to Manatee County in 1993. He grew up playing tennis under the auspices of the American Tennis Association, which he describes as “the oldest African American sports association in the county.”“I grew up in that organization during segregation,” Davis said. “It formed the man I grew up to be. I learned from role models I saw.”Believing that tennis is a portal to important life skills for urban youth, Davis has committed himself to bringing the sport to Manatee’s under-served children.It took him more than a year to lay the groundwork that will bring the sport to four locations in the county at a cost of roughly $50,000 a year, paid for by numerous grants and donations, Davis said.Locations include the Palmetto Youth Center, the United Community Center in Bradenton, Church of the Cross in Bradenton and a fourth site, which might be Bayshore Elementary School, Davis said.Several agencies are combining their organizational muscle to bring Davis’ dream to a reality.Leading the way is Davis’ own Panda Foundation, which he started in 2000 as a way of helping the literacy of under-served children.“I chose the symbol of the panda because the creature is black, white and Chinese,” Davis said. “You can’t get more diverse.”Manatee Memorial Hospital is on board, agreeing to mentor the children who sign up on the importance of fitness, as well as offering them health screening and nutritional education, Davis said.Health Net, a partnership for children, has signed on.The American Tennis Association, Davis’ touchstone, has agreed to help, along with the United States Tennis Association.Davis, who played junior tennis with the great Arthur Ashe and was Ashe’s business partner in some ventures, also has mentoring commitments from Manatee leaders like Nick Bollettieri of Bollettieri Tennis Academy.The dignitaries will make it all official during a Dec. 15 press conference at Manatee Memorial Hospital.“We want to catch children before they develop a stigma against tennis,” Davis said. “There is a national stigma that tennis is a sport for affluent whites only.”“We are hoping to impact 1,000 kids from age 6 to 10,” Davis added.Panda tennis will use a shorter, 18-foot deep tennis court and smaller nets, Davis said.Players will also use smaller tennis racquets and un-pressurized tennis balls.“We will run the program from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. two days a week at each location, except Wednesday, when schools are out early, which will be 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.,” Davis said. “We will have five teachers and will teach 10 kids per court or 20 kids every 45 minutes.”Parents and guardians who wish to enroll their child for the free instruction, which starts at all locations in mid-January, can call the Panda Foundation at 941-538-7115, Davis said.Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 6686.