Before starting the trek to what she hopes is a U.S. Open championship, tennis pro Dominika Cibulkova served up tips and her passion for the game to dozens of kids in Central Park.
Cibulkova, the 13th-ranked female player in the world, said her tennis journey began much like the children she instructed Sunday.
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"I was 8 years old on my first day when a man in my neighborhood started a camp with about ten of us. After the first week, we had our first tournament. I was not nervous," Cibulkova, 25, said Sunday.
Among her pupils could be a star of the future, Cibulkova said. More than 200 children and adults signed up for the clinic at the Central Park Tennis Center.
"One of these kids can be a pro player and I want them to remember this day as the day they started to play tennis," said the Slovakian, who starts play this week at the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows.
The clinic was launched by former Queens men's tennis champion Vitas Gerulaitis. The event, which is run by the City Parks Foundation, has become a pre-U.S. Open tradition that includes free tennis lessons for children between 6 and 16. A select group of the trainees get to participate in a year-round program with the foundation's City Parks Junior Tennis Academy.
"We are carrying the torch on to the next generation," said Mike Silverman, director of sports for City Parks Foundation. "Vitas would come here to this court on the eve of the U.S. Open with Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe and give lessons to kids."
City Parks Foundation is a nonprofit that has supported the clinic and the tennis program since it started 30 years ago. This summer 7,000 children played tennis for free at 38 city parks. Silverman said what sets his program apart is the long-term success of participants.
"We see our kids progress and go on to get scholarships for college," he said.
Denise Trerotola, 16, of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, hopes to be one of the future college players. She started at the clinic when she was 5 and is now the captain of the tennis team at Saint Saviour High School in Park Slope, where she will be a senior this fall.
"I love this game so much. I spent all my summers playing tennis. I never had to worry about what to do during the summers," Trerotola said. "I hope to come back and teach."