Tennis teams up with American Cancer Society

By Jon Gluskin

This weekend, the Atkins Tennis Center will be transformed from the home of the 2003 NCAA champions to the site of the Northwestern Mutual/Wright Financial Group USTA Challenger, a professional tennis event.

This year, however, the tournament has taken a new focus.

The tournament staff has joined forces with the American Cancer Society, to benefit not only the participants in the event and tennis fans, but also cancer research.

On Saturday night, local children and teenagers aged six through 17-years-old, who have spent the last few weeks receiving pledges to benefit the American Cancer Society, will take over the tennis courts in the first Challenger Tenn-I-Thon. For approximately three hours, they will compete in a variety of tennis activities and games – for each minute they are on the court, they earn more money for the American Cancer Society.

“Cancer is certainly something that impacts everyone, everywhere,” said Jim Tressler, director of programs for the Atkins Tennis Center. “We think it’s important to give kids an opportunity to learn about helping others and it will give the kids in this town an opportunity to do something fun.”

Alex Voss, tournament coordinator and tennis instructor, is excited about the event. When he was growing up, his school participated in fundraising events like Math-A-Thon to raise money for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital and Jump Rope for Heart which supports the American Heart Association.

“It seemed like a no-brainer to do the Tenn-I-Thon,” Voss said. “We want the kids to realize that any effort that they put in is going to be helping people – no matter how large or how small it is. They’re all making a difference. It’s a difference that a week, two weeks or a year ago they weren’t making.”

The children who are expected to participate in the Tenn-I-Thon are mostly students enrolled in the various camps and programs at the Atkins Tennis Center, but the Tenn-I-Thon is opened to all children in the community who want to help the American Cancer Society.

“It’s just exciting to get kids involved,” said Hilary Wells of the American Cancer Society. “It’s a different way of doing things.”

Wells said she hopes the event will help children realize the importance of helping others.

“They’re going to be our leaders one day,” she said.

Juli Richards, also of the American Cancer Society, feels that by contributing to the American Cancer Society at an early age, they will continue to volunteer for the rest of their lives.

“They’re very impressionable, we go to schools and talk to them about healthy lifestyle choices and volunteering,” Richards said. “I think it’s good to get them involved when they are younger.”

The tournament staff hopes the partnership with the American Cancer Society will give the tournament a deeper meaning. The Challenger started as the brainchild of Illinois head coach Craig Tiley, who wanted to put tennis on the map in Champaign and give Illinois athletes the chance to compete in a high-level tournament. Now that the tournament is in its ninth year, more people are able to reap the benefits of the tournament.

“We needed to have someone else benefit, not just the players and the community, but the charity,” Tiley said. “Last year was just the beginning and we hope to really build on that.”

Voss thinks the success of the tournament and the men’s tennis team has increased the tournament staff’s ability to help other organizations.

“Now we got people interested and now we are able to give back,” Voss said. “We are trying to broaden what the purpose of the tournament is.”

The children are not the only ones getting involved. Throughout the week, a portion of all T-shirt sales and the semifinals ticket sales will benefit the American Cancer Society.

“We’re trying to make the tournament worthwhile for different reasons,” Tressler said.

Community members who would like to support the American Cancer Society can drop off donations at the front desk of the Atkins Tennis Center in envelopes marked to the attention of Jan Winters, American Cancer Society, USTA Tenn-I-Thon.