Tennis wasn’t the first sport Hector Henry fell in love with, nor the second. As a child in Jamaica in the 1940’s he and his friends spent many long hours playing cricket and soccer. He was even so gifted at soccer that he earned a spot on the Jamaican national team and later went on to play semi-professionally in the United States.
“In Jamaica, at that time, tennis was an upper class sport,” Henry explains. “But when I moved to the States, more people were playing it here.”
With his soccer career behind him, Henry enrolled at Brooklyn College and competed on the tennis team. After graduating, he coached the school’s men’s and women’s teams from 1983 to 1992, as well as several professional Jamaican players.
Two of the first things he noticed about tennis were parallels with the games he grew up with. The groundstrokes were similar to swinging a cricket bat and the running reminded him of soccer. His athleticism translated from the field to the court.
In the early 1990’s be began his NYJTL tenure, shifting his focus from elite professionals to youth players. For the last 17 years, he has been the director of NYJTL’s Linden Park site in Brooklyn, which currently serves 162 kids, ages 5 to 18, from all different skill levels, including special education students. During the winter, he directs NYJTL’s Early Morning Winter Program at the Heights Casino indoor courts in Brooklyn Heights.
“Because of my experience, I work a lot with the advanced and intermediate groups, and some of them have metro rankings,” Henry says. “But we also teach beginners whose parents just want them doing something constructive.”
Located in East New York, NYJTL’s Linden Park program attracts many low- and middle-income families from diverse backgrounds, including African, Caribbean, Hispanic and Asian.
“It’s a challenge to compete with the most popular sports like soccer, basketball and football,” Henry says. “But tennis is becoming more accessible to kids and NYJTL has done a wonderful job bringing it to communities like this.”
Henry notes the recent growth in the program among his youngest group (5- to 9-year-olds) and Hispanic youth. “It’s tied to Nadal’s success,” he says. “He’s an exciting player and they want to be like him.”
On a recent afternoon, one of Henry’s former NYJTL players stopped by Linden Park to visit. She was one of the dozens of players who earned a college scholarship thanks, in part, to his coaching. Those are the successes that make him most proud. “It’s a wonderful thing,” he says with a smile.