NJTL Time: Vanita Mattix Helps Kids Learn the Game in Golden Triangle
Story & Photos by Solomon Crenshaw Jr./Special to USTA Southern
WEST POINT, MS - The boys lingered on the tennis court, trying as hard as they could to extend the experience they just had.
The first van had already headed up College Street to take the girls back to the summer camp where they spend their days. Two male campers could be heard as they made their way off the court. “I won,” one told his friend. “No, I won,” said the other.
In truth, no points, no games, no sets were played on the tennis courts at Marshall Park in West Point on this Friday morning. Neither the boys nor the girls who were introduced to the game are ready to lift trophies overhead.
But a seed was planted, the latest seed planted by Vanita Mattix (pictured above) and her Golden Triangle Tennis program. It’s one of eight National Junior Tennis League programs to garner support from USTA Southern in the form of its USTA Southern NJTL Blueprint for Success Capacity Building joint venture.
The Golden Triangle region is in the east central portion of Mississippi, with the cities of Columbus, Starkville and West Point at the corners of the triangle. The NJTL program that bears the region’s name teaches classes in each city, with leaders occasionally darting from one to teach in another. Mattix said the potential of the area makes it a gold mine.
“There is so much untapped interest in these areas, where kids have not been exposed to tennis but need something to do,” she said. “It just amazes me when I see kids everywhere I go. I’m like, ‘That kid was in my program six years ago and now they’re graduating from high school.’
“We’ve been able to impact in a positive way,” said Mattix who, along with her staff, began their summer program in Starkville with 58 of the 107 enrolled at Needmore Community Center. Angel Tate, 18, and Chavis Ivory, 24, taught 31 in the younger group while Mattix worked with the older youths on their NJTL essays. The trio then hit U.S. Highway 82 for the half-hour trip to Columbus High School, where 14-year-old Kendall Moody joined the teachers. Light rain arrived just as 17 of the 30 enrolled students showed up but they were undeterred, grabbing squeegees and rollers to dry a couple of courts during a break in the downpour. A day later, Mattix’s son R.L. Mattix Jr., joined the group as 21 summer day campers from Tech Generation Learning Center were introduced to tennis. Dr. Martha S. Liddell, director of the center, calls Golden Triangle Tennis the answer to a prayer.
“I said, ‘Dear Lord, send us who we need and who needs us,’” she recalled. Without Mattix, she said, “Our children would not have had that opportunity.” Mattix, 44, who has played tennis since 2007, identifies herself as a certified family nurse practitioner by day and a certified tennis enthusiast by day and night. Both her play and teaching style are largely selftaught and sometime unorthodox. She tells children to “Smell your elbow” to help them understand the follow through on their groundstrokes. And then there is training with scoops of water.
“One day, I was showing them technique and I was thinking, 'This looks like I'm scooping water out of the bucket and pouring it over my shoulder,'” she said. “I tell them that if they spill the water then the ball is going down. You've gotta keep that water in your hand until it goes over your shoulder. We've actually done it with cups of water, tossing it over their shoulder. “Whatever works,” Mattix said. “I just learned along the way.”
The 2018 investment in USTA Southern’s NJTL chapters included $104,000 in capacity building funds from USTA Southern, $90,000 in program grants from the USTA Foundation and $30,000 for a professional consultant provided by the Southern Tennis Foundation. In addition, both USTA Southern and the USTA Foundation have provided training and travel to the eight chapters selected. Mattix said Blueprint For Success training she received in Atlanta provided support and direction to build her organization so it – and the youngsters she reaches – can see sustainable growth. “I’m ecstatic to have a kid who’s in the seventh grade and starting on their varsity tennis team,” she said.
“And I’m ecstatic when I can stand with a kid to get his scholarship. But I’m happy also to see that this kid didn’t go to jail, this kid graduated high school, and this kid is coming back and teaching in my program.”