By Sigurd Neubauer
What does it take to foster a tennis champion?
Robin Montgomery, 18, is one of the most exciting players in U.S. women’s tennis. In 2021, the Washingtonian won both the junior girls’ singles and doubles titles at the US Open.
She got her start at the Junior Tennis Champions Center (JTTC) in College Park, Maryland.
Montgoamery was discovered through a community outreach program when she was five years old.
“She’s a great star,” says Vesa Ponkka, the JTCC president who has witnessed the youngster’s progress ever since she first entered the center.
Ponkka, one of America’s preeminent tennis coaches, has been teaching at the JTCC since its inception in 1999. The center has a staff of 24 full-time coaches along with three fitness coaches and a mental training coach.
“Montgomery was the best junior in the world in 2021, but currently ranked at WTA 193.”
While Ponkka predicts that she could become top 100 this year, within a couple of years – everything considered – she could become top 10 in the world. “She’s that good,” he explains.
But Montgomery is not the only star to emerge from the JTCC and its rigorous focus on developing the next generation of American tennis players.
Francis Tiafo, 24, and Denis Kudla, 30, are two of America’s top ATP ranked players, who along with Montgomery, have been coached by the JTCC team for over a decade.
“By the summer, Tiafoe, who is ranked as number 15 in the world, could become top 10,” Ponkka says.
Kudla is ranked 89 in the world.
Tiafo arrived at the JTCC at the age of four or five while Kudla was seven years old.
“We are in it for the long-term. Many of our kids come when they are quite young and stay with us for a long-time, often 10 years,” Ponkka says, while adding that his organization has little turnover as coaches and staff tend to stay for the long-term as well. “We take it as a compliment that players and staff stay with us for so long.”
Over the past 20 years, some 300 JTCC players have collectively earned more than $23 million in tennis scholarships while attending colleges with top tennis programs.
Kudla and Tiafoe represented the U.S. in the 2016 and 2020 Summer Olympics and in the 2023 Davis Cup
But the JTCC is not just about churning out stars, it is about fostering community, growing the sport, and inspiring youngsters to develop life skills through the pursuit of competition – both on and off the court – by excelling in tennis.
“We have a holistic coaching philosophy, which starts with looking at the individual needs of the person. Next, we examine his or her athletic abilities, and then we focus on developing the tennis,” Ponkka explains.
Describing the JTCC coaching principles, Ponkka points out that it centers on developing the whole person.
“We care about the player as a person. It is more than just teaching forehand and backhand; we’re mentors,” the president explains. He’s referring specifically to helping the player develop life skills such as mental performance, strength, and confidence.
Many of the JTCC players arrive early, at around four or five years old, and leave the center upon graduating from high school at 18.
“At the JTCC, we teach them life lessons and skills to be successful well beyond a tennis career with an emphasis on fostering life-learning.” This includes, Ponkka adds, “pressure management skills which enables the player to be competitive on and off court. They will be competitors in life with the ability to respond to internal and external pressures, which is important in life,” he says.
Ponkka, who is a native of Lahti, Finland, firmly believes that life skills can be learned from sports.
“Our sport is tennis. We take our students out of their comfort zone,” he adds.
When it comes to athletics, the JTCC’s guiding principle centers on developing wellness routines focusing on nutritious and healthy eating, and proper sleeping habits. “All of this is important as a prerequisite for playing good tennis,” the president says.
On how the JTCC methodology brings results, Ponkka points out that “happy people learn the fastest. It is all about who learns the fastest when you’re going to the top.”
On what makes the JTCC unique, Ponkka explains that it is not only a non-for profit, “which is rare in America,” but “we train our students to be successful in life with an emphasizes on striving for personal excellence in whatever they do.”
“We have 185 kids in our Champions Program, which is designed for 11 to 18-year-olds. They are tournament players, competing sectionally, nationally, and internationally,” Ponkka proclaims enthusiastically.
Its Pathway Program, which targets children under 10 to as young as four or five, has some 400 players enrolled, he adds.
The JTCC also doubles as a tennis club with a member base of 400 adults. “For us, it is about growing the game, which is why we have a comprehensive beginner’s program for adults.”
“Chances are,” he adds, “if an adult likes tennis, he or she will introduce their children to the game and so it begins.”
From left to right: Tiafo, Montgomery, and Kudla
The JTCC mission, Ponkka reveals, is all about transforming lives in communities through sport and education. “What we do is provide tennis for everybody,” he says.
Its mantra, SWING, stands for: Serving diverse communities; Winning together; Inspiring the future; Nurturing learning; Growing the game of tennis.
The center is also committed to what Ponkka describes as “shared responsibility,” which means “working together as a team and mentor younger players.” Together, the coaches and athletes share knowledge and experiences with the younger ones, he relays.
Montgomery, Tiafo and Kudla, among the many distinguished JTCC alumni, tend to come back to visit the younger students. “When the young players see and interact with them, they get inspired that they too can find success in tennis.”
Throughout their tenure at JTCC, every student and staffer must give back to the broader community through service. Over the past 20 years, the center has reached out to over seven thousand children in underserved communities, including through helping them develop the various life skills Ponkka outlined in our interview.
Committed to true inclusivity, the JTCC has also developed tennis programs for Special Olympics athletes, veterans, and disabled people through a wheelchair program. “The entire JTCC community interacts on a daily basis, which is part of the growth mindset that we instill in our students,” he says.
The JTCC has an annual budget north of $8 million. Every year, it provides need-based financial aid of $600,000 to $700,000 to families who otherwise cannot afford to attend.
“We know how insanely expensive tennis in the U.S. is, which is part of what makes us unique.”
All images are credited to the JTCC.
JTCC's coaching philosophy: person first; athlete second; tennis player third