Portsmouth tennis champ set on fixing courts


PORTSMOUTH — The Portsmouth High School girls' tennis team has won three straight state titles, yet its home courts are in such bad shape that the school isn't even allowed to host playoff games there.

"The cracks are horrible," said Kathryn Harper, a senior who's been ranked No. 1 on the girls' team for the past three years.

During competitive matches, she said, if a ball hits a crack the athletes must play a let — essentially a do-over — in the interest of fairness.

"It just really affects play. In the back corner, after it rains, it's really slippery and will stay slippery for a couple of weeks," said Kathryn, adding that the lights were taken down a couple of years ago because they were damaged. The courts are also lacking windscreens and the nets are in poor shape, she said.

Kathryn took matters into her own hands recently when she organized a benefit round-robin doubles tennis tournament as her senior project. She raised over $500 in the April 6 tournament, which will go into a fund she set up for maintenance of the courts.

"I didn't really want it to be used for anything else. I'm hoping the girls keep raising money as the years go on. It takes a lot of money to re-surface the courts," she said.

It would also be nice, she said, if the courts — and the PHS tennis program — got more attention from the town.

"With the courts, I'm hoping that the (PHS Athletic) Boosters or the Town Council at some point realize that the girls' tennis team over the past three years has won three titles," she said.

Last fall the girls' team capped a perfect 14-0 season by winning the Division II state title after moving up from Division III. "I feel that we're really competitive," Kathryn said. The boys' team is working equally as hard, so both teams deserve to play on courts that are worthy of their talents, she said.

(The School Committee last week voted to seek bids for engineering work toward a major upgrade to the athletic facilities at the school, including the tennis courts. The Athletic Boosters has raised nearly half of the estimated $1.5 million to get the job done.)

After sweeping the courts for about two hours — debris is also a problem — Kathryn hosted her tournament. "We ended up having 16 players and I had a lot of friends and family for support."

Among the tournament competitors were Judy Colman, coach of the girls' team, and Luke Lewis and Ryan Goulart from the boys' tennis team, which Kathryn helps out with in the spring. "I mostly help out with the JV and I hit with the varsity sometimes, too," said Kathryn, whose younger brother Ben plays on the boys' team.

A life in tennis

Kathryn's mentor for her senior project is Sandy Sweet, a community tennis director for the United States Tennis Association, whom she met her through tournaments. Tennis has been an important part of Kathryn's life since she got her first racket as a Christmas present when she was 7 or 8.

"I signed her up for the Y basketball; she was terrible," said her mom, Mary Harper. "Then we signed her up for the Y soccer; she was terrible."

But when an opportunity came up to take lessons at the Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Kathryn tried it and fell in love with the sport.

"Kathryn will play six, seven hours a day," said Ms. Harper.

Kathryn used to be a ball girl during tournaments at the Tennis Hall of Fame, where she ran into enfant terrible John McEnroe one year. Kathryn tried to approach him, despite the fact that he had already made her friend cry.

"I tried to get his autograph and talk to him and kept walking away from me," she recalled. "I told him, 'I loved you in 'Mr. Deeds,' which is my favorite movie."

McEnroe's response? "Yeah, whatever kid."

The encounter didn't discourage her from playing tennis, which she said has improved her life off the court as well. When Kathryn was in elementary and middle school, she struggled with mathematics and English, and homework was an ordeal. Her reading skills also lagged behind the other kids.

"While my friends were flying through the 'Harry Potter' series, I took a couple of months to read one 'Magic Tree House' book," she wrote in her college essay.

Tennis, she said, was something she understood and enjoyed and it helped her become more competitive in academics.

"When I was younger and in elementary school, I had an IEP (individualized education program)," said Kathryn. "When I started playing tennis, it made me more independent as a person. It may me want to try harder and we got rid of the IEP."

Almost everything Kathryn does seems to relate to tennis, said her mom. "Even when she was in middle school, her science project was about a racket handle," said Ms. Harper.

Recruited by RPI

Kathryn was recruited to play varsity tennis next year by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where she'll be studying materials engineering. She hopes her degree will allow her to continue her passion for the sport that's given back so much to her.

"I'd really like to work for either Under Armour, or a tennis company making rackets," she said.

If you'd like to donate money toward Kathryn Harper's tennis court improvement project, visit http://portsmouthhighschooltenniscourts.weebly.com. Or, donate to the Harper Project Fund at the People's Credit Union in Portsmouth.


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