NEW YORK, NY, USA -- Following a seven-month absence from action while she rehabbed her ankle, two-time Grand Slam doubles champion Vania King made her way back into professional events in August. King has already made a fantastic mark at Grand Slam play, partnering with Caroline Dolehide to reach the women's doubles semifinals at the US Open, an event she won alongside Yaroslava Shvedova in 2010.
During her hiatus, though, the American supported her tennis community in a different way, by donating her time and energy to those who need it most. In July, King combined her talents along with those of the staff of Barefoot Law, a legal aid nonprofit organization based in Kampala, Uganda, to provide a three-day tennis and legal aid clinic to over 200 of Kampala’s underprivileged youths.
“It’s all very happenstance, because that’s how I live my life,” said the extremely well-rounded athlete, who had already worked towards a Master’s degree in nonprofit management. “But I’ve always liked volunteering and philanthropy,” added the former WTA Doubles World No.3 and Top 50 singles player.
King was inspired to put the event together after she came across an article online which recounted how Barefoot Law assisted a woman who had been assaulted by her brother-in-law after her late husband had left their property to her, instead of to him.
“One of the programs that they do is rural outreach,” King explained, while discussing Barefoot Law’s objectives. “Their goal is to reach 50 million citizens by the end of 2030, and more of an immediate goal is to reach all Ugandans to provide access to legal aid and legal education.”
The example King encountered was just one of the instances where Barefoot Law’s mission came to fruition, while overcoming systemic sociological problems. “They helped her bring her brother-in-law to justice. It took five years, and in the meantime, she had to live next to him, because they lived in adjoining properties.” He eventually received a 15-year prison sentence.
King started corresponding with Barefoot Law’s staff, and met up with members of the organization shortly thereafter. “Last October, I happened to go on safari in Uganda; it was coincidental, I didn’t mean to go visit them,” King explained.
“I ended up getting dinner with a couple of the staff of Barefoot Law, and got to know them,” King continued. “Once I met them, I formed a more personal connection, and talked more about how I could help.”
Through their conversations, King realized that her skills provided a valuable asset to the organization’s mission of providing legal aid outreach to a community in need. “I thought about how I can do the most by leveraging my network, which is tennis,” said King. “If we do something that combines tennis with legal aid, then I can help, because I can promote the tennis side.”
From there, King and Barefoot Law devised the combined legal aid and tennis event. “It worked out really well because Barefoot Law is based in Kampala, and they were on the ground there, so they were able to organize all the details,” said King.
The clinic was set up at Kololo Primary School in Kampala, the nation’s capital and largest city, which is where a youth tennis program called Tennis For All Uganda was already based. King and Barefoot Law coordinated with those coaches to motivate children from other schools in the city to attend.
The event encompassed three days, and was split into two halves each day. In the first half of the day, the youths received education about the law and their rights from Barefoot Law’s staff. After lunch, the children then got to play tennis for four to five hours during the second portion of the day.
King questioned if the children would be able to play for that long at the end of each day, but she was assured by the Tennis For All Uganda coaches that it would be no problem at all, and that “if you give them eight hours, they’ll play for eight hours. The kids were really impressive, and they were really disciplined and good kids, and talented.”
Almost instantly, the event reached a number of participants which surpassed the expectations of the organizers. “Originally we were supposed to have 100 kids, and then I got there and they say, ‘More like 160,’” King effused. “This is on maybe a little bit bigger than one court.” Over 200 children eventually showed up to the event.
King set up eight stations amongst which the children rotated, including those for specific strokes, including forehands, backhands, and volleys, as well as a fitness station and a match play station. King gave older, more experienced children clear directives to maintain drills at their spots while she jockeyed back and forth among the stations for pinpoint advice.
“At the beginning of the day, I gave them clear instructions to focus on, say, three things I’d want you to work on for the forehand,” said King. “The grip, turn the shoulders, split-step every time. They did a great job. They were very responsible. Then I would just keep going around and correct and give tips here and there.”
“They took it all in stride, and I feel like if I coached kids in the States that way, I’d make them cry!” King added, with a laugh. “I’m only here for a certain amount of time, and I want to make the most of it, for them. I want to give them as much information as possible: Keep focused, move quicker, be disciplined.”
King was also heartened by donations which bolstered the event, coming from organizations she connected with through Ann Austin at WTA Charities. Kits were provided by Judy Murray’s foundation, Babolat donated accessories such as towels and grips, and WTA Charities provided ‘Come Play’ shirts.
Additionally, Deven Bapat, a high school senior who runs the Austin, Texas chapter of Kids Serving Kids, a nationwide organization which collects and recycles tennis racquets, donated approximately 250 racquets from his chapter to the event.
“It’s a testament that you’re never too small in the world to change it for the better,” said Bapat, after coordinating with King and WTA Charities to get the racquets to the clinic. “That was a perfect example of how small actions of a few could yield huge results in the lives of those who need help the most, and that’s what that meant to me, the bigger outreach.”
Bapat was moved after seeing photographs of his chapter’s donations being put to use at the event. “When they were holding those racquets, it puts a smile on your face.”
“I think that if they’re able to keep playing tennis, then that’s an important thing,” Bapat continued. “Tennis itself is a sport that teaches you so many life lessons that are helpful for the future: being on your own, taking responsibility for your own actions. I think that’s important too. In those photos, you can see it, they’re not just playing tennis, they’re learning lessons about how to better deal with their lives.”
Naturally, King also was heavily moved by her interactions with the participating children during the three-day event. She was particularly touched by the actions and attitude of one boy of about 10 years old, who immediately became adept at using King’s digital cameras.
“He figured out in five minutes how to use the video, how to change the functions, how to change the filters,” said King. “He wants to be a photographer, this kid, who unfortunately probably won’t have the means to because photography is very expensive.”
King had also been working closely with another teenager in one of the intermediate groups before she found out from the Barefoot Law attorneys that, during the legal aid portion of the event, he expressed that he had recently been abandoned by his father in a house for three days. “I had no idea until the last day that this was the son in the story,” said King.
“All the kids, when they go to tennis, they’re happy,” King continued. “It’s a good balance because the legal side is educating them. Maybe the sad side comes out ...then they go [to the tennis part] and they can be kids.”
King stated that her overarching plan is to “try to hold programs all over the world” in a similar fashion to what she and Barefoot Law carried out in Uganda. “I’m realizing that each place that I go to will have its own unique problems, [and would be] figuring out ways to create sustainability for them.”
The American, however, is optimistic that sustainability is a possibility for both the organizations and those who take part in the clinics. “I’m hoping that we’ve empowered them to have hope -- that they’ll think ‘I can do more by myself,'” said King. “I think we did. That was the goal.”
All of King’s volunteer work and her relationship with WTA Charities has inspired King to start her own nonprofit, Serving Up Hope, which has the aim of empowering and educating children by creating and maintaining sustainable tennis programs worldwide.
King also has the goal of bringing more of her own network into her mission, which is the culmination of her philanthropic journey that has included long-standing work with Athletes for Hope, Nothing but Nets, and ACEing Autism.
“I would love to get more players involved,” King continued. “I say, ‘If you ever want to get involved in any way, there’s so many things.’ You don’t know it until you do it, but there’s so many ways to help. It’s not strictly, ‘Oh, I must fly over there and host an event.’ There’s lots of ways that people can get involved.”
“That’s the end goal: to get people involved in my community, which is pro tennis,” King stated. “I would love to get tennis players involved and help underprivileged communities through tennis.”