Tennis has been a priority for Chris Hoeland for almost as long as he can remember. After first picking up a racquet at about age seven, he started competing in tournaments a few years later. At Princeton High, he won four Mercer County titles and had a high school record of 100-9. Then it was on to Washington University in St. Louis, where he started on the tennis team all four years, winning the team national championship in 2008, and earning all-American honors three times before graduating in 2009.
Now 27, Mr. Hoeland spent three years as assistant coach of men’s tennis at Princeton University before taking on a fresh challenge last month. He is the new Program/Player Development Manager of the National Junior Tennis and Learning (NJTL) of Trenton, working with inner city children to improve their lives based on the ideals of the late tennis star Arthur Ashe.
NJTLT is part of a network of 620 chapters with 350,000 participants across the country. The Trenton program counts some 2,500 children involved throughout the year, with 600 enrolled during the summer and 500 to 600 during the school terms.
“I love kids,” Mr. Hoeland said this week. “I’d always been interested in teaching at some point. Working at Princeton University, one of the finest academic institutions in the world, clearly played a part in my role as a coach. Education and sports have always been a very big part of my life. I thought that in this role, I’d have a good chance to impact kids’ lives in Trenton, for the better. And what better way to give back than to help kids out by doing something I love?”
In his new role, Mr. Hoeland spends more time in the office than on the program’s recently refurbished tennis courts in Trenton’s Cadwalader Park. “I’m kind of getting things organized at the moment, but hopefully I’ll get to be on the court some more at some point,” he said. “I’m the main link between the tennis staff and the administrative office, and I’m still getting to know everyone.”
Mr. Hoeland was among those accompanying children from the Trenton program to the 18th Annual Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day at the start of the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows two weeks ago. Participating were first lady Michelle Obama, star players Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Sloane Stephens, and Serena Williams, and veterans Mary Jo Fernandez and John McEnroe. “It was awesome,” he said. “The kids got to be where it happens. They loved it.”
Mr. Hoeland lives in Princeton and is a product of its school system. He attended the Riverside Elementary School and John Witherspoon Middle School before moving on to Princeton High. He played tennis at Princeton Racquet Club and Hopewell Valley Tennis Center, “all the clubs,” he said, in his youth.
At Washington University, tennis continued to dominate his time. “It was easily the most enjoyable part of my college experience,” he said. “We won the nationals in 2008, so we obviously had a pretty good team. That was one of the reasons I got into coaching. I know my coach was a big part of what made it so special for me. That’s why I got back into college tennis after I graduated.”
Washington University is a Division Three program, and Princeton University is Division One. But the difference between the two was not Mr. Hoeland’s biggest challenge after he arrived at Princeton. “Learning how to coach and be an authority figure to kids less than a year younger than me was a big part of the transition,” he recalled. “But you pick it up quickly. You learn where to draw the line. It was an interesting balance for me.”
The youngsters in the Trenton program pose different challenges. The NJTLT provides 18 to 22 weeks of after-school tennis instruction in school gyms and community centers using the United States Tennis Association’s QuickStart format, with short courts and sponge balls, in partnership with the Trenton Public Schools, the City of Trenton, and other after-school providers. They compete in a tournament at the end at the city’s Sun Bank Arena.
“The program is awesome. We get the chance to change the lives of low income and at risk youth. Education is a big component,” he said. “They’re learning about things like geometry, through tennis. It’s the best way to learn, when you enjoy it and have a concrete connection.”
Mr. Hoeland will be checking in on the U.S. Open during the next two weeks. “I love playing, and I do watch, but I don’t follow as much as I should,” he said. “But I love [Roger] Federer, and we’ll have to see how that goes.”
In his new position, Mr. Hoeland hopes to inspire kids to love the sport of tennis as much as he has since early childhood. “It’s a sport you can play for the rest of your life,” he said. “And you can learn life lessons and a lot about yourself through sports. NO matter what you do through sports, you’re going to learn. And in a place like NJTL, where everyone is really supportive and has a common goal, you can really go far.”