It was still dark when Pierre Ntonga Jr. and his older sisters, Nadine and Marie Claire, emerged from their high-rise apartment building in Harlem and turned down Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, headed to the Bronx and another day of tennis.
Pierre, 13, had set the alarm for 3 a.m. both days that weekend, just to make certain he and his sisters were not late. They would scramble onto a No. 2 subway, transfer to a bus and then walk the rest of the way to the gleaming Cary Leeds Center in Crotona Park.
Despite the early hour and the complicated commute, there were no complaints. There seldom are for the Ntonga children when it comes to tennis. Wherever they have to go, and whatever the hour, they are usually up for it.
“Can we go play right now?” Marie Claire, 15, said one recent evening as she, her parents and four of her six siblings sat in the living room of their 10th-floor apartment.
A year ago, none of the children had even held a proper tennis racket, much less played on newly refurbished courts. But in June, a little more than a year after immigrating from Cameroon to join their father in the Bronx, they stumbled upon the Leeds Center and New York Junior Tennis and Learning.
In just 10 months in the program, the Ntongas have shown remarkable aptitude for the sport, particularly Pierre, the only boy, whom coaches believe has the opportunity to play tennis in college at least.
“They are the essence of the program,” said Billie Jean King, a champion of underprivileged tennis players, not to mention 12 major tournaments. “I came from the public parks system, too. Not everybody has to end up No. 1 in the world, but it’s a great way to introduce the sport and give kids a productive alternative, and hopefully help get them into college.”
King was in New York this month to help promote the $26.5 million renovation of the Leeds Center, including two new state-of-the-art tournament courts. Once the home of a professional women’s tennis tournament, the center is hoping to host another tour event on its’ pristine hard courts with stadium seating.
More important for locals like the Ntongas, the center is also the headquarters of a junior tennis program, where children can learn a sport that often eludes poor youngsters.
The program has been around since 1971, an offshoot of the National Junior Tennis League, a project conceived and initiated by Charlie Pasarell and Arthur Ashe to bring tennis to underserved neighborhoods. It is the largest nonprofit youth tennis and education program in the country, serving 75,000 children in all five of New York City’s boroughs, at no cost to the families.
The center, with 22 courts, including 10 under a bubble for winter play, and modern classrooms, is the crown jewel of the program. It sits in Crotona Park, within walking distance of 30,000 children.
Until recently, that included the French-speaking Ntongas, who lived in a small apartment in the Bronx at the time. One day last June, Nadine, now 16, and Marie Claire were strolling through Crotona Park when they spotted the courts.
“Oh, wow,” Nadine exclaimed to her younger sister. “Can we play?”
They ventured inside and discovered they had to apply. They had to demonstrate that they were attending school and that their grades were sufficient.
While tennis is the hook to get children and adults involved, the program also emphasizes educational skills to succeed off the court. The educational component consists of tutoring, help with homework and family programs in health and wellness.
“In this neighborhood, most kids want to play baseball and basketball,” said Jisbel Barada, the manager of the program, which encourages whole families to participate in tennis and other activities. “But once kids start playing tennis, they love it.”
Another program, Volley Against Violence, brings together children and police officers for an evening of tennis, dinner and dialogue.
Barada said the center had added 12 families since the beginning of the year to bring the total to 75, more than doubling the number of families in the past year.
Nadine, Marie Claire, Pierre and 8-year-old Madeleine Ntonga participate in several of the organization’s programs, including those after school, on weekends and in the summer. At their apartment they proudly displayed some of their shiny medals and trophies.
“They are doing remarkably well,” said Cesar Leon, a coach and former program participant, who later competed for Wilkes University in Pennsylvania. “Particularly Pierre, because he is younger and really dedicated to improving. But they are all great kids, so respectful and attentive.”
Their father, Pierre Ntonga, arrived in New York alone in 2010. In Cameroon, he owned a small shop that rented chairs for private events and parties, he said, but he struggled to provide enough for his family.
“There is no opportunity there, like there is here,” he said. “If you are poor in Cameroon, it is not an easy life. You have to pay for everything, the schools, the hospitals, the water. You don’t have clean water like here. If you get sick and you don’t have money, you can die.”
Not long after he arrived in the Bronx to live with a brother and work minimum-wage jobs, Ntonga learned that his 11-month-old son had died of malaria. He could not afford to go back to Cameroon. Instead, he worked to secure green cards for his wife and six children, who came from Cameroon two years ago. Another child was born in New York shortly after, and she is, so far, the family’s only U.S. citizen.
The children knew only French when they first walked into their Bronx public schools two years ago, but they now speak English fluently.
“It was hard for the first six months,” said Marie Claire, who also runs track for her school. “But it forces you to learn.”
Although they moved to a bigger apartment in Harlem this month, the children still attend the same schools in the Bronx.
Their father, who grew up playing soccer, had only a passing interest in tennis based on the success of the French tennis champion Yannick Noah. The son of a Cameroonian soccer player, Noah was born in France but returned to Cameroon as a child when his father’s playing career ended.
Noah is said to have been discovered by Ashe and Pasarell during their trip to Cameroon in 1971. More than four decades later, the Ntonga children have had their tennis lives nurtured by the successors to those two men.
“My wife and I are so happy that they play tennis,” said Pierre Ntonga, who now sells tickets for a tour bus company. “It is very important to have these constructive activities.”
One recent afternoon the four tennis-playing Ntonga children emerged into the twilight tired but energized after three hours at the Leeds Center. Their routine calls for an hour of homework followed by two on the court twice a week, and some weekends, too.
With his three rackets stuffed into his backpack alongside his books, Pierre fell asleep on the second of two city buses in their hourlong commute back home.
But just before the children boarded the first bus, Pierre looked back at the outdoor tennis courts and asked, “Can we go play some more?”