By Rory Carroll
COMPTON, Calif. (Reuters) - U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens on Thursday unveiled refurbished tennis courts at a school in impoverished Compton, California, the latest in an ongoing effort by the African American player to expand the reach of the sport to minorities.
Four hundred elementary and middle school students joined the world number nine for a tennis lesson on a sun-soaked day on the crisp blue courts, which were paid for by Stephens' foundation and the Compton Unified School District.
Standing amid the children in a city where more than a quarter of residents live in poverty, Stephens told Reuters that to expose inner city kids to the game requires engaging directly with the neighborhoods that need it most.
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"We have to go into communities that are underprivileged and under-served and introduce tennis to them," Stephens said.
"It's very hands on and it's not easy. But to get into a school district like Compton, where there are a lot of minorities, is perfect because you give everyone the opportunity to play," added the Florida native who trains in nearby Carson.
"It's a lot of reach without having to go really far."
Compton is already etched into tennis history as the place where Serena and Venus Williams learned the game from their father Richard in the mid-1990s in lessons that were sometimes interrupted by the sound of nearby gunfire.
With courts in the works at Compton's Manuel Dominguez High School and Compton High School, Stephens said the tennis transformation taking place could be an example for other communities where basketball and football are dominant.
"What we've done here is incredible," said the 25-year-old, who won last month's Miami Open to achieve a career-high ranking.
"We've redone schools, we've done black tops, we've done everything imaginable to try help the schools give the kids the opportunity to be able to play."
"You can do it anywhere so long as you have someone that is committed," she added.
Stephens also praised the United States Tennis Association's Net Generation, which helps connect underprivileged youth with free tennis lessons, courts and equipment and helped organize Thursday's event.
Stephens, whose father played pro football and mother was an all-American swimmer, said the sport has been good to her and said she wants members of the next generation to have that experience too.
"I've gotten to travel the world, met amazing people, and I've gotten to do a lot with my life," she said.
"Tennis has given me that opportunity and just to be able to give that opportunity to one kid - it's life changing."
(Editing by Christian Radnedge)