When Christine Beck and her husband, Leif, launched the Philadelphia chapter of the U.S. National Junior Tennis League (NJTL)—a youth-development tennis program—in 1969, they would go door to door and ask if children wanted to play.
“My husband did most of the knocking,” Christine recalls, “but the bribe was a free tennis racquet.”
The Becks would then go to inner-city playgrounds, sweeping glass off the courts, and teach tennis two nights a week. They also invited kids to their home and gave them books, encouraging a lifelong affinity for learning.
“That’s what we conveyed as we grew NJTL here—a mission that’s pure,” Christine says.
The NJTL was co-founded by Arthur Ashe in New York in 1968. Ashe and Beck, who shared the same birthday, July 10, 1942, struck up a friendship working on NJTL. Thanks to the Becks’ efforts, Philadelphia NJTL quickly blossomed, and an indoor facility was donated. Beck persuaded Ashe to lend his name to the building.
“As programs expand, along with funding needs, it’s tempting to compromise mission,” she says. “We didn’t do that in Philadelphia, something Arthur respected a lot.”
Soon after, the building was christened the Arthur Ashe Youth Tennis Center.
“Our goals were the same,” says Beck. “Use tennis as a hook to open doors for underserved children, to expand their exposure beyond their neighborhoods and to help them understand the value of education.”
Children in brightly-colored T-shirts engaged in team play became hallmarks of NJTL events. The Becks were not concerned with grooming future stars of the sport, but rather enriching the lives of youngsters.
“If champions emerge, fine, but the goal was not to create tennis champions, but rather productive citizens,” Christine says.
She and Ashe worked even more closely together when she became the national board chair of NJTL from 1979 through 1983. Her mission to help kids has extended to other organizations. Today, Beck is the board chair of the Children’s Literacy Initiative, seeking to grow its partnerships. She also wrote a book, called “Listen to Our Voices,” with some of the students she works with.
“These are pre-teenagers who live with violence in their lives every day,” she says. “It was special to encourage them to write and talk openly about their fears and hopes and heroes, and then to see how thrilled they were to see a real book [come of it].”
For her efforts, Beck was given the USTA/NJTL Founders’ Service Award in March 2014. At 73, she hardly considers her mission finished.
“It does feel good to be committed to something that’s bigger than yourself,” she says. “There’s a lot to do in this world.”
She sees the parallels between tennis, literacy and all successful teaching: listening, encouraging, building trust and confidence in the learner, asking questions, adjusting approaches, and keeping a relaxed sense of humor.
Beck remembers when she was a student of tennis and of life: “Those were the days of active civil-rights movements, which created an awareness, for me, of the many injustices in our society. So much should be required of each of us.”