Tennis helped teenager Mukasa find his sense of belonging.
By Ashley Marshall, USTA Foundation
Tennis is many things to many people. For Mukasa Ricketts, it’s more than just a sport – it’s part of his identity.
Mukasa moved from Jamaica to Texas in 2014 when he was 13 years old. He rarely played sports, and some of his peers mocked him for being placed in special education classes.
As a young teenager in a new city with few friends, Mukasa (pictured above) found it hard to fit in with his new surroundings. But through tennis, he found a both sense of worth and the determination to believe that anything is possible through perseverance and belief.
“Tennis … changed my life,” Mukasa said. “Before tennis, I couldn’t see myself being anything much. I was in special education classes and had low self-esteem. I tried being like my peers: smart, talented, and bold. But I didn’t see those things in myself. I told myself some were great and others weren’t, but that all changed after tennis.”
Today, Mukasa is one of the top players on his high school team. He’s a straight-A student and a member of a USTA National Junior Tennis and Learning (NJTL) Excellence Team at the Dallas Tennis and Education Academy. DTEA was started by the Dallas Tennis Association in 1978 to support thousands of inner-city and at-risk children.
Nationwide, the USTA Foundation oversees 14 Excellence Teams across the U.S. to ensure the best coaching and resources are available to those youngsters with the most desire, athletic potential and financial need.
Mukasa’s tennis story began when he tried to join his school team three years ago. Having barely swung a racquet before, he struggled with the basics and was made fun of by other players.
Right there, the teenager decided he wouldn’t stop practicing until he was best player in the school. Within a year, Mukasa’s game had grown by leaps and bounds. He improved so much and so quickly that he was good enough to join the team. The only problem was his grades.
“If you love a sport, you want to keep playing that sport,” said Mukasa, who tried soccer, basketball and karate when he was younger. “My grades weren’t that good, and I never had the right motivation for it. But I knew that if I never made good grades, I wouldn’t be able to keep playing tennis, so I worked harder.”
Mukasa began dedicating himself to his studies, the final piece in his puzzle to making his school team. Eventually, the hard work paid off.
“I was very proud,” he said of earning a spot on the school roster. “We each got a team hat, shorts and a shirt. And just knowing I could wear it and that I started at the bottom, it made me feel good.”
Tennis has continued to help Mukasa dedicate himself to his studies, find his identity and lead a healthy, active lifestyle.
Last year, Mukasa won the Arthur Ashe Essay Contest after penning an essay about how lessons learned on the tennis court can help development and character off it. When he begins his senior year in the fall, he will serve as the president of his school’s National Honors Society as well as the class president. His ambition is to attend college to study chemical engineering.
His story is at the heart of what Excellence Teams are all about, because they bridge cultural and socioeconomic boundaries to tap into a pipeline of future American champions and community leaders who may never have otherwise had the chance to fulfill their goals.
A collaboration between a number of USTA departments including the USTA Foundation, Player Development and Diversity and Inclusion, these teams are supported by the National Junior Tennis and Learning chapters and the Evert Family to identify and train the next wave of American stars on and off the court.
Excellence Teams offer a minimum of 30 weeks of programming while providing academic support, private or group instruction and financial support to offset tournament fees and travel costs.
Other playing opportunities include an invitation to compete in the USTA Player Development playoff for spots in the Summer Clay Court Nationals and National Championships; an Excellence Teams Cup in College Park, Md., every summer; and a workout camp in Key Biscayne, Fla., each winter.
Excellence Teams have the support of pro ambassadors and are coached by USPTA- and PTR-certified coaches who also track report cards and oversee a student-driven community project as part of a player’s college preparation.
With school grades being one thing originally keeping Mukasa off the court, having an Excellence Team coach monitor his progress proved pivotal in his success.
“Tennis made me stay up a lot of nights doing work and making sure stuff got turned in on time so I could go out on the tennis courts the next day,” Mukasa said. “With tennis, one day you’re at the top of the world, the next day you’re at the bottom. You have to have that perseverance. You can’t just give up when times are rough. You have to know that you can do it and believe that with hard work you will be able to do it. If I didn’t have perseverance, I would have given up on it.”