PRATT: Success of USTA Girls’ Nationals Credited to Kuhle

Junior tennis executives from the USTA were no doubt watching when tennis promoter Lornie Kuhle first acquired the Adidas Easter Bowl seven years ago, and promptly moved it to tennis mecca Indian Wells Tennis Garden.

Kuhle – who has been a fixture in Southern California tennis for more the 50 years – wasn’t done there. He brought in the Tennis Channel to do an hour-long special on the tournament, had a mobile phone app created, brought in a live-streaming team and designed large draw boards, as well as a serving speed gun and LED electronic scoreboards, so fans could follow the action just like you’d see at the humungous BNP Paribas Open.

So when those same higher-ups from the USTA tapped the Encinitas-resident Kuhle to revamp and re-shape the USTA Billie Jean King Girls’ 16s and 18s National Hardcourt Championships taking place this week at the Barnes Center in San Diego, they knew he’d immediately go to work.

Kuhle opened up his vast Rolodex of contacts and began calling everyone he knew. He needed to raise funds to help improve the tournament. The Tennis Channel quickly came aboard and for the past few years has been televising the final weekend, just like they will do this Saturday for the 16s final (1-3 p.m. PT) and Sunday for the 18s (2 to 4 p.m. PT).

The first step Kuhle took was to form an Organizing Committee for the event. Bill Kellogg, Charlie Pasarell, Jack McGrory and Una Davis stepped up and offered their support for the tournament.  According to Kuhle, “Without the support of our Organizing Committee, this tournament would not be where it is today.”

Kuhle began thinking bigger. Three years ago before the BNP Paribas Open, Kuhle approached the legendary Billie Jean King about hosting a fundraising lunch to raise funds to help the tournament grow in stature and profile. It was a huge hit, and Kuhle did the same thing the following year with King and popular actor Steve Carrell.

Kuhle wasn’t done yet. He invited King to last year’s tournament in August, and re-named the event the USTA Billie Jean King Girls’ National Championships.

In March at the BNP Paribas,  Kuhle, the Tennis Director at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas for the last 40 years, was able to get longtime friend Andre Agassi to host a fundraising breakfast. Agassi not only hosted the breakfast, but made a significant contribution to the cause, as did the Bryan Brothers, according to Kuhle.

Kuhle said the money raised from the Agassi breakfast at Indian Wells helped resurface all the Barnes Center courts with a matching grant from the USTA. In addition, money has been used to have chair umpires for every match, just like they do on the Boys’ Nationals at Kalamazoo.

“We were way behind in stature and always looking up at Kalamazoo, and now we’ve caught up,” said Kuhle, who famously served as Bobby Riggs coach during the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” match against King.

He added: “It’s so great to have the support of the pros like Agassi and the Bryan Brothers. It was a huge contribution and we couldn’t have done all the things we’ve done without them.”

This summer, Kuhle wanted to add a tagline to the tournament, a catchy phrase the 400 or so juniors could look up at and be inspired by while seeing the name Billie Jean King on a banner. In a casual email exchange between King’s partner Illana Kloss, Kuhle said he had found what he was looking for.

“Ilana and I were emailing back and forth during Wimbledon after Coco Gauff upset Venus,” Kuhle proudly recalled. “I mentioned it was great and that Coco had made it to our 18s semifinals a year ago as a 14-year-old. She ended the email with something like, San Diego Girls’ Nationals is ‘Where Champions Are Made.’ And that was it. Now you’ll see that everywhere, on our website, our program, and banners. This is where champions are made.”

Kuhle said a lot of the credit has to go to his friend Agassi, who USTA Nevada Executive Director Ryan Wolfington said is not only one of the game’s all-time greats, “But he’s also the most giving,” Wolfington said. “He was the first guy to create a foundation early on in his career. Go back and look at his first commercials in 1992 and he says it. Andre took tennis out of the country clubs and brought it to the masses.”

Agassi tapped Canyon Gate Country Club teaching pro and former UNLV NCAA doubles champion Tim Blenkiron to leave his comfortable position and start teaching at the Agassi Boys’ and Girls’ Club off Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., in one of the toughest areas of Las Vegas.

“Andre and Tim were the first to create a tennis, education and mentorship program called the ‘No Quit’ Tennis Academy,” said Wolfington, who co-founded the Marty Hennessey Inspiring Children Foundation and Team Bryan Excellence Team. “I saw what Andre and Tim did and I was blown away by what I saw. And I was able to duplicate it.”

The USTA took note, and Wolfington soon after brought his Team Bryan Excellence program to the USTA Foundation. There are now 16 nationwide “Excellence Teams” modeled after what Agassi and Blenkiron did in Las Vegas, and modified by what Wolfington has been able to accomplish with Team Bryan in Las Vegas.

One of the Las Vegas Foundation players is Abigail Desiatnikov, a Russian-born player who was looking for the structure a program like Team Bryan offers. The fact that over the past 10 years 130 students have gone on to earn college tennis and academic scholarships excited Desiatnikov and her parents to move to Las Vegas from Atlanta, where they were training with some of Wolfington’s Necker Cup associates.

In 2015, the then-14-year-old Desiatnikov was unseeded and came out of nowhere to win the Girls’ 16s in San Diego beating none other than current WTA pro Whitney Osuigwe in the final. Among the seeded players 17-32 this week in the 18s, Desiatnikov fell on Tuesday to Elvina Kalieva of Florida. Another Las Vegas player, however, Audrey Boch Collins advanced beating Casie Wooten of Torrance, Calif., 7-6 (3), 6-0.

This year’s Girls’ Nationals is as star-studded as in past years with No. 1 girls’ seed Hailey Baptiste just two weeks ago taking out former US Open finalist Madison Keys in a pro event in Washington D.C.

It’s all comes full circle: Agassi inspired Blenkiron in Las Vegas, who inspired Wolfington, who continues to mentor kids to reach for the stars with Team Bryan. Just like Lornie Kuhle continues to do his great work promoting junior tennis and who made that call to Agassi and received a contribution from the Bryan Bros. to help his tournament become one of the crown jewels on the USTA junior circuit.

Kuhle said both the USTA and the SCTA have stepped up this year, and new SCTA CEO Marla Messing has provided communications staff and social media to keep the tournament in the spotlight all week.

“What does the future hold?” Kuhle asked. “To attract all the best girls’ players in the nation. This tournament is the equivalent of a pro event. It’s only going to get bigger and bigger.”