A Tennis Makeover in Cuba, With an American Assist

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A report by Nick Pachelli for the New York Times.

The makeshift nets were a tangle of wires, and the white lines were almost completely chipped away. The condition of the only two usable tennis courts here for Cuba’s national team of six women and 12 men had fallen into disrepair after years of neglect.

But four months ago, in the kind of bridge that looser restrictions on trade between the United States and Cuba aspires to, an American nonprofit group swooped in and rehabilitated the Cuban National Tennis Center, believed to be the only full-fledged courts on the island not part of a hotel or resort.

Now there are 10 courts, and the optimism of Cuba’s tennis players are likely to develop and expand as well.

“We have new hope here,” Yusleydis Smith Díaz, 20, who is considered the top women’s player in Cuba, said as she finished a practice this week. “But tennis here is very difficult.”

Cuba all but shut down golf after the 1959 revolution brought to power Fidel Castro, who seized courses and denounced the game.

Although tennis, another sport of elite clubs, did not endure that level of derision, money for it dried up in favor of the government’s priorities: baseball, boxing, volleyball and other sports Cuba went on to excel at on the international stage.

“Tennis lacked the recreational history of sports like baseball,” said Robert Huish, a professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, who researches Cuban sports and social programs. “There were baseball teams of machine shop, loading dock and sugar plantation workers spread across the country.

“Tennis’s elite affiliation,” he added, “would have challenged a lot of the values of the Cuban revolution. The regime wanted to get rid of any hint of colonial history, and I could see tennis being a victim of that.”

President Raúl Castro, however, who assumed full power in 2008, has been seen as less doctrinaire. And with the restoration of diplomatic relations with the United States in 2015 and President Barack Obama visiting the island in 2016, both countries have explored opportunities to reconnect across a variety of endeavors, including sports.

While other efforts, including allowing Cuban baseball players to enter the Major League Baseball draft directly, remain mired in on-again, off-again talks, the revival of tennis accelerated over the course of a year of negotiations.

“It was a start-and-stop process of threading the needle until the bill of lading was signed,” said Jake Agna, director of Kids on the Ball, the American nonprofit group that refurbished the courts.

The organization emphasized the humanitarian aspect of overhauling the courts and propping up the sport, although “I do believe the less restrictive embargo opened the way for us,” Agna said, adding, “There was never a conversation about politics or politicians.”

Kids on the Ball agreed to do the work on the courts and provide tennis gear, a whole shipping container’s worth, at an estimated cost of $750,000.

“The courts are a dream made reality,” said Alexander Ferrales Gonzalez, president of the Cuban tennis federation, a division of the ministry of sports. “We can make a stage for tennis.”

Ferrales said he saw the courts as a springboard for the small elite training program and a catalyst to increasing tennis participation across Cuba. The federation estimates there are 2,000 players across Cuba with competitive aspirations.

Still, the ministry, known as Inder, controls decisions on resources, funding and athletic travel.

“It’s complex, but things are always complicated,” Ferrales said.

“Our top athletes have the skill and potential to eventually compete on the world tours,” he added. “But we must increase the quantity of tournaments they can participate in.”

One of his plans is to pursue sponsorship for his national team program. Puma and Adidas have long sponsored other Cuban sports like boxing, baseball and track and field. Tennis has never been sponsored.

“Also, exchanging players is very important to me,” he said. “We exchange already with the Dominican Republic, Panama and El Salvador. But I want to exchange with the U.S.”

Such aspirations, though, may rise and fall on the nations developing closer ties. The Trump administration has vowed to take a harder line on Cuba, but so far has left in place much of the Obama administration’s revised regulations.

“I know our players will get into the top 100 in the world,” Ferrales said. “And in that moment, the athlete will recognize the help of everyone that made it possible. And all we’ll need is one to succeed; others will follow.”

Still, it has been challenging for players to get a foothold in international tournaments.

Yoryana Delgado Herrera, the No. 2 women’s player, voiced frustration.

“We don’t get to play more than two tournaments a year, so we can’t get points to play other tournaments,” she said.

The next competition for her and Smith will be the Federations Cup in Panama in June.

She gestured toward her rackets; one of her strings was broken.

“Sometimes there’s a lot of string, sometimes there’s none and we have to wait,” Delgado said. “And there’s no tennis in Cuba outside of here.”

Cuba has had a few successful players on the world stage. The most notable was Mario Tabares, who played in the early 1990s and reached a career-high ranking of No. 131.

“Tabares and my brother Reynaldo Garrido are the best two players Cuba’s ever had,” Orlando Garrido said as he perused the walls of his Havana home, which is an expansive homage to Cuban tennis.

“We went to 58 countries as tennis players,” said Orlando Garrido, who played alongside his brother but stopped before him to start a career as an ornithologist.

In framed photographs, the brothers stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Rod Laver and Neale Fraser at a Davis Cup match in 1959. Plaques and medals don the walls from their time at the University of Miami, where they were a part of one of the longest winning streaks in college sports, 137 consecutive victories in dual matches. A bronze trophy from Orlando Garrido’s loss to his brother in the final of the 1959 Canadian Championships (now referred to as the Rogers Cup) is tucked in the back.

Since the Garridos, more than 150 Cuban players have competed in bottom-tier Futures tournaments across Latin America. But financing remained elusive, and many players defected or pursued jobs as teaching professionals.

“Our history is so rich, but tennis never really flourished among our people,” Orlando Garrido said.

Ferrales and the players said they believed that would change.

Standing on the new courts, flanked by the skeletal and decaying facilities where Cuba’s Olympic hopefuls train, Smith sounded optimistic.

“There are many Cuban tennis players before us, and we can grow that legacy,” she said.

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