“If you hit it over the DeSoto, it was a double.”

Allan Goldberg grew up playing stick ball on the streets of New York City. He and his crew didn’t play tennis and probably hadn’t even watched a match. “I don’t think we would have known what it was if we did see it,” laughed Allan. He still has that stick from his ball playing days. 

An athlete all his life, Allan went from running up and down the streets to racing around a track. He was a New York City champion and ran for his college team. Allan was invited to run in Olympic Development track meets.  He was able to keep up with the competition until they put their bodies into a gear which he didn’t and would never own.  “It was like being very successful tennis 4.0 and then playing against a 5.5.”

When he first met his wife, Lynn, she made it very clear if he was going to date her, he would have to start playing tennis. Allan was just fine with that. He took lessons and clinics, then started playing on teams. “It was addicting.”

Allan’s first experience teaching tennis was with his own children. He drilled with his kids and they too developed a love of the game. His younger daughter played #1 at Sanderson High School and played varsity tennis at UNCW. His son was a High School State Doubles Champion who went on to play for the Tar Heels at UNC-Chapel Hill. His older daughter decided that tennis was not for her and focused on academics and music – she was terrific as Reno Sweeny, the lead role in “Anything Goes.”

And So, It Begins…

When the Special Olympics World Games came to the Triangle, UNC in Chapel Hill served as the venue for the tennis competition.  Allan served as manager for court operations. “It was incredible,” he enthusiastically shared. “I met athletes and coaches from all around the world. It was a great experience!” An experience that motivated him to work with athletes with intellectual disabilities.

Allan trained as a coach with Marc Blouin, then General Manager of Raleigh Racquet Club (RRC), tennis pro Caroline Blouin, and Kirstie Marx, tennis pro and co-founder of what would become Abilities Tennis. He was there from the beginning, helping Marc and Kirstie each realize their goal of bringing tennis to special populations.

“We had a small group at RRC for several years,” shared Allan, “but we wanted to have a bigger reach.” They started working with Raleigh Parks and Recreation and Millbrook Tennis Center, and the program began to grow. Seven Oaks pitched in as a clinic location to ensure courts were always available.

“We’re volunteers, but we’re overpaid”

Allan has been serving as an Abilities Tennis coach since the program’s inception and served as Head Coach for many years. Now semi-retired, he still helps recruit coaches to support the Abilities Tennis clinics model. “I always tell potential coaches to come to a clinic and watch the athletes… you’ll be addicted.” And he’s right. His goal was to have a cadre of at least 20 coaches serving four courts and he’s never had a problem filling that number.

“Junior players love it, too,” he commented, “and they learn valuable lessons.”

“It’s great to strive to be your best as a Junior,” he explained, “but to help others achieve it, and to see everyone having fun no matter what their level, it has a big impact on our young coaches.”

Allan stressed that the relationships you develop with the players is a critical piece to a successful program. A good coach, whether adult, college, or high school age, wants to get to know the players, understand their needs on the court, and use this knowledge to help their athletes have a positive experience. Abilities Tennis provides training to those helping on the courts, and volunteers have a great time.

“We have special ed teachers, doctors, students… all kinds of people who love to play tennis. Many of our unified doubles partners have become coaches.”

Lifetime Sport, Lifetime Connections

Allan loves to see how much his athletes have improved. He shared that some players could barely hit a ball when they began and are now competing on the full court. Many of his Skills Court players moved from hitting only a dropped ball to being able to handle a fed ball.

The improvements are not just tennis related. Many athletes make friends, improve their social skills, and keep their connections off the court. He and other coaches have attended choral programs, art shows, and other events to support their athletes’ non-tennis activities.

He said the feedback from families chokes him up. One parent told him it’s been a life changing experience for their child. Another commented, “you have no idea how much this means to her” when telling him how much her daughter loves participating.

“The athletes are so positive and have a lot of fun. They even get really excited for their opponents if they hit a good shot.” Allan has one Skills Court player who does celebratory splits when her group claims victory over Allan and his crew.

An Incredible Tennis Community

Allan is incredibly grateful to all who provide courts for programs and emphasized this could not be done without the support of these clubs and organizations. “Raleigh Racquet Club has always been unbelievably supportive, from the beginning. Not just the leadership giving us space, but the pros and members giving us their time, teaching or playing unified doubles. It’s really wonderful.” The club also provides indoor courts during the Winter for clinics and Unified Doubles events.

Seven Oaks has followed suit with court time and lessons that their teaching pros have given as prizes for the athletes. “It really is a community effort and so many have contributed to the program’s success.”

The interest in the special needs community to play tennis is very high. “Our courts are always full and we even added a second clinic time. We lose participants only because they’ve moved out of the area.”

The program definitely has the potential to grow. However, as Allan points out, there are only so many courts available at times when the athletes and volunteers can participate. “You don’t want to lessen the experience with too many players on a court,” Allan stressed. Abilities Tennis has a great model, he further explained. “We need at least two coaches per court” plus a 1:1 or 1:2 ratio of volunteers to players, small numbers of athletes on each court, and players divided by skill level.

Now that Allan has retired as Head Coach, he has started doing a little less with the program. You will still see him on the courts, teaching in some clinics or hosting a Unified Doubles Play Day. It’s so obvious he loves it and it’s quite evident how much the players love him.