In 1975 Daryl Whitley was hanging out at his stepdad’s home — “bored to death,” he recalls — when he turned on the television and saw Arthur Ashe win the Wimbledon singles title. “A black guy?” Whitley recalls thinking: “It was the first time I’d ever seen tennis.”
Whitley found his stepdad’s old racket and was figuring out the game at Douglass Park when he spotted a sign promoting Indianapolis National Junior Tennis and Learning (NJTL), which took him to Riverside Park and a path to academic and athletic success.
More than 55,000 children have received tennis instruction through Indianapolis NJTL since its founding in 1969. The USTA/Midwest Tennis & Education Foundation supports the program, which serves youth ages 5 to 18 at all tennis skill levels, regardless of their families’ income. Approximately 50 percent of the youth that participate in the Indianapolis NJTL need financial assistance to be able to play tennis.
Whitley won NJTL’s novice championship his first summer, and over the next couple of years, the intermediate and advanced divisions as well. While his game improved quickly, his single-parent household couldn’t afford the expenses of more advanced tennis. With behind-the-scenes support from Indianapolis NJTL founder Barbara Wynne — “She has a heart of gold,” Whitley says — he was able to take lessons, participate in the USTA’s advanced junior development program, play in tournaments and qualify for nationals. At age 18, Whitley was ranked first in the Central Indiana District, in the top 10 in the Midwest, and 95th in the nation.
“Once I became an athlete, I didn’t want to do drugs or alcohol,” he says, although he lived in an area where plenty of both were available. “I focused on my studies and made the National Honor Society.”
Tennis also caused him to adopt healthy eating habits, a significant challenge in low-income families. And it broadened his perspective: “Very seldom did I travel outside of my neighborhood,” he explains. “Match play in parks where we didn't all look alike expanded my view of what the whole city looked like and opened my world.”
Tennis took Whitley on a full scholarship to Indiana State University, where he played #1 his sophomore, junior, and senior years. “I knew that I was going to college, but I would have had to take out loans,” he says. “The scholarship made it a lot less complicated.” During summers, he coached and mentored up-and-coming junior players at North Central High School.
Today Whitley is part of the leadership team for State Farm Insurance, his employer for 28 years. Coming full circle in tennis, he also serves on the board of Indianapolis NJTL. “I’m in this legacy mode in my life,” he says. “NJTL gave me a solid foundation for success. I had to get involved.”
Whitley’s 16-year-old daughter Jaelyn also participates in Indianapolis NJTL and is the #1 singles player at Cardinal Ritter High School. He calls his wife Stephanie their biggest cheerleader. “I get really emotional when I talk about NJTL,” he says. “As Arthur Ashe intended, the educational component is most important.”
Giving other children access to tennis programs like Indianapolis NJTL is what the USTA/Midwest Tennis & Education Foundation is all about. “Parents’ ability to pay may be limited, and you don’t want to turn any kid down,” Whitley says. “If people had not looked at my circumstances, they could have turned a blind eye; instead they helped me realize my potential.”
“I realize people feel that tennis is an elitist sport,” he says. “And it is an expensive sport, and most of our successful tennis players still grow up in Florida or California. But I’m hopeful. We’re starting to develop more tennis players of color. Folks like myself at the grassroots level can be influential.”