Aspiring champs get quality time with Djokovic

May 15, 2022

Ensuring as many kids as possible can try out tennis is a long-running initiative at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia.

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There's a lot to process when entering the grounds of the Internazionali BNL d'Italia for the first time. A grey building that could use some significant TLC leaves an interesting first impression, but it's soon dissolved by a long walkway leading fans to venue landmarks of their choosing: the main stadium, concession booths, practice courts and the renowned Pietrangeli among the stops.

While taking in the vibe, you may ask yourself at some stage: is this a tennis tournament or recess on the playground? There is no shortage of kids present and it's not because the event is doubling as a daycare.

For well over a decade, bringing in local schools has been a major initiative on site. Through a "Young Village" programme that is set up just off the main entrance/exit, children of all tennis experience levels are granted the opportunity to hit with Italian Tennis Federation coaches and receive instruction.

"During the morning, every kid can try out tennis. We want to make sure all kids have the chance to be introduced to the sport," says Giulia Baliva, an 11-year veteran of the initiative.

But perhaps the most impactful part of the agenda is the bond young dreamers can make with current champions through an interactive session that includes trading groundstrokes, a Q&A opportunity and a chance snagging a coveted signature. Aryna Sabalenka, Alexander Zverev, Danielle Collins and Reilly Opelka all stopped by over the first few days, as did home favorite Jannik Sinner.

But how about a world No. 1? Last Wednesday, Novak Djokovic joined in the fun when he gave considerable time to the cause.

With a crowd surrounding the setup hoping to see the 20-time major champion up close, one could say Djokovic was firing aces left and right. No surprise given his star power and past success at the tournament as a five-time event winner, but not everyone thrives in this environment.

Mic'd up, Djokovic was in his element. The Serb charmed those watching with his Italian language skills as he connected with every youngster fortunate enough to get a one-on-one experience.

Channeling his inner child, Djokovic shared plenty of laughs and smiles throughout the appearance. When he was passed at the net, the 34-year-old jokingly crashed to the ground. When a diligent boy wanted specific tips on how to slice during the Q&A, Djokovic more than obliged with a demonstration and hands-on coaching. A group photo and several autographs rounded out the visit.

"Djokovic is very nice with the kids. Everybody comes away happy with good experiences. That's what we want," Baliva says.

Aspiring champions can't ask for much more than that in a day trip to the Foro Italico. –Tennis.com



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