Over a span of 40 years, children and teens who participated in the West Suburban Tennis Conference have played more than 100,000 matches.
Jimmy Dunne, 59, had no idea the conference he developed four decades ago would see such success.
Dunne, born and raised in La Grange, founded the conference in summer of 1974, when he was a sophomore at Kentucky and the assistant tennis pro at Oak Brook Bath and Tennis Club. He saw it as an opportunity for youngsters to play the game the right way, with regard for opponents and without extreme parental pressure.
“I think a nice refuge of this kids’ conference is it’s a chance for kids of all ability levels to be able to compete,” said Dunne, a songwriter and television producer now living in Pacific Palisades, California.
“This isn’t a club-sport thing,” Dunee said. “This isn’t celebrating kids who reached a high level. This is family-friendly tennis.”
The conference consists of seven country clubs: La Grange Country Club, La Grange Field Club, Butterfield Country Club, Ruth Lake Country Club, Edgewood Valley Country Club, Salt Creek Club and Hinsdale Golf Club.
Each fields a team of players ages 6 to 17, who compete on Fridays through June and July. The conference tournament in late July caps the season, bringing together more than 300 players, said Tom Cahill, one of the conference organizers.
The 40th edition of the tournament concluded July 18 at Salt Creek Club.
Cahill, the director of tennis at La Grange Country Club and Hinsdale Racquet Club, said the western suburbs are known for good tennis. The communities promote tennis and foster a love of the sport.
Because of that, “the kids are going to catch that bug,” Cahill said.
The generational appeal is another special aspect of the West Suburban Tennis Conference, Dunne said. Parents who played in their youth now are watching their children compete.
“There’s a dearness to it,” Dunne said.
One of Dunne’s seven brothers and sisters, Alison Kelly, lives in La Grange and has three children — Crofton, 17, Mattigan, 13, and Tiernan, 11 — playing in the conference. As a child, she participated in the conference, so she can appreciate her kids’ excitement.
“It’s the best of tennis,” she said. “It really hasn’t changed much at all, and that’s pretty amazing for something that’s been in the works for 40 years. It’s a great and an easy thing to keep continuing throughout the years.”
Conference competition goes beyond the game itself, Dunne said. Young players learn how to conduct themselves and to be good sports, and embrace the joys and pains of winning and losing. Players are expected to have a level of respect for the game and each other, Cahill said.
“These are skills that are going to be translated into other arenas of their lives,” Cahill said.
The relationship between players and parents — much more laid back than many club sports leagues — is another aspect Dunne admires. For example, players make their own calls, he said.
“The spirit of that, because of all the coaches over the years, has really stayed that way,” Dunne said. “Empowering the kids that way in a club sport world is a really terrific thing.”
Dunne hopes someday former conference players will watch their grandchildren participate. Cahill said the conference remains incredibly popular with the area’s young players, and it’s growing every year.
“And I don’t see any end in sight,” he said.