Before the words “quarantine” and “social distancing” became part of the everyday global lexicon and re-evaluating finances and exercise were commonplace, Shriya Challam was devising a plan inadvertently suited for the tumultuous year of 2020.

When schools shuttered in Washington in March because of the spread of COVID-19, Challam finalized her idea, and added additional safety measures to safeguard from the virus. As many emerged from quarantining with new skills in baking or dancing, Challam unveiled her project: Time To Tennis (timetotennis.org), a nonprofit foundation that introduces kids to the sport by providing free equipment, coaching and workshops. The growing organization has already raised $1,000 to date.

The Interlake High School senior aimed to make tennis more accessible for kids — regardless of their families’ income or background. Once government restrictions are lifted, Challam wants to build to hosting monthly events where two courts are filled with 20-30 elementary-aged kids and four coaches to teach the basics such as how to hold a racket, serving and the importance of stretching. 

Amid the pandemic, Challam’s debut was a five-day clinic where 10 kids participated in completely free lessons and were gifted equipment, if needed. She also offered private lessons last summer for $15, all of the proceeds going to the foundation. Having already expanded to chapters in Texas, Illinois and California where the programs are duplicated, the completely youth-led Time To Tennis is another pandemic tale in how a simple idea can connect so many. 

“When people think about tennis, they don’t necessarily think about it as something that’s accessible and they don’t think about it as something that’s for everyone,” Challam said. “It has this history of being for a specific group of people with a specific background, with a specific amount of money. To break down that history of tennis is something that we’re aiming to do.

“It’s not to make these kids tennis stars. The goal is to make sure these kids are staying active and having fun while also being safe. Because community service is always something I’ve really liked and been a part of. For me, tennis is a great hobby to have.”

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Low risk, high cost

If Challam needed a sign that her foundation could succeed, it beamed in a graphic published by the Texas Medical Association in July. The graphic showed the risk of contracting COVID-19 by playing tennis was a 2 out of 10 (10 being the highest) in relation to other activities — the same risk as pumping gas, getting takeout food and going camping. 

The United States Tennis Association (USTA), the national governing body for the sport, reported last month an uptick of 3.4% of players in comparison with 2019.

It’s easy to spot the interest in the Seattle area, where courts at Seward Park and Discovery Park are popular. But if you’re new to the sport, equipment like a racket, shoes, balls and apparel, plus court fees and lessons, can quickly add up to $300 annually if you play just once a month.

 “If you play with regular running shoes, it can actually be detrimental to your feet,” Challam said. “You have to be wearing correct shoes to be playing. And if you live in a different environment, you have different types of courts — clay courts, hard courts — and shoes can cost up to $100. That in and of itself is super expensive, just to make sure you’re not harming yourself and your feet for the long term.”

For Challam, it was the $170 per player her Interlake teammates wanted to spend on uniforms in 2018 that made her stop and think about how financial constraints can keep people from the sport. 

Formulating Time To Tennis began with research in fall 2019 about the total costs, how organizations help and how Challam could get involved. Her sister, Sahithi, a freshman at Interlake, shared in the legwork and is a co-founder of the organization.

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Sahithi is more competitive than her older sister, recently winning a youth tournament, but just as passionate in sharing the sport.

From left: sisters Sahithi and Shriya Challam, Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020 in Bellevue. Interlake senior Shriya has started a nonprofit called Time to Tennis (timetotennis.org) that aims to bring economic diversity to tennis.  (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
From left: sisters Sahithi and Shriya Challam, Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020 in Bellevue. Interlake senior Shriya has started a nonprofit called Time to Tennis (timetotennis.org) that aims to bring economic diversity to tennis. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

Friends to community

All Shriya’s father, Sreekanth, wanted was a way for his children to easily make friends — for the rest of their lives.

The IT specialist relocated from Bangalore, India, to Houston in 1998 for a position with a product-development company and began to see tennis as the answer. But it would take eight years to come to fruition. First, he returned home to India to marry Shilpa, and later to Houston, where Shriya and Sahithi were born.

Ball whacks, soft claps, Serena Williams’ grunts and squeaking sneakers are normal background noises in the Challam house.

Sreekanth has always been an avid sports fan whose favorite tennis players are Williams and Roger Federer. Whether playing in Kazakhstan or Australia, the televisions are turned to whichever channel is playing the tennis matches no matter the time of day. 

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“I don’t play but I love tennis for many reasons,” Sreekanth said. “You can build a community. Unlike other sports (where) you lose it after a few years, tennis is one thing you can make lifelong. Some sports you also need a group to play with and it is always the same group and it’s difficult to bond. Tennis, even at 60 years-old, you can go to a new town and join a tennis club and make new friends.”

When Shriya turned 6, the couple registered the sisters for tennis lessons. The girls immediately fell in love with playing and even taught their dad the intricacies of the sport.

The vision Sreekanth had also worked. Job opportunities moved the family from Houston to Chicago and eventually Bellevue, Shriya and Sahithi using tennis and Indian dance lessons to make friends outside of school along the way.

Shriya starting a foundation so no one is excluded financially was touching for her parents.

“When she started in the beginning, I thought she wasn’t really serious,” Sreekanth said. “But loyalty is something she got from us (parents). What we choose to do, we don’t leave easily. But kids, they think of a lot of things and are not always able to pull through. They (Shriya and Sahithi) did, actually, and I never expected what they would do.”

Quarantine goals

OK, so Shriya didn’t fully cultivate Time To Tennis while in quarantine last spring.

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There was what could now be called a pre-quarantine in December 2019 when she insulated in her family home for long hours during winter break, teaching herself how to code using HTML and CSS to develop her foundation’s website. That included graphic design — although it’s somewhat based off a template — and writing her own content with Sahithi.

“It’s super nerdy but that’s my kind of winter break,” Shriya said with a laugh. “Once you pick up one coding language, learning another is pretty easy.”

The difficult part, according to Sahithi, was patience in getting through the paperwork to become a registered nonprofit in the state of Washington. For Shriya, it was reaching out for others to join.

“My goal in starting the chapters is if I’m not successful here, maybe I can be successful somewhere else,” Shriya said. “Like in Texas where there’s good weather all the time.”

Shriya shook off nerves to direct-message people via Instagram who posted lots of photos about tennis. That’s how she connected with Sarang Kashyap, who’s now a chapter director with two high-school tennis teammates in San Ramon, California.

In all, Shriya oversees 30 volunteers when combining the four chapters and provided lessons with her sister to 50 kids last summer. They socially distanced by keeping kids from different households on opposite sides of the court and multiple coaches to work with small groups.

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The highlight was the inaugural event held mid-July. Youths from the surrounding area wore face masks and some used rackets that Shriya and Sahithi personally had restrung. The daily lessons started with running around the court and stretching. Drills included learning backhand and forehand strokes, footwork and serves. By the end of the five days, the kids knew tennis’ basic rules and could rally. 

“It was Shriya’s passion that inspired me to do this,” said Kashyap, whose chapter hasn’t held an in-person event because of COVID. “And I wanted to give back to my community because everyone is going through hard times. It’s a way to get kids to de-stress and play tennis just for fun.”

In between virtual schooling, Shriya and Sahithi video-conference call with chapter leads, solicit donations and talk to established organizations about partnering efforts to promote the game. Shriya said her family garage is full of rackets and balls, all sanitized and prepped for their next event, which hinges on government restrictions. The USTA previously issued safety protocols that Shriya said she follows.

Throughout the summer, Shilpa had to remind her daughters to get some sleep and eat because of the long hours they’re putting in to make the foundation work. Then there’s their regular school work and time to play tennis.

“They are pretty sharp in what they’re trying to do,” Shilpa said. “Maybe it’s COVID times, but we’re amazed at the feedback.”