My life is what it is today because of tennis,” says Mitchelle ‘Mitch’ Lake, Founder of the Anguilla Tennis Academy. “I want to give back, so that people can have similar experiences.”
20 years ago, Mitch started the Anguilla Tennis Academy (ATA) as a summer camp, where 35 kids shared three rackets. He couldn’t have known then how completely it would succeed: in 2008, he envisioned the Academy’s new state-of-the-art facility as “a tennis centre that will undoubtedly be a landmark of the Caribbean and a symbol of national pride.” His predictions are already coming true: among ATA’s success stories are a string of local athletes who have earned tennis scholarships, including Nzingha Banks (2012), Avern Gumbs (2013), and Tamisha Richardson and Keon Halley, who both started at Virginia State in January 2015.
As an 11-year-old, Mitch idolized Andre Agassi. “I just admired him,” he says, smiling. “I said, ‘I would love to be able to play like him one day.'” Fortunately, the late Eric Martineau had a home with a tennis court in Sandy Ground, and he taught local children to play tennis every Saturday.
After High School, Mitch became an assistant to Cap Juluca tennis pro Chris Wade, sweeping the courts and answering telephones to earn court time. “Chris taught me how to play properly,” Mitch recalls. This time at Cap Juluca led to a life-changing meeting with Bob Johnson, then owner of Black Entertainment Television (BET). Within six months of working at the resort, Mitch received a partial tennis scholarship to Gardner-Webb University, NC, and Johnson not only sponsored his remaining expenses, but over the next few years, regarded him as family.
“It was a dream come true for me,” he says, but he never took his good fortune for granted. “I believe from whom much is given, much is expected,” he explains. His rst summer back home in 1996, Mitch started a tennis program, sponsored by Bob Johnson’s BET, at the Ronald Webster Park. Each successive year, the summer camp expanded, thanks to the college teammates and volunteer coaches Mitch continually brought to the island. Eventually, they outgrew the park. That’s when Mitch’s dream of a tennis facility was born.
“I’M AT MY MAXIMUM WHEN I’M ON THE COURT, PLAYING OR COACHINGI JUST LOVE DOING WHAT I DO.”Mitch Lake
With architectural drawings donated by Myron Goldfinger and six acres of land in Blowing Point leased from the government, Mitch used the extensive network he’d created while living and working in the U.S. to raise funds. Thanks to massive community support, including the “Buy-a-Brick” programme, the academy was finally completed in 2008. The facility comprises a lounge area, offices, storage rooms, and members’ and public locker rooms and restrooms. A trio of courts flanks the main building on either side, with a 2000-seater stadium in the rear. After being decimated by Hurricane Omar in 2008, the stadium remains a work in progress.
The ATA now offers private classes, memberships, clinics, and after-school programs, along with the original summer camp. “We can rival any academy,” says Mitch. “I started too late to go professional, but that inspired me to start teaching children from the age of 5.”
The facility still depends on donations for further expansion. “We do everything ourselves,” Mitch explains. “All my coaches are janitors: they sweep, they mop, they clean the bathrooms.” The next goal is to turn the ATA into a full-fledged academy, allowing students to intensively train and compete while completing their academic studies onsite. “We can then market to people all over the world,” Mitch adds, “because we have the climate to play year-round. We’d be able to invite international tournaments here and boost sports tourism.”Twenty years on, Mitch’s love for tennis still drives him. “I’m at my maximum when I’m on the court, playing or coaching – I just love doing what I do.” “It’s been a wild ride,” he says, though you get the feeling that this incredible journey has only just begun.