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Former Gamecock Tennis Great is Giving Back to the Game
Women's Tennis  . 

Former Gamecock Tennis Great is Giving Back to the Game

by Brad Muller, Director of Content

South Carolina’s first women’s tennis All-American has made a career of giving back to the game. Laura (Bernstein) Kassirer (1981-1983) is President of Youth League Tennis, which she started in Los Angeles, Calif., after a successful career as a professional tennis player. She started the non-profit public benefit charitable 501(c)3 organization for kids ages 5-14 after teaching tennis to youngsters at one of her daughter’s school in 2002.

“It was amazing. I got so many kids interested in playing, so I started doing some afternoon enrichment classes at local schools in the area,” Kassirer said. “I thought it was amazing that we were getting all these kids excited about tennis. So, I started hiring coaches to teach the classes. We run them all over California. There are kids who took my class that ended up being top 10 in the world pros! There are some that went on to play in college on scholarships.

“I believe playing sports teaches kids so many life lessons. It gives you confidence. There are kids who are struggling academically that can excel in sports and develop self-esteem a different way. You’re learning teamwork, leadership, and learning to work hard to reach goals. You’re failing and learning to try again.”

She started Youth League Tennis with the goal of getting children to play on tennis courts, rather than blacktops with smaller nets. Youth League Tennis is now run all over California in approximately 50 cities, as well as several other states around the country.

“The goal is that no child is turned away for lack of funds,” Kassirer said. “We provide unlimited scholarships. One of the little girls (Katrina Scott), who got her start with us when she was six or seven, she ended up being the number one junior player in the country and she just turned pro at age 16 and won her first round at the U.S. Open.

“I just saw how this impacted the kids’ lives, which I loved. I saw that by making tennis a convenient sport to learn and making it accessible to them. Youth League Tennis was created to give kids the opportunity to play matches even before they could serve. As soon as they can hit a ball over the net, we’re teaching them how to keep score. That has motivated a lot of kids to learn how to hit forehands and backhands because they’re keeping score.

“I’ve had about 6,000 kids per year. I’ve been told it’s the largest grass roots junior tennis program in the country.”

“We’re giving back to tennis, making it affordable for families.”

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Kassirer’s tennis venture took off, as she has found success in every stage of her tennis career. The Hollywood, Fla., native had scholarship offers from schools all around the country after a successful junior tennis career and found a home with the Garnet and Black.

“Johnna Chafin (1980-1984) was one of my closest friends in junior tennis,” Kassirer said. “She was a year ahead of me and came here. We always said we wanted to play together. I came on a tour and met (head coach) Jeff (Kefalos) and loved it. It was a great environment.

“I still have such fond memories. It was a great atmosphere.”
Laura Bernstein Kassirer
Kassirer earned ITCA All-America honors in 1983 after leading the Gamecocks to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments. She left South Carolina after her sophomore year to play professional tennis, which was a difficult decision in some respects.

“Honestly, I never expected to go more than two years,” Kassirer said. “For my career, I probably should have turned pro after my freshman year. I had qualified for the U.S. Open. My ranking came out at 110 after six tournaments, and if I would have played six more and not gone back to college, I would have been top 40 in the world even if I didn’t win a match. But I loved college so much that I said I was going back for another year.

“Being at South Carolina made me more well-rounded. It was actually a struggle for me to be out on the (pro) circuit because, for the first time in my life, I enjoyed having a home and caring about things other than tennis. For my tennis career, it probably wasn’t the best decision, but for my life, it was a great decision. I couldn’t be happier with my life.”

Kassirer played professionally for nearly six years and saw the world.

“I played Wimbledon and the U.S Open,” Kassirer said. “I played Centre Court at the French Open. I went to the Australian Open. I would always fly back to South Carolina to see my friends. One time, I came back with 30 Australian sweatshirts to give to everybody. I brought a suitcase full of souvenirs for everyone. It was making it hard to be on the road because I was longing to be with my friends. I loved being at South Carolina.

“I beat Mary Joe Fernandez. That was a huge win because she was top 5 in the world. Winning my first round at the U.S. Open was exciting. Playing Centre Court at the French Open was really exciting. I remember walking the grounds of Wimbledon. That was sort of surreal to be there.”

Life after tennis was good with her husband, Allan, and daughters Samantha and Rachel, and giving back to the game is something that brings Kassirer a lot of joy. Youth League Tennis does not seek out donations as it is a public benefit charitable organization.

“That means it needs to break even as a whole,” Kassirer said. “Some kids are paying $22 to play in an eight-week session. That means they’re on scholarship if they’re paying that little bit. Then other kids are paying the full tuition, which is still affordable. So, the parents who are paying full tuition are subsidizing the kids who can’t afford to play.”

Beginners pay $185 to play 1.5 hours weekly for eight weeks, and match players pay $199 to play two hours weekly for eight weeks. The children on scholarship are given 85% off fees and no child is ever turned away due to lack of funds.

“We’re giving back to tennis, making it affordable for families,” Kassirer said. “The classes and the coaches were very popular at the schools. I hire the coaches myself to make sure they have the intangibles I’m looking for. We started offering other sports such as basketball, soccer, and flag football and pickleball. My goal is for kids to find a sport that they’re passionate about and that they love.”

It’s not uncommon for Youth League Tennis to send out a care package with a racquet, balls and backpack and other accessories for those who can’t afford equipment.

“I’ll write a personalized note telling a kid that the more you practice, the better you’ll get, and I’ll tell them how they can practice at home. I hope that I can impact that child’s life and give them something they can play and practice. It’s been very rewarding.”

In addition to Youth League Tennis, Kassirer recently teamed up with her daughter, Rachel, to start Kassirer Consulting, which has turned into another way she can pay things forward.

“It’s been interesting because I’m coming across a lot of South Carolina graduates when I’m hiring,” Kassirer said. “We would love to work with any businesses that are run by South Carolina graduates! It brings a huge smile to my face when I’m looking at candidates for a job, and I see someone from South Carolina. I’m going to go to them first! It’s been fun to see things come full circle.”