Stonington — It was tennis that brought Maddie Hamm, Mia Lewandowski and Grace Milne, all soon-to-be juniors at Stonington High School, together.
“They’re my two best friends,” Milne said.
But when they had the idea just shy of a year ago to organize a local tennis tournament, the three had no idea it had the capability of bringing an entire community together, too.
Hamm, Stonington’s No. 1 girls’ singles player and the reigning Eastern Connecticut Conference champion, and Lewandowski and Milne, the Bears’ No. 3 doubles team as freshmen, had no idea then that they would miss their sophomore season due to the effects of COVID-19.
They had no idea that the community would be going through “big tennis deprivation,” as Hamm called it Sunday. Or that families, in the midst of a pandemic, would be struggling as they are.
They called it the Stonington Open.
The tennis tournament ran Friday through Sunday at the Stonington High School tennis courts and had more than 160 players register in 16 divisions. The proceeds, approximately $2,500 for each organization, will benefit the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center, as well as the Stonington High junior varsity tennis team, which was eliminated in the $1.6 million worth of budget cuts announced on June 14.
“It worked out even better than it could have,” Lewandowski said. “So many people had to cancel vacations. … We got a lot people involved.”
“On Friday, I was looking out around the courts at everybody,” Milne said. “There are a lot of people here I’ve never met. Earlier in the year the courts all closed (due to COVID). This is allowing the people to get back into it. Some of them have already asked if they can play next year. Organizing this has kept me sane.”
The three originally thought maybe 60 people would respond. The on-line entries kept coming until there were 100 more than that.
The tournament’s atmosphere Sunday was lively. Due to a persistent rain, all of the matches scheduled for Saturday were moved to Sunday. The Stonington Community Center, however, donated the use of its tennis courts for play Sunday, allowing the youth divisions to be moved to the other court.
A food truck was parked adjacent to the high school courts. The three organizers collected donations from area businesses and put them together for a basket raffle. Raffle tickets could be purchased, but also the donation of a non-perishable item was good for entry into the raffle.
There were hand-sanitizing stations at each entry to the court.
“The tournament wasn’t organized (at first). We just had an idea,” Hamm said. “Then, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ We went around to the different clubs … just really tried to get the word out. We had a sign-up Web site. We were getting over 20 people per day. It was amazing. It made it really hard to organize, but it was so worth it. I’m having so much fun.”
Hamm became Stonington’s No. 1 singles player as a freshman. She said that didn’t make her nervous. It was the ECC championship match against Fitch senior Samantha Cote which rattled her nerves before Hamm outlasted Cote in a 1-hour, 40-minute match, winning 6-3, 6-3.
Hamm was named The Day’s 2019 All-Area Girls’ Tennis Player of the Year.
“I am,” Hamm said of looking forward to getting to play at the high school level again. “Getting away from COVID.”
Hamm played several USTA tournaments this summer and also continued to work out at the North Stonington Parks & Recreation Department courts. Lewandowski has tennis courts in her Lords Point neighborhood, she said, on which she and her younger twin sisters could practice. Milne broke her ankle playing doubles with Lewandowski about a month ago.
They each spoke of the importance of having a junior varsity team, including having a place for their younger siblings to play.
“It’s one of those sports that’s easy to pick up,” Milne said. “Last year we had 30 girls that would have come (to play JV tennis). That would be 30 girls that didn’t come and play this year. We’re just trying to grow the sport.”