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Tennis inside the walls of San Quentin PDF Print E-mail
Articles | Sports

They watch televised professional matches, pore over tennis magazines and instruction books, and pin up pictures of the likes of Serena Williams

Organizing ways for inmates to work off steam has a long history at the 158-year-old prison. "It's vital to what we do," says Vince Cullen, San Quentin's warden, who views recreation as a way to ease prison tension while affording convicts "the opportunity to learn how to behave civilly" in difficult situations. Along with a baseball diamond, the main yard has several sets of pull-up bars, a punching bag, a zigzag path used as a track and a basketball court.


The 20 or so members of the Inside Tennis Team are racially mixed, unusual in California prisons. They are lifers who have committed the worst of crimes, and "three-strikers" serving at least 25 years for repeated but lesser offenses.

Few played tennis before being locked up. Now they can't get enough. They use donated rackets and balls that DeNevi scrounges from the gutters of local courts. They practice as often as possible, whenever they aren't taking a class or working a prison job, sometimes several hours a day for weeks.

They watch televised professional matches, pore over tennis magazines and instruction books, and pin up pictures of the likes of Serena Williams. They close their eyes and imagine hitting the perfect forehand of a Rafael Nadal.

They have a simple code, DeNevi says: Arguments should be resolved on court. To minimize tensions, they have never played a tournament among themselves. Nor is there a ranking of players from best to worst.

"Tennis is such a solo sport, it can threaten the psyche," DeNevi says. "There's a whole bunch who think they ought to be No. 1. Narcissism is a big part of the reason they're here, after all."

For competition, DeNevi arranges visits from outsiders. Players from swank Marin tennis clubs arrive on Saturday mornings — the only time women are allowed to compete against the inmates.

Read More:  LA Times

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