After 15 years of fighting the good fight for tennis, Jennie Portelli is stepping down as the President of the Coronado Tennis Association (CTA). “There weren’t any challenges left. All the big things had been done,” she said.
Under her leadership, the CTA expanded its support for school tennis by donating supplies and equipment as well as scholarships. She launched men’s ladder and monthly mixers. She pressed the city to put up a net between the golf course and the tennis courts (slice shots were landing in the courts, threatening player safety). One tennis player was beaned in the head and wound up in the emergency room.
With the help of then-councilman, Mayor Richard Bailey, they negotiated a win-win agreement with pickleball players. Jennie then campaigned for the Tennis Center on Glorietta Blvd, new high school courts on D Avenue and additional courts at the Cays. Portelli also expanded the number of tennis coaches; for too many years there was only one tennis pro assigned to city courts.
“Having more than one pro was something the tennis community kept asking for,” the Coronado native said. City council after city council said no to the request. After years of being rebuffed, Portelli took matters into her own hands and persuaded the board to hire two tennis coaches — Matt Hanlin and Mario DiLeonardo.
None of this came easy. Without Portelli’s tenacity many contend none of this would have happened. “Jennie does not take no for an answer. Through the years she has been relentless and determined to accomplish tasks that seemed impossible and would take years,’” her friend Jean Roesch said.
Persuading the city council to build a new center and to hire more coaches took years of meetings and negotiations with city staff and countless city council meetings. A tennis center required city funds and city council approval. As it did with the CTA’s request for more pros, the city council kept saying no.
In March of 2010 the city council approved the $1.5 million project – a decade after Portelli had first proposed it. At the time, former City Councilman Phil Monroe gave Portelli the credit: “It was Jennie and her posse that did this, no one else.” he said.
Portelli doesn’t agree. She gives much of the credit to Linda Rahn, the former Director of Recreation, who worked as long and tirelessly as Portelli did. “Linda was terrific,” Portelli said.
“The tennis center would have eventually happened anyway,” she said. “I’m most proud of saving the high school courts,” the CHS alumnus said. Portelli had a soft spot for young tennis players. Having competed in junior tournaments and taught junior tennis for the city’s recreation department, she knew how important it was to nurture young talent.
The battle for the high school courts began in the early 2000s. The school board approved building an aquatic center where the tennis courts were; no provisions were made to replace the courts. Portelli insisted that the school board replace the courts. “Nobody wanted to save the courts,” she said.
She and her posse, as Monroe had called them, launched a petition drive. They lobbied school board members and city council members, keeping up the pressure, never giving an inch. Eventually the CUSD Governing Board and the city council relented. Both had jurisdiction. Four new courts were built behind the Fire Station and students were given access to the two courts next to the library.
Had the CTA not made the effort, high school tennis could well be on life support. There would have been no place for the kids to practice or to hold tournaments. “They would have had to go off the island,” said Nevie Nelson, the girls’ junior varsity coach. Having nearby courts led to winning seasons for both the girls’ and boys’ teams the past few years. This in turn has made tennis more popular than ever. “This year for the first time we had to cut students from the girls’ teams,” Nelson said. “We had 26 spots and 41 students tried out.”
To some, Portelli appears passionate, persistent and unyielding. Those who have worked with her over the years have a far different view. “Jennie was always fair and understanding, we worked on numerous projects together and developed a trust, with the understanding that the ultimate goal is to better serve the community and promote the sport,” said Roger Miller, Director of Recreation. “We’ve had countless conversations that always ended with a laugh or two.”
Even without the victories, Portelli would still be proud of the CTA for its independence. It is one of the few nonprofit community groups that has never asked the city for money. The tennis center is open to all players, not just CTA members. “We did it on our own. I’m proud of that,” Portelli said.
She’s also proud of what the CTA does for others in the community. Every year it raises money for wounded warrior organizations and for Coronado’s first responders. “Jenny’s passion for tennis, and all things Coronado for that matter, has resulted in an incredibly active and engaged group of tennis enthusiasts at all levels,” Maria Virgilio Simon, Present of CUSD Governing Board, wrote on Facebook.