June 15th, 2009 | City

New Haven’s own tennis-themed ‘American Idol’

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Last week, all that stood between ambitious kids and a spot on center court at the Pilot Pen tennis tournament was the singer JoJo.

At the second annual Pilot Pen Tennis Casting Call, kids 12 and younger nervously vied for the gig to sing “America the Beautiful” at the tennis tournament held annually in August.

As I watched the kids stroll into the Shubert Theater to audition late Wednesday afternoon, I couldn’t help but remember watching the national spelling bee on ESPN: young kids, numbered, scrutinized, photographed, videotaped. Kids completely nervous. Kids spoken to as if they would cry at any moment, seemingly forced to hold their composure.

The children sang the first verse of the patriotic ballad in front of a celebrity-judge panel that included JoJo, WTNH reporter Desiree Fontaine and a DJ from the FM station KC101.

I got to listen in on the first group of 11 kids who sang. Natalie Vitello, 12, has been singing for about four years and has taken weekly vocal lessons. The 90 minutes she waited in line felt like “forever,” she sighed. But Vitello knew what to expect at the auditions; she was a winner last year and got the chance to perform at the tennis tournament.

Katherine Waugh, 11, tried out last year but did not make the cut. When asked if she ever got tired practicing the same verse, Waugh brushed off the question. “I love singing, and I don’t think I get tired of it,” she said.

The children stepped up to sing as their numbers were called out in order. The judges asked No. 7 if she was nervous. She answered defensively — “No” —  as she read the lyrics off a piece of paper. No. 11, 11-year-old Logan Muckle, the only boy in the group, said he had learned of the auditions less than an hour before, when his mom rushed him to the casting call straight after school. The school chorus member was one of the best in the group.

But there was no need to be nervous. This was no American Idol. There was no Simon Cowell. All the judges were warm and encouraging. And for their hard work, the participants earned paraphernalia signed by JoJo and two free tickets to the Pilot Pen.

Finalists, who will be announced June 30, will sing at the tournament at the Connecticut Tennis Center at Yale from Aug. 21 to 29.

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(Photos: Snigdha Sur/Staff Photographer)