As the early haze lifts and the sun inches slowly into prime scorching position on a recent summer morning, a group of kids play tennis on the Arthur L. Allen Tennis Center’s courts, seemingly oblivious to the impending heat.
The sound of racquets mercilessly thumping balls and the occasional whoop from a child who has just nailed a shot punctuate the quiet in neighboring Cambier Park. But so does another, less typically tennis, sound. As the neon green balls hit the ground they emit a low rattle that lasts just a moment as the ball changes direction and heads back skyward.
This is tennis for the blind.
For the past two years, Lighthouse Collier Inc., Collier County’s only resource center for blindness and vision loss, runs a three-day-a-week summer camp for children who suffer from conditions like macular degeneration and blindness. The camp, which is free of cost for these children, has previously offered activities like horseback riding, music and arts and crafts, but this was the first time they’d tried tennis.
And the kids had a ball.
Xavian Capers, an 8-year-old self-proclaimed sports lover, couldn’t stop talking about how much he had enjoyed the tennis lessons.
“One thing I love about the camp is that we go on field trips every week,” he said, adding, “My favorite field trip so far was definitely tennis.”
He liked tennis so much that he played until he could play no more.
“At the end I wanted to play the coach who had taught me everything, but I’d already been in the sun for three hours so I couldn’t,” said the energetic Capers.
The game itself, called Soundball Tennis, was conceptualized and developed in Japan. In 2007, the sport was brought to London where coaches at the Metro Blind Sports Club worked to organize standardized coaching techniques and rules.
The sport has tweaked traditional tennis rules to accommodate the special needs of the players. For example, in Soundball Tennis the ball is allowed to bounce twice for vision impaired players, and three times for blind players. This gives a player at a visual disadvantage more time to locate the ball. Also, the net sits considerably lower, making it easier to hit a ball that has bounced several times and lost serious momentum, over it.
The ball used for Soundball Tennis is slightly larger than a typical tennis ball and encases a Ping-Pong ball, which, in turn, encases a single ball bearing. The nested Ping-Pong ball and ball bearing are what make the tennis ball rattle. Also modified are the racquets, which have slightly shorter handles and larger faces to make making contact with the ball just a bit easier.
Not that the sport is easy by any means.
Sarah Hardwig, a camper in Lighthouse of Collier’s program, described learning tennis as, “pretty difficult, but it was really fun.”
Despite the difficulty, the 8-year-old Hardwig still managed to impress the tennis pros teaching her.
“One of the times, I hit the ball really high and the tennis teacher said, ‘Look at you!’”
For Sue Strain, a parent with two young boys in the Lighthouse of Collier camp, watching her child excel at a new sport made the trip to the courts that much more rewarding.
“The neat thing to see was that Nathan (her son) has some real talent. It was really neat to see how he has real coordination,” Strain said.
Strain has tried several sports with 5-year-old Nathan, but he really took to tennis. “Tennis was something he really seemed to have a passion for, and he talks about going back,” she said.
Even the tennis pros had a good time teaching the modified version.
“These kids had so much fun; they had just as much fun as any other kid would have learning to play tennis,” said Arthur L. Allen Tennis Center Pro Steve Bogdanoff, adding, “With the right equipment tennis could be a really good sport for the visually impaired.”
Kathleen Peck, executive director for Lighthouse of Collier, said she hopes to see the partnership with the Arthur L. Allen Tennis Center continue. “We bought the balls and the racquets, so we hope we can provide this as a potential sport for the visually impaired and blind community here in Collier County,” said Peck.
And, to help the tennis pros understand and better teach blind and visually impaired students, Peck is planning an event where the pros will get to try on goggles that simulate a variety of eye blinding diseases. “These goggles will help the pros see exactly what their students are, or are not seeing,” explained Peck.
Though, visually impaired or not, some of the universal difficulties of tennis ring true for everyone. As Xavier Capers said — echoing what anyone learning to play tennis has found: “I was pretty good at it, well, everything but the smashes, those were hard.”